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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.

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Winter drought threatens China wheat production

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Urbanisation in agricultural plains, visible from the flight path close to Beijing. Photo: Rahul Goswami

Urbanisation in agricultural plains, visible from the flight path close to Beijing. Photo: Rahul Goswami

The FAO has just released a special briefing on wheat production in China, through its Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture (GIEWS). “A severe winter drought in the North China Plain may put wheat production at risk,” said the FAO. “Substantially below-normal rainfall since October 2010 in the North China Plain, the country’s main winter wheat producing area, puts at risk the winter wheat crop to be harvested later in the month of June.”

Low precipitation resulting in diminished snow cover has reduced the protection of dormant wheat plants against frost kill temperatures (usually below -18°C) during winter months from December to February. Low precipitation and thin snow cover have also jeopardized the soil moisture availability for the post-dormant growing period. Thus, the ongoing drought is potentially a serious problem.

FAO China drought map showing cumulative rainfall and deficit in the wheat growing region.

FAO China drought map showing cumulative rainfall and deficit in the wheat growing region.

FAO’s GIEWS said that the main affected provinces include Shandong, Jiangsu, Henan, Hebei and Shanxi, which together represent about 60% of the area planted and two-thirds of the national wheat production. According to official estimates some 5.16 million hectares out of the total of about 14 million hectares under winter wheat may have been affected in these provinces. The drought has reportedly affected some 2.57 million people and 2.79 million livestock due to the shortages of drinking water.

So far there have been some positive developments, such as the relatively mild temperatures, particularly the absence of frost kill temperatures, and the lower than average sub-zero temperature days. This combined with increased supplementary irrigation made available by the Government is likely to compensate to some extent the negative impact of low snow fall and low moisture availability. However, adverse weather, particularly extreme cold temperatures could still devastate yields. The Government has allocated some USD 15 billion to support farmers’ incomes and subsidize the costs of diesel, fertiliser and pesticide.

This drought in north China seems to be putting further pressure on wheat prices, said FAO, which have been rising rapidly in the last few months. In January 2011 the national average retail price of wheat flour rose by more than 8% compared to two months earlier and stood at 16% higher than a year earlier. Although the current winter drought has, so far, not affected winter wheat productivity, the situation could become critical if a spring drought follows the winter one and/or the temperatures in February fall below normal.

Drought conditions take a grip on China’s provinces

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Xinhua has reported that about 2.2 million people in China are short of drinking water as severe droughts continue to plague winter wheat producing areas. Relaying information provided by China’s drought relief authorities, the Xinhua report said that rainfall in Henan, Shanxi, Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu, Anhui and Shaanxi provinces has decreased 20% to 90% over the last four months from the same-period average.

The news agency quoted Chen Lei, deputy director of the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters. Relentless droughts that started to dry out winter wheat producing areas such as Shandong and Henan provinces in November continue, affecting some 4 million hectares of cropland, said Chen. Water supply is running low in cities around the Yellow, Huaihe and Haihe rivers in northern and central parts of China, he said.

AlertNet (Thomson Reuters) has reported that drought has affected winter wheat crops in 17 percent of China’s wheat growing areas in the country’s northern bread basket, and dry weather is forecast to extend until spring. In April 2010, AlertNet had reported on what it called China’s “drought of the century”, and had then described a calamitous picture: “More than 50 million people across a large swathe of southwest China have been hit by the worst drought in a century. It started in November and forecasters see no signs of the drought abating in the near future. Over 16 million people and 11 million livestock are short of drinking water, while more than 4 million hectares of farmland is affected and an estimated million hectares will yield no harvest this year.”

Underlining the contradictory perceptions of agencies and the world grain trade, Bloomberg has reported an assessment by the China Meteorological Administration as saying that dry weather conditions in northern China have had “no apparent impact” on most of the regions’ wheat crops because there is sufficient accumulated moisture in deeper soil layers. Even so, unusual dryness in the north and snowy conditions in southern China were caused by the La Nina weather pattern, the Meteorological report is quoted as having said, with some southern provinces experiencing the coldest January since 1961.

