Tag Archives: Three Gorges Dam

Severe Floods Compound China’s Year Of Crises

Open sluices in the Three Gorges Dam discharge floodwaters downstream into the Yangtze River in Hubei Province, central China on June 29, 2020. Photo credit: Xinhua/Xiao Yijiu.

IN ANOTHER YEAR, the worst flood season in more than two decades would be a significant crisis to test authorities. The damage to crops and livestock from June and July’s torrential rains, precipitation that was far heavier than usual, is substantial, and a reported 3.7 million people have been displaced. But the economic loss — put by state media at 145 billion yuan ($21 billion) as of the end of July — is not as severe as that caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Yangtze and its tributaries in Hubei, Jiangxi and Anhui in central and eastern China are the areas worst affected by the flooding, with the response in Jiangxi said to be on ‘a war footing’. Thanks to improved flood control and emergency management, however, the death toll has been relatively light for the scale of the disaster: 158 people dead or missing, according to the latest available figures.

Early in June, a 1960s-era dam in Guangxi collapsed under the pressure of building floodwaters, raising concerns about the safety of hundreds of other similarly aged dams, and for the massive and iconic Three Gorges Dam (seen above) on the Yangtze (which is of later vintage, having not been completed until 2003).

Those concerns were amplified by state media reports of non-critical parts of the dam becoming slightly deformed’, although the main structure was said to be intact. Its collapse would be a disaster not only in human terms for the millions of people who live downstream, but also the Party. Its flood gates have had to be raised repeatedly to ease the pressure — and again three times this week ahead of a renewed surge in floodwaters expected on Friday — but so far, so good.

None the less, the impact on agriculture is being reflected in the pick-up in inflation in July as food prices rise. More than two-thirds of China’s rice is grown in the Yangtze basin, and this year’s crop would have been near to harvest when it was flooded.

Authorities have been releasing crops from strategic reserves both to ensure adequate supply and to keep a lid on inflation. This includes more than 60 million tons of rice, 50 million tons of corn and more than 760,000 tons of soybeans, surpassing the volumes released during the whole of 2019.

Food price inflation-driven civil discontent remains authorities’ perennial concern.

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The Lessons Of China’s Disappearing Lakes

Fifty years ago China had half as many natural lakes again as it does today. This Bystander is indebted to Xinhua for the statistic that the total has been reduced from 3,000 to 2,000, and to Caixin for this related one:

Drought stricken Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Anhui and Jiangsu had a total lake area of 29,000 square kilometers around the founding of the People’s Republic. By the end of the 1980s, only 19,000 square kilometers remained.

We surmise that the lake surface has shrunk substantially since. China’s water use by farmers, growing cities and industry has increased substantially. Poyang Lake, the country’s largest freshwater lake, is a tenth of the size it once was. Hongze Lake has all but disappeared.

They have, at least so far, survived the fate of hundreds of smaller lakes along the Yangtze basin that have dried out completely or been drained and are now farmland or housing. Why this is all of more than mere curiosity is that such lakes form a natural buffer against drought and flood. Their absence is now being fatally felt.

It throws into sharp relief China’s water use policies, already complicated by the fragmentation of water management among various ministries and levels of government. But they are now at a critical juncture. China has 20% of the world’s population but only 6% of its fresh water. Urbanization and economic growth over the past three decades has stretched the country’s water supplies to their natural limits, not to mention beyond the edge of their ability to act as self-cleaning waste sewers for industry. There is a barely a river in China clean enough to drink from because of industrial pollution and spills. Even official statistics says 60% of the country’s rivers are unfit to be a drinking water supply.

Water conservation, now a policy priority, tackles the demand side of the problem. Beijing has managed some success in reducing the amount of water that agriculture, which takes 60% of the country’s water, and industry require to produce economic growth. The recently concluded five-year plan called for a 20% reduction in water consumption per unit of output. That target was met. The current five-year plan calls for it to be met again. The long-term goal is to reduce water consumption per unit of output by 60% from 2005 levels. It all helps but China remains a water hog even by BRICS’ standards and the economy is growing so fast it is a perpetual race to keep up.

