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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.

The Yangtze, Three Gorges and China’s 2011 drought

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Huang Xiaohe, a farmer in Huarong county, Hunan province, carries water fetched from a canal to irrigate his cotton field, May 19, 2011. Huang said he has to carry water for irrigation three times a day, each time taking as long as one and a half hours. Photo: China Daily/Xinhua

The water in the Yangtze river, China’s longest, has dropped to its lowest ever recorded level. According to the latest census figures for the People’s Republic, the urban population now represents 49.68% of the country’s total population. Of the more than 600 cities, 400 are haunted by a lack of water and the problem is acute for 200 of them. If seasonal lack of water in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze further expands as it has in the past decade and becomes permanent, said the China Daily, “it will be impossible for North China, long plagued by drought, to rely on its southern counterparts to quench its thirst”. More than 1,000 reservoirs in Central China’s Hubei province dropped to such a low level that 500,000 people face a shortage of drinking water.

The newspaper said: “The government can never attach too much strategic importance to the water problem in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, given its position as one of the most important grain production bases, one of the most densely populated regions and the country’s most developed area. Records show that the seasonal water level in this part of the Yangtze has constantly reached the historical lows of at least 20 years every year in the last decade.”

Shishou city launched a project on May 4, together with neighboring Huarong county, Hunan province, to ease water shortages by drawing supplies from the Yangtze River into the Huarong River, which runs across the border of Hubei and Hunan provinces. The two Central China's provinces are in severe drought,and close to 300,000 people living by the Huarong River are short of water. Photo: China Daily/Xinhua

On May 18, the State Council, China’s cabinet, announced for the first time that “problems that demand prompt solutions exist” in the project’s resettlement of residents, ecological protection, and prevention and control of geological disasters. The project’s follow-up plan says that by 2020, those resettled as a result of the dam should expect to live the average life of residents in Hubei province and Chongqing municipality, which the reservoir spans. About 1.3 million people have been resettled since 1993, fewer than 20% of them outside the reservoir area. The rest had to move to higher ground. The plots there are smaller and, because the slopes are unstable, most are ill suited to farming. With limited access to arable land, compensation, preferential policies, education and transportation, many are still struggling in sheer poverty.

Now, China’s President Hu Jintao has urged local government officials to treat drought relief in rural areas as an “urgent task” as he wraps up a four-day inspection tour in central China’s Hubei Province Friday. According to Xinhua, Hu’s call comes in the midst of the worst drought in 60 years that hit the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River.

He Yan, a resident in Huarong county, Hunan province, stores water at her home May 19, 2011. The county has begun rationing water supply. Photo: China Daily/Xinhua

These areas are China’s important agricultural production bases. Hu asked government officials to provide fiscal and technological support to farmers and work to ensure they have enough drinking water. Efforts should be made to give full play to the role of reservoirs in offsetting the impact of the drought, Hu stressed when visiting the Danjiangkou Reservoir, which is part of China’s massive south-to-north water diversion project.

On Friday 03 June 2011, Vice Minister of Environmental Protection Li Ganjie told the press that the drought has caused the deterioration of water quality in several major lakes. The long-lasting drought has led to the sharp reduction of water levels in major lakes such as Poyang Lake, Dongting Lake and Honghu Lake. Monitoring statistics showed that water quality in these lakes saw a noticeable decline in March and April, compared to the same period last year, according to Li.

Wetlands and migrant birds in these regions have also suffered from the drought, the worst to hit the region in decades, said Li. Over 1,333 hectares of wetlands located east of Dongting Lake have dried up. The drought has left the Yangtze River, China’s longest river, with its lowest levels of rainfall since 1961.

Li denied that the drought was aggravated by the river’s Three Gorges Dam. He stressed that a shortage of rainfall tcaused the drought. The long-lasting drought has affected parts of Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, which are located near the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. These areas have seen 40 to 60 percent less rainfall than usual.