A nationwide drought alert was issued in China on August 19 as the severe heatwave in the country’s southwest was forecast to continue well into September. The record-breaking drought has caused the Yangtze River to dry up, affecting hydropower, halting shipping and forcing major companies to suspend operations.
The loss of water flow to China’s extensive hydropower system was particularly felt in Sichuan, which gets over 80 percent of its energy from hydropower.
On August 21, the provincial government declared that it was at the highest warning level of “particularly severe,” with water flow to Sichuan’s hydropower reservoirs dropping by half. The demand for electricity also increased by 24 percent in the summer.
The reduction in hydropower has also reportedly affected downstream populations, including Chongqing City and Hubei province.
Sichuan already suspended or limited power supply to thousands of factories last week and rationed public electricity usage due to the shortage. Companies such as Toyota, Foxconn and Tesla are among those reported to have temporarily suspended operations at some plants over the past two weeks and restarting production has been postponed.
Despite being the world’s third largest river that provides drinking water to over 400 million Chinese citizens, water flow on the Yangtze is now more than 50 percent below average, with some sections and dozens of tributaries drying up.
As a crucial part of the global supply chain and a vital waterway to China’s economy, closed shipping routes in the middle and lower sections of Yangtze are a cause of concern.
In other affected regions of China, authorities are rushing to ensure water and power supply as the region approaches harvest season for water-intensive crops such as rice and soy. A heatwave has already disrupted crop growth and threatened livestock.
Authorities recently discharged 980 cubic meters of water from reservoirs in an effort to replenish low levels of the river, according to state media.
Over 2.6 million people and 2.2 million hectares of agricultural land in Sichuan, Hebei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui and Chongqing had been affected by the drought, and over 280,000 people needed direct government emergency management. Drinking water has been delivered by truck to areas where residential supplies have already dried up. (Related: Power shortages in China may cause world food and commodities prices to surge.)
High temperatures caused direct economic losses of around 2.73 billion yuan ($398.72 million) in July alone, affecting some 5.5 million people, according to China’s Ministry of Emergency Management.
In Chongqing, water levels dropped so low that previously submerged Buddhist statues thought to be around 600 years old were found.
Rainfall in the Yangtze River basin area declined by roughly 45 percent compared to the average in recent years, and as many as 66 rivers across 34 counties in the southwestern region have dried up.
Other major rivers around the world are also drying up as record-breaking heatwaves took a devastating toll. The Rhine and the Loire in Europe as well as the Colorado River in the U.S. are some examples. (Related: A horrifying drought is causing widespread crop failures throughout the United States and Europe.)
Bernice Lee, chair of the advisory board at the Chatham House sustainability accelerator in London, said that societies, including China, have remained “unprepared and underprepared” for high-impact, low-probability events such as droughts and heatwaves.
“As the frequency of extreme weather events looks set to grow, the future could be even more bleak,” Lee said.
Chen Lijuan, the chief forecaster of China’s national climate center, has described the combined heatwave and drought as a “pressure cooker,” saying that they have to face the fact that similar heatwaves will occur frequently in the future, which will eventually become the new normal.
The immediate impact on electricity supplies has already put pressure on Beijing’s climate change commitments, with Vice Premier Han Zheng saying that the government would step up support for coal-fired power production.
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