Bitter harvest

Severe drought highlights China’s water woes

Bitter harvest

Still waiting for rain

Six months of failing rains have left riverbeds dry and reservoirs empty. The worst drought in a century across China’s southwest could signal a stark new reality of water shortages which may set limits to China’s growth.

Of course, that didn’t stop Chongqing Water Group’s $511 million listing in Shanghai this week, but it did draw attention to dire warnings in the company’s prospectus: 500 of 663 Chinese cities have inadequate water supplies.

The long drought has devastated 6.5 million hectares of once verdant farmland in Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and Chongqing – which are supposed to provide 16% of China’s grain. The price of vital food staples like flour and rice has already risen an estimated 40%, and shortages are forcing citizens to go hungry.

“Millions of residents in our province are now struggling against shortages of drinking water and food,” provincial Party secretary Bai Enpei told the Yunnan Daily, “Ensuring them a normal lifestyle is the overriding priority.”

Fresh drinking water is urgently needed – of the 51 million people with limited access to water, 16 million don’t have enough to drink. “I’ve never seen such a drought since I was born,” said Guangxi villager Li Shaorong.

Earlier this week, a worried premier Wen Jiabao declared that “the priority at the moment is to ensure drinking water for local people at any cost. Not a single person should suffer from a shortage of drinking water.”

The region typically exports water in the form of local cash crops like tea, flowers, and sugar (see WiC50), but drought has wrecked the harvest, causing prices to double in some cases. “[If the drought continues] some sugar mills will probably close down,” Wang Hu, head of the propaganda department for sugar company Yunnan Power Group, told the 21CN Business Herald, “so now rain equals money!”

Industry is finding that it’s not immune to the weather either. Yunnan, which uses mostly hydroelectric power, is preparing to ration electricity, and has already cut off supplies to Guangdong province (home to much of China’s manufacturing base).

Officials are quick to blame the high temperatures and low rainfall on climate change. But some experts think the government should shoulder part of the blame. Instead of focusing on massive vanity projects (like hydroelectric dams), it should have been preparing for drought by maintaining irrigation canals and helping farmers invest in small tanks for rainwater harvesting.

“Yunnan’s irrigation systems leak like sieves,” warned Caixin magazine earlier this month, “More than half the water never reaches intended destinations.”

“The drought isn’t a natural disaster but a man-made calamity,” explains Renmin University professor Zheng Fengtian, “A lack of investment in drinking water and irrigation systems puts farmers in a plight whenever drought hits the area. The country invests heavily in hydroelectric power on major rivers and builds huge reservoirs, but the distant water can’t quench the thirst in the mountain areas.”

Another victim of the high-profile mega-dams are downstream communities. In issue 37 WiC reported that filling the reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam caused water shortages further down the Yangtze River. The situation is similar in Yunnan today. The heavily dammed Chinese section of the Mekong River is at its lowest level in 50 years.

China’s neighbours are starting to take note, and future conflicts may arise over control of water resources (see WiC35).

It’s not only a concern for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the west, but also Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand to the south – since their most important rivers originate in Tibet. Economic losses from the drought are estimated at $2.8 billion so far, and relief officials have allocated $146 million to help its victims.

Meanwhile, provincial governments are trying to respond by seeding rain clouds and digging deeper wells into an already impoverished water table – but they desperately need the rains to come by May.

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