Tag Archives: water

New Pictures Of Yunnan Drought

A boy carries water with his mother in Dayeshan Village of Shilin County, southwest China's Yunnan Province, March 22, 2012. A severe drought has lingered in Yunnan for three consecutive years, leaving 3.2 million people and 1.65 million livestock short of water. A total of 7.9 million people and 676,650 hectares farmland of 125 counties all over the province have been affected by the drought.(Xinhua/Jin Liangkuai)

State media has published a new set pictures of the lingering drought in Yunnan. Now into its third year, it has touched nearly 8 million people and become part of daily life, as the photograph above, taken in a village in Shilin County, shows. More than 3 million people are short of drinking water. Water levels in reservoirs in some parts of the province are at their lowest in a decade. The photo below shows a reservoir in Shilin County that has dried out completely. Crops on more than 130,000 hectares of farmland have withered. A significant emergency relief effort is underway across the province.

Last month, officials said that more than 3 million people across the country were short of drinking water because of drought. After Yunnan, the most serious drought is in Inner Mongolia. Gansu and Hubei have also been affected.

Meanwhile, a forest wildfire on the outskirts of Yunnan’s provincial capital, Kunming, that raged for two days at the beginning of the week before being brought under control has flared up again. Update: It has since been brought under control (pictures via Xinhua) but a second forest fire in the region has taken hold. Yunnan is China’s second most heavily forested province.

A villager walks on the dried-up bed of the Xinba reservoir in Shilin County, southwest China's Yunnan Province, March 22, 2012. A severe drought has lingered in Yunnan for three consecutive years, leaving 3.2 million people and 1.65 million livestock short of water. A total of 7.9 million people and 676,650 hectares farmland of 125 counties all over the province have been affected by the drought. (Xinhua/Jin Liangkuai)

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Pumping Greenhouse Gases From Deep Below The North China Plain

Pumping water from the deep aquifer below the increasingly arid North China Plain has a hidden cost beyond the depletion of irreplaceable water resources, a new joint UK-China study reveals. Farmers are now pumping so much irrigation water from such deep levels, up to 70 meters-80 meters below ground in some provinces, that the energy required to drill the wells and run the diesel pumps accounts for more than half a percent of China’s total greenhouse-gas emissions.

Overall, farming accounts for 17–20% of China’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions, the study’s authors say. Pumping water for irrigation is one of farmers’ most energy intensive activities. The study, conducted by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the U.K.’s University of East Anglia, claims to be the first detailed estimate of greenhouse-gas emissions from groundwater pumping for irrigation. The authors say its shows that “significant potential exists to promote the co-benefits of water and energy saving in order to meet national planning targets”.

The scale of the challenge of realizing those benefits is that the current five-year plan aims to increase irrigation water use efficiency by 3% by 2015, emphasizing the importance of improving groundwater resource management to control over-exploitation. However, this is to be achieved whilst increasing total grain production by 13% to 450 million tonnes and decreasing national energy consumption per unit of GDP by 16%.

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Shanghai Becomes More Like Venice, In A Bad Way

So serious has the depletion of China’s groundwater become as a result of industrialization and urbanization that the country’s large cities are sinking, as, potentially, are the high-speed rail corridors between them. So concerning is that to authorities that the State Council has made areas with high-speed rail links a priority in a new land subsidence research project it has approved to be completed by 2015. In the order of these things, that is a crash deadline.

The survey is one of four projects that the Ministry of Land and Resources said this week that the State Council had ratified to combat the effects of China’s growing water shortage. Others include yet more controls on pumping underground water, and the setting up of monitoring networks in the worst affected areas–the Yangtze river delta, the North China Plain and the Fen and Hua river basins. The network is to be in place by 2020.

It didn’t take any technology to see the 8 meter crack that opened up earlier this month in a road near the Shanghai World Financial Center. (There are some pictures here.) That is despite authorities taking preventive measures since 2005 to combat ground subsidence caused by falling water tables. Municipal officials say the city is still sinking by seven millimeters a year. That is a better state of affairs than in the past, however. Shanghai used to be sinking by several centimeters a year.

A third of China’s water reserves lie in underground aquifers. They supply 70% of the country’s drinking water and 40% of its farm irrigation needs. They are being stretched to their limits, particularly across the grain belt of the North China Plain as evermore wells are sunk to draw water for city dwellers and industry. Underground water pollution is a separate concern, but as serious.