Urbanization and industrialization changed the priorities of China’s water management. The growing demands for electricity in the cities led to the damming of rivers for hydroelectric power generation, with the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze the poster-child. A large amount of high-energy-use, high-pollution industries are concentrated in fast expanding cities of the the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze, China’s most densely populated region. The Three Gorges project was intended to meet that growing demand and end the seasonal power cuts that had become commonplace.

It was also intended to deal with the seasonal flooding along the river, though it doesn’t take a very close reading of official statements since to see now that the environmental impact of achieving both goals with a giant dam were little considered at the time (construction started in the 1990s) while the periodic devastating flooding of the Yangtze hurried the project forward. Even the goal of power generation has failed to be met as power shortages have come earlier than ever this year. And while there is much debate about whether such projects, and the Three Gorges in particular, cause droughts downstream, there is little argument that they worsened the the most recent one. The draining of the natural reservoirs that lined the Yangtze basin in the cause of power generation meant there was no reserve when the rains failed to come earlier this year. Those lakes had once held more than 30% of China’s fresh water.

There is now some soul-searching about the environmental effects of such mega projects, and not just because they have endanger flora and fauna like the finless porpoise in Poyang Lake. They are affecting the lives of people and the health of the economy. The political undercurrent is the threat to social stability and the possibility of environmental issues becoming a kernel of political movements that could challenge the party. As a the official Water Resources Assessment for China said a decade ago, “the water resources of lakes is closely related with the sustainable development of China’s economy and people’s life.” At least three times this year, the Three Gorges Dam has released water for drought relief, at the expense of power generation. That had dropped its water level to the point where no further releases would have been possible had the recent rains not come.

Water diversion schemes, such as the long controversial plan to divert some of the waters in the Yangtze to the Yellow and Hai rivers to supply the increasingly arid North China Plain and Beijing on its edge, are also getting a second look. The huge spending on the infrastructure for these mega projects–and thus their capacity for a little local corruption–means there is unlikely to be any agreement on a significant change of plans

There is a similar story of concern upstream on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, which held 46% of the country’s fresh water and is the source of most of China’s great rivers. As we have noted before, the Himalayan water shed is drying up. China already dams one river that rises in the Himalayas and flows south across international boundaries, the Mekong, and has reportedly started damming another, the Bhramaputra, which flows south into India and Bangladesh. Diverting water from both rivers to China’s arid plains is being considered, causing rows between Beijing and Delhi and Dhaka. Such conflicts can only get worse.

The challenge is the more urgent because of climate change. Over the past 30 years, floods have been getting bigger and more frequent around the world but no region has been more affected than the Asia-Pacific and no country in the region more than China. (A list of China’s worst floods is here.) Not only has there been more adverse extreme weather to prompt them, but more people and property are in their way thanks to urbanization.

Urban flooding is becoming a greater concern to policymakers than rural flooding. Floods in cities are both more costly and difficult to manage. The economic damage and disruption goes far beyond the immediate destruction caused by the floodwaters. In addition, rising sea levels threaten coastal cities and and their floodplains. More than 100 million Chinese have moved from inland areas to flood-prone coastal cities in the past quarter of a century.

Beijing is spending large sums of money on both river diversion to tackle drought and hard defenses such as embankments to curb floods. From 2011 to 2020, China’s investment in water conservancy projects, including flood defenses, is expected to reach 4 trillion yuan ($617 billion), almost four times as much as that spent during the past 10 years. Yet nature has provided lakes and floodplains to do the same job. An important part of fighting drought and flood is the protection, restoration and reconnection of both lakes and floodplains so they can do what they do best: take in water when the river is high and give it back when it is low.

It is increasingly being realized around the world that rivers and lakes cannot be infinitely sacrificed or bent to man’s will in the name of economic development. China’s policymakers, too, have to learn that it is unsustainable for them to continue just drawing power from the water supply come rain or shine.

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Drought Worsens, Three Gorges May Run Short Of Relief Water

The drought in central and southern China, now spreading east along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze river has affected more than 5% of the country’s farmland, officials say. That is 7 million hectares of crops, with approaching 1m head of livestock short of water. Economic losses are put at 15 billion yuan ($2.3 billion) so far. Vegetable prices have risen by a fifth in the drought-struck areas. Some 35 million people across five provinces have been affected with more than 4 million short of drinking water. The country’s two largest freshwater lakes, Dongting Lake in Hunan and Poyang Lake in Jiangxi, are drying up. The centers of both now cracked mud and grassland.

