June 07, 2011

China's Droughts and Floods

weeks back I was in Beijing and Shanghai to nerd out on maritime security
issues with some great thinkers from the United States, Japan, South Korea,
and, obviously, China. While I can’t give you much specific detail, I can
provide some general impressions. One of them was certainly that the growing
water stress – and related energy stress – in China weighed heavily on the minds of several locals I spoke with. The
morning of May 25th I read this in China Daily over breakfast:china drought

Data indicated
that rainfall in [several regions along the Yangtze] is 30 to 80 percent less
compared to normal years, while the provinces of Anhui, Jiangsu, Hubei, Hunan,
Jiangxi, Zhejiang and Shanghai municipality continue to suffer the worst
drought since 1954. Between January and April, the Yangtze River basin received
40 percent less rainfall than the average level of the past 50 years. The water
area of Dongting Lake in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River was 73 percent
less on May 20 than the same day last year, according to statistics from the

news is spreading
rapidly into the Western media
now as well. As I heard from several fellow conferees,
talk in the blogosphere and chatter among folks in China are rising to new heights as a
confluence of water woes are combining with this year’s particularly harsh
weather to stir public dissatisfaction. Its urbanization and rapid economic
growth are depleting freshwater rapidly near some cities. Glacial melt in the
Himalayas is changing, altering water flows. Many believe that the massive
Three Gorges Dam has altered the Yangtze River in ways that are contributing to
water shortages. And while news on this is minimal as far as I've seen in
English-language media, it sounds like salt water intrusion into freshwater
systems may be on the rise as well in some coastal areas.

water issues have caused spikes in food prices and energy costs, and are
further impacting China’s energy production potential. As Foreign
Policy reported
late last week:

...rolling blackouts have hit central and southern China as many of the dams on
the river are operating below capacity. That includes the Three Gorges Dam,
whose operator reports that water levels behind the dam are 40 percent lower
than usual. Shanghai, which receives a portion of its electricity from Three
Gorges, is one of many cities feeling the crunch. (Barge traffic carrying coal
down the river has also been strained by the low water levels.) Last week,
Shanghai's largest utility company announced that factories and retail stores
could soon face outages.

is ever vigilant about whether these issues will hold the potential for
sparking domestic instability, and so far the
water shortages have cost more than $2 billion
. President Hu
Jintao called the issue “urgent”
in a visit to heavily-affected Hubei
province last week. Rain has thankfully begun to relieve the drought in
some areas, though unfortunately in others it has also triggered flooding that has further damaged agricultural lands and displaced thousands of

is definitely suffering due to China’s droughts, but its water strains make me
wonder even more about the country’s ambitions to grow its nuclear power
generation capacity. Nor will this be limited to China. As CBS News reported yesterday, worldwide natural disasters displaced about 42 million people last year, a significant increase from 2009. 

if you don’t already, I highly recommend following the great work by Circle of
on China’s (and the world’s) water conditions. This group’s water reporting
is unrivaled, and you can folllow them on Twitter here


Photo of southwestern China's droughts in 2010 courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Bert van Dijk.