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China’s economy and its vulnerability to weather events

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A woman washes clothes as her son collects drinking water on an almost dried-up irrigation canal leading from Honghu Lake in central China's drought-stricken Hubei province. on May 29, 2011. Photo: Reuters/David Gray

What is the impact of the drought in China on the country’s economy and its growth rate? A Reuters news feature has attempted to provide a few answers. China’s economy is big enough to absorb this drought without slowing overall growth. But experts said the tenacious dry-spell has bigger lessons. After it passes, there are sure to be new floods and new droughts, and China’s economy will increasingly be affected by the country’s limited and unevenly spread water sources. “A single drought this year won’t lead to the collapse of China’s economy but this will have an impact, one that shows the threat that China faces from water stress,” said Xia Jun, a hydrologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing told Reuters.

The months-long drought parching middle and lower parts of the Yangtze River basin is the latest reminder of the risks that China’s limited and heavily used water sources pose for the world’s second-biggest economy. Even before this drought, smaller lakes around Lake Honghu were disappearing, taken over for fields and fish farms.

Water from the Yangtze will be diverted to Beijing and other thirsty northern cities, but the Danjiangkou Dam that will deliver that water in coming years along the vast South-North Water Transfer Project is at its lowest for over a decade. Victims of the latest dry spell also range from the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydropower project, to millions of poor farmers like Wang and Xiao, an elderly couple.

“I’m 70 and it’s never been this bad,” Xiao, a browned and balding man, said of the 348-sq-km (134-sq-mile) lake in central Hubei province. “You can walk across and it only comes up to your knees.” The lake has shrunk to about 207 sq km of water and is mostly no deeper than 30 cm or so, according to the China News Service — at a time of year when residents said the water should be up to their chins. “We used to always worry about floods, not droughts,” said Xiao. “Not ones as bad as this.”

A woman shovels mud at her house after a landslide triggered by heavy rainfalls in Linxiang, Hunan province June 11, 2011. Photo: Reuters/Darley Wong

That sentiment is echoed by many residents on the middle and eastern stretches of the Yangtze, which is China’s biggest river and an the artery feeding much of China’s farming and industrial heartlands. Officials have said those parts are enduring their worst drought in 50 years, and rainfall has shrunk by 40 to 60 percent of normal. Around Lake Honghu, thousands of farmers risk losing more crops, fish farms, and even drinking water if big rains fail to arrive soon. Many rice fields in the surrounding countryside are yellow or barren. Farmers use scarce water for keeping alive fewer fields or for the ponds used to raise lucrative fish, crab and shrimp. Dry lotus ponds with wilted plants dot the landscape. In other areas near the Yangtze, there is still enough water to sustain swathes of green rice stalks.

China has six percent of the globe’s fresh water resources but a fifth of the world’s population. Global warming could stoke pressures, said Xia and other experts. “There have been even worse droughts before, but now these episodes can be increasingly serious, because economic development is bringing increasing pressure on water resources, and the effects of disaster spread out wider and are felt in more ways,” said Xia.

AlertNet has reported that torrential rains battered central and southern China. Quoting local reports, AlertNet said the rains led to floods and landslides that killed more than 100 people, turning areas enduring drought just over a week ago into scenes of muddy destruction. Forecasters warned that intense rain was likely to keep striking some areas through Monday and beyond.

In Yueyang in Hunan province in the south, weather stations recorded more than 200 millimetres (eight inches) of rain in six hours, the kind of downpour that hits once every 300 years, the China News Service reported, citing local officials. In Maojiazu Village in Yueyang, the pelting downpours triggered a mudslide that crushed 24 homes and killed at least 20 residents, with another seven missing under boulders and dense mud, most likely dead, the Xinhua news agency reported.

“The concentrated scope, intensity and short duration of these recent rains have caused grave casualties and damage to property in some areas,” said Chen Lei, the Minister of Water Resources who also oversees the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters, according to a report on its website.

The office warned that heavy rains along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River basin could trigger floods in an area gripped by drought less than two weeks ago. By late Saturday, the floods across parts of 13 provinces had killed 94 people with 78 missing, damaged 465,000 hectares (1,800 square miles) of crops, and toppled 27,100 houses and other buildings, the flood and drought office said. By later on Sunday, Hunan province lifted the number of people killed by floods and mudslides there to 36, up from an estimate of 19 given on Saturday, meaning the updated nationwide death toll could have reached at least 111.

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