There is no rain in the forecast to alleviate the country’s worst drought in half a century. In Hunan, it is now being described as the worst drought in nearly a century while Shanghai is having its driest spell in 138 years.

The rate of discharge from the Three Gorges Dam has again been increased to help with irrigation downstream at the start of the summer farming season. The rate is now running at 10-20% above normal, but officials say that the dam won’t be able to continue providing sufficient water after mid-June if there is no rain as the dam’s water level would by then have fallen to 145 meters, 10 meters below the minimum considered necessary for shipping’s safety.

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New Flood Surge Threat To Three Gorges Dam

The recent heavy rain in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River is posing a second flood surge threat to the Three Gorges Dam.  On Tuesday, the water level in the dam was more than 7 meters higher than the 145-meter flood alarm level, according to the Yangtze River Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters. Water levels reached 158 meters in July, just 17 meters below maximum capacity. Shipping through the Three Gorges was again suspended on Monday evening.

Update: The peak surge has passed without mishap, CCTV reports.

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China’s Downpours Continue, Flood Levels Critical

The death toll from this year’s rainstorms and floods has now passed 800 with 333 deaths occurring since July 14, Xinhua reports. The human toll is thankfully not as devastating as in the great floods of 1998, when more than 4,000 died, but the numbers affected, estimated to be more than 100 million, the extent of the flooding (see map) and the widespread destruction of farmland, crops and homes may exceed them. Water levels in rivers and dams remain at danger levels, with rivers surging. More rain is in the forecast, especially for Shaanxi, Sichuan and Henan, offering little prospect for relief.

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More military (above, reinforcing the banks of the Changhe River in Jiangxi) have been thrown into the flood prevention effort, while civilians have been drafted to monitor and shore up embankments along the length of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers and their many tributaries. Officials remain on high alert at places like the Three Gorges Dam which is again edging ever nearer to capacity.

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Three Gorges Dam Water Level Rising To Critical Height

The death toll from the flooding that has swept across southern and central China this year has passed 750 with at least a further 367 people missing. Xinhua reported 742 deaths as of Friday morning and another 34 over the past two days. The severity of the current situation was highlighted by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who warned that more serious floods and disasters were in the offing. The International Red Cross notes that water levels in more than 230 rivers have risen above the danger mark and that some areas along the Yangtze River are experiencing their worst flooding in 30 years. In Shaanxi, one of the worst-hit of the 28 affected provinces, the Luofu River, a tributary of the Weihe, burst its banks Saturday, forcing more than 9,000 people to flee their homes. (Map of affected provinces.)

Much attention is now focused on the Three Gorges Dam (below, showing water being discharged on July 21 to lower the level of its reservoir). The dam, built in part to control the seasonal flooding of the Yangtze River, is facing its most severe test since being completed four years ago. With water levels in the upper reaches of the rain-swollen river at their highest since 1987, the dam set a record level of 158 meters on Friday, just 17 meters below capacity. Though the level fell slightly, the flood control authority says it expects that to reverse as torrential rain continues to fall upstream.

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Death Toll From China’s Deadly Rains Passes 700

The death toll from the torrential rains that have inundated many of the southern and central provinces has now passed 700 for the year to date, Xinhua reports. Another 347 people are  reported still missing in what are the worst floods in a decade. (Map of affected provinces.) Beyond the human toll, direct economic losses are now put at 142.2 billion yuan ($21 billion). The State Council, after a meeting presided over by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, warned that the situation remains critical; the rain-swollen Yangtze (below) and Huaihe Rivers and Taihu Lake are above safety levels and the third typhoon of the season, Chanthu, has just made landfall on the south coast.

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The floods have caused fears of a repeat of the devastating 1998 floods when embankments burst along a similarly rain-swollen Yangtze, leaving more than 4,000 people dead. The Three Gorges Dam was built partly to act as a flood control to prevent that happening again. The shipping locks at the dam were closed for three days earlier this week, though have now been reopened.

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