Shanghai is one of more than 50 large cities with a similar Venice-like problem of subsidence because the water table below it is sinking. Beijing, Tianjin, Hangzhou and Xian are among others. As the number of 50 cities has been quoted since at least 2006, we suspect it may undercount the problem today. In a paper the China Geological Survey published that year the direct economic cost of subsidence was put at 1 billion yuan ($160 million) a year. It will likely top that now.

Tianjin, which like Shanghai has been sinking since the 1920s although it wasn’t until the 1960s that it was understood why, shows why widespread limits on groundwater pumping are so urgent, and also how difficult it is to control subsidence. The city introduced restrictions as long ago as 1985. Its sinking has slowed from 80 millimeters a year then but is still dropping 20 millimeters a year now. Coastal cities share another characteristic with Venice. Floods are becoming more frequent and severe. The lower cities sink the more susceptible they are to them.

We have noted before the potential explosive social costs of a water crisis getting beyond the government’s control. It will take a comprehensive program of water conservation, better water resource management and better husbandry of the ecosystem. And there are plans on all those fronts. But if they fail, it will be more than a high-speed train or two that comes off the rails.

 

 

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Ever More Arid China

A villager walks on the cracked croplands in Pingman Village of Tianlin County, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Sept. 7, 2011.The most difficult natural resource for a country short of it to acquire is the one most vital to life: water. Nature has not dealt China a good hand. It has a fifth of the world’s population but only a fifteenth of its fresh water. But it has played a poor hand badly. And unlike, say soya beans, iron ore or any other commodity for which rising prosperity is increasing demand beyond the country’s capacity to supply, China can’t just ship in water from distant lands.

How seriously short of water China has become was emphasized again this week by Hu Siyi, vice-minister of water resources. Even though China consumes more than 600 billion cubic meters of water a year, that is more than 50 billion cubic meters less than it needs. To put a more human face on the shortfall, nearly 300 million rural residents lack access to safe drinking water. Two-thirds of Chinese cities are ‘water-needy’, to use Hu’s phrase, which seems to be a marked worsening of the situation from last November when a State Council announcement of a 10-year drought-alleviation plan said 110 out of China’s 658 cities had suffered from water shortages. Meanwhile, two in five Chinese rivers are seriously polluted and unfit for drinking because sewage and waste water has been discharged into them. One in five is so polluted it is rated Category 5 on a scale of 1-5 for water quality. Category 5 means too toxic even to touch.

Rapid industrialization and urbanization has driven both the shortages and degradation of the water supply compounded by climate change. Drought in the wheat belt on the North China Plain has become all but the norm, leading to growing concern about grain supply. At the northeastern end of the plain, the capital’s growing thirst only compounds the problem. Last summer’s persistent drought in southwestern China left 14 million people short of drinking water, damaged millions of hectares of farmland and left industry short of power after river levels fell too low to drive hydroelectric power generation plants. This week, more than 3 million people are short of water because of the drought lingering in Yunnan and other ones in Jiangxi and Inner Mongolia.

An international spotlight has fallen on the shriveling of  Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake, home to the rare finless porpoise and winter home for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds including the Siberian crane which have traditionally depended just as much on the lake’s dwindling fish stocks as Poyang’s increasingly unemployed human fishermen. Yet its story is not uncommon. Fifty years ago China had half as many natural lakes again as it does today. Two thirds of those that have survived are chemically polluted. That is scarcely a better fate than the hundreds of smaller lakes along the Yangtze basin that have dried out completely or been drained for farmland and housing.

Hu acknowledges that water shortages, serious river and lake pollution and the deteriorating aquatic ecology threaten the country’s sustainable growth. Such a disruption to the country’s economic and social development would pose a direct threat to the Party legitimacy to rule, hence the gravity with which it is being taken at the highest levels of government. “We must put in place the strictest water resources management system,” Hu says.

New guidelines cap national water consumption at 670 billion cubic meters by 2020, and 700 billion cubic meters by 2030, with compulsory measures to enforce them and a system of water-use licenses to be introduced. It will be a tough target to meet, even with the help of 4 trillion yuan ($635 billion) designated for water conservation projects during the current five-year plan, which calls for a repeat of the 20% reduction in water consumption per unit of output achieved under the previous plan. The long-term goal is to reduce water consumption per unit of output by 60% from 2005 levels.

