The Heat Is Online

Southwest China Hit by a 100-Year Drought

Record Drought Exposes China’s Water Woes

Inter Press News Service, April 12, 2010

BEIJING, Apr 12 (IPS) - A once-in-a-century drought in south-west China has sparked concern over how China, which has one-fifth of the world’s population but just 7 percent of its water, has managed its water supply and growing network of hydroelectric dams.
 
In South-east Asia, where a number of countries have also been hit by the drought, the blame has fallen squarely the thirsty neighbour to the north, where many areas have not seen rain since October. Around 24 million people in Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces – totalling roughly 48,280 square kilometres of farmland – are short of water.

The drought has caused an estimated 3.5 billion U.S. dollars in agricultural losses, fuelled price rises and highlighted China’s chronic water problems.

Since September, rainfall has been less than half normal levels. In Yunnan, which is normally temperate, reservoirs have evaporated and river levels have dwindled. Much of the farmland is too dry to plant crops. Hydroelectric resources are stretched, and in Guizhou province about 90 percent of hydropower stations are paralysed, according to state media reports.

Leaders from China and other countries that share the Mekong River – Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam – met at a summit in Thailand to discuss the drought in early April. Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said his country will be requesting "more information, more cooperation and more coordination" from China. In Thailand, the drought has impacted 7.6 million people and some 14,000 villages.

At the summit organised by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), China’s neighbours wondered whether the drought’s effect on the Mekong River, known as the Lancang in China, has been worsened by the dams built along the part of the river that flows through Yunnan. There are more than 80 hydropower projects in various stages of development on the Mekong River and its tributaries, according to one estimate.

Some have argued that low rivers levels are at least partly due to the construction of China’s fourth dam on the Mekong. The Xiaowan dam, due to be the world’s tallest dam when it starts operation in 2012, began filling its reservoir during the rainy season in July, but Chinese officials say the process was stopped at the onset of the dry season.

China has argued that the drought is a natural phenomenon and its impact is out of its hands. The Chinese government said it had released water stored in hydroelectric dams during the dry season to raise the level of the Mekong.

At the Mekong summit in Thailand, Chen Mingzhong, deputy director general of China’s Ministry of Water Resources, said China was not to blame for the drought. "The current extreme dry weather in the lower Mekong River Basin is the root cause for the reduced run-off water and declining water in the mainstream Mekong," he said, according to state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Yang Xuexiang, professor emeritus at Jilin University’s School of Earth Observation Science and Technology, blames the drought in part on the movement of tectonic plates in the Tibetan Plateau. He said that energy created by great amounts of pressure under the earth’s crust has caused the surface to heat.

Yang told IPS that more information is needed before passing judgment on whether China’s dam-building activities have also contributed to this year’s drought. "This will surely affect the relationship between (South-east Asian) countries and China, but we need more scientific evidence," he said.

Many of China’s leading meteorologists have attributed the drought to climate change.

Chen Yiyu, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told ‘Outlook Weekly’ magazine that the drought is part of irregular climate conditions globally. Ren Fuming, an expert at China’s National Climate Centre, told the magazine: "The direct reason for the drought is light rain and high temperatures."

Zhen Fengtian, a professor at Renmin University’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said that climate change and deforestation are the leading causes of this year’s drought. "No one has found any direct evidence that proves the dams have caused the drought," Zhen told IPS.

In a journal article in March, Wang Yongchen, a Beijing-based journalist and founder of the non-government group Green Earth Volunteers, wondered if the reservoirs and rapid industrialisation had irreversibly altered Yunnan’s climate. The removal of forest areas to make way for rubber and eucalyptus plantations there may have worsened water shortages and lowered the water table, she pointed out.

In worst-hit areas, the Chinese government is rationing drinking water to millions of people, digging emergency wells and seeding the clouds with silver oxide to try to get rainfall.

But the cloud-seeding efforts have largely failed due to a lack of moisture in the air. Although the rainy season should begin in a month, some meteorologists say the drought could last through June.

Copyright © 2010 IPS-Inter Press Service
 
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