Strict water resources management also means reining in the untrammeled provincial hyrdo-dam building and urban water diversion projects, as well as taking greater control over local drilling into deep aquifers, a short-term solution that will cause long-term problems as it is tapping the reservoirs of last resort. This is a particular issue on the North China Plain. On top of that, Beijing will have to enforce existing environmental protections and good water management policies, which often get brushed aside by local officials for whom promoting economic growth is the priority and a river or lake seen as little more than a self-cleaning sewer for industry that they don’t have to build. Step one will be to end the fragmentation of water management among various ministries and levels of government. Beijing will also have to promote the reuse and recycling of urban water, improve irrigation methods in the countryside (farmers use 85% of China’s water), end water subsidies and make industry less wasteful users of water. International companies like Siemens and GE see big potential business in all this.

China remains a water hog even by BRICS’ standards and the economy is still growing fast enough for it to be a perpetual race to keep up. Yet so unsustainable is the current demand for water, if Beijing doesn’t deal with the crisis, it faces the prospect of water civil wars as farmers, city dwellers and industry fight for who gets what water there is in China. In 2004, the World Bank warned of the possibility of tens of thousands of environmental internal refugees, fleeing the increasingly arid North China Plain, which has 42% of China’s population but only 8% of its water. Hu’s latest comments suggest the prospect is now not that far-fetched.

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Himalayan Glaciers Not Shrinking As Fast As Feared

More than half a billion Chinese living along the rivers that flow from the Himalayas are at risk from water shortages as a result of disappearing glaciers. If they can take any comfort, it is that a new analysis of satellite data from 2003 to 2010 shows that the glaciers are shrinking up to 10 times less quickly than previously feared.

“The good news is that the glaciers are not losing mass as fast as we thought,” says W. Tad Pfeffer, a professor at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and a co-author of the study, published in Nature. “The bad news is that they are still losing a lot of water.”

Mountaineer and filmmaker David Breashears provides some beautiful and disturbing shots of the melting glaciers of the Himalayas. This video was the Asia Society’s entry in a 2010 Asian Development Bank video competition on climate change.

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Shrivelling Poyang Lake

Poyang Lake, China's largest freshwater lake, is now one-twentieth of its former size.

When this Bystander last checked on Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake, in September it was recovering from the severe spring drought that had shrunk it to 400 sq. kms, barely a third of its average size over the past decade. That replenishment has not only stopped. It has been dramatically reversed, as the picture above, published earlier this week by state media and reportedly taken on Tuesday, and the one below, taken in November, show. Jiangxi’s provincial hydrographic bureau says the lake’s surface area is now less than 188 sq. kms, about 5% of its former size. At full capacity, it is as large as 4,500 sq. kms, or  more than six times the size of Singapore.

The lake is fed by five rivers in Jiangxi and empties into the Yangtze. Its water level has fallen so far that fishing is possible for barely three months of the year. The lake used to provide a livelihood for a fleet of 10,00 fishing boats, as well as being home to a rare finless porpoise. It also supports hundreds of thousands of migratory birds including the Siberian crane in winter, that, like the fishermen, depend on a lake full of fish to survive. The lake’s nature reserve authority is planning to stock the lake again to help both groups, though last year’s restocking failed as so many of the fry perished for lack of water. In November, the birds had to have food brought in.

Lack of rain this year is being blamed for Poyang’s shrivelling, but it is far from the only lake in China to be drying up. Nor is drought the sole reason.

A dead fish lies on the exposed riverbed of the Poyang Lake in Duchang, east China's Jiangxi Province, Nov. 4, 2011.

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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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Mass Resettlements Start To Irrigate North China

Plans to bring water to the arid drought-plagued North China Plain and its fast-growing cities like Beijing and Tianjin, are typically sweeping. Just as typically, they involve the mass resettlement of a third of a million people.

The plans call for drawing water off three western and southern rivers through a series of canals and pipes. The three parallel projects, once completed, will cost an estimated $62 billion, more than the Three Gorges hydroelectric dam, and, like the dam are raising a environmental and human issues. In addition there are concerns that the diverted water will be too expensive to use for farming, though the plain is China’s bread basket.

Residents in Hubei and Henan provinces have just started to be moved, Xinhua reports, so sluices can be built at the Danjiangkou reservoir to divert water from the Yangtze into the so-called north-south route, on which construction started in 2002. Although a quarter of the scale of the Three Gorges forced resettlements, these latest relocations will take until 2011 to complete and are already raising complaints from residents that they are not getting the resettlement terms they were promised.

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