Written by makanaka

January 20, 2011 at 10:49

How June 2010 blazed new climate records, and the story of Rongbuk glacier

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NOAA, National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate, Global Analysis, June 2010It’s been another searing half year from January 2010 to June. Global temperature records have been surpassed all over the place. Both land and sea temperatures have climbed upwards to match previous highs, and in some places to top them. Here are the global highlights for June 2010 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA), National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate, Global Analysis, June 2010:

* The combined global land and ocean average surface temperature for June 2010 was the warmest on record at 16.2°C (61.1°F), which is 0.68°C (1.22°F) above the 20th century average of 15.5°C (59.9°F). The previous record for June was set in 2005.
* June 2010 was the fourth consecutive warmest month on record (March, April, and May 2010 were also the warmest on record). This was the 304th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last month with below-average temperature was February 1985.
NOAA, National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate, Global Analysis, June 2010* The June worldwide averaged land surface temperature was 1.07°C (1.93°F) above the 20th century average of 13.3°C (55.9°F)—the warmest on record.
* It was the warmest April–June (three-month period) on record for the global land and ocean temperature and the land-only temperature. The three-month period was the second warmest for the world’s oceans, behind 1998.
* It was the warmest June and April–June on record for the Northern Hemisphere as a whole and all land areas of the Northern Hemisphere.
* It was the warmest January–June on record for the global land and ocean temperature. The worldwide land on average had its second warmest January–June, behind 2007. The worldwide averaged ocean temperature was the second warmest January–June, behind 1998.
* Sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean continued to decrease during June 2010. According to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, La Niña conditions are likely to develop during the Northern Hemisphere summer 2010.

NOAA, National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate, Global Analysis, June 2010The ‘State of the Climate, Global Analysis’ for June 2010 said that warmer-than-average conditions dominated the globe during the month, with the most prominent warmth in Mexico, northern Africa, and most of Europe, Asia, South America, and the USA. The world land surface temperature June 2010 anomaly of 1.07°C (1.93°F) was the warmest on record, surpassing the previous June record set in 2005 by 0.12°C (0.22°F).

The warm conditions that affected large portions of each inhabited continent also contributed to the warmest June worldwide land and ocean surface temperature since records began in 1880. The previous June record was set in 2005. Separately, the worldwide ocean surface temperatures during June 2010 were 0.54°C (0.97°F) above the 20th century average—the fourth warmest June on record. Warmer-than-average conditions were present across most of the Atlantic, Indian, and the western Pacific oceans.

NOAA, National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate, Global Analysis, June 2010“June 2010 was the fourth consecutive month with reported warmest averaged global land and ocean temperature on record (March, April, and May 2010 were also the warmest on record),” said the Global Analysis for the month. “When averaging the last three months, the combined global land and ocean surface temperature during April–June 2010 (three-month period) ranked as the warmest April–June on record, with an anomaly of 0.70°C (1.26°F) above the 20th century average. The previous April–June record was set in 1998, which had an anomaly of 0.66°C (1.19°F) above the 20th century average.”

The areas with the wettest anomalies during June 2010 included southern India, southern China, southern Europe, the midwestern USA, and parts of northwestern South America. The driest anomalies were present across northern India and across parts eastern Asia, northeastern South America, and Australia. There was climate havoc in China. According to the Beijing Climate Center (BCC), the provinces of Guizhou, Fujian, and Qinghai had above-average precipitation during June 2010, ranking as the second wettest June since national records began in 1951.

The BCC also reported that ten provinces in southern China were affected by storms that brought heavy rainfall across the area—resulting in record breaking daily rainfall in some places of Jiangxi and Fujian. The copious rainfall prompted floods that killed nearly 200 people. Meanwhile, the province of Jiangsu had its driest June on record, while Shanxi had its second driest on record. Overall, the monthly averaged precipitation in China during June 2010, 95.0 mm (3.7 inches), was near the 1971–2000 average.

Asia Society-The 1921 photograph taken by George Mallory of the Rongbuk Glacier and the northern slope of Mount Everest in the distance, Tibet Autonomous Region

Asia Society-The 1921 photograph taken by George Mallory of the Rongbuk Glacier and the northern slope of Mount Everest in the distance, Tibet Autonomous Region

The impact of a succession of record warm Junes is described in photographic detail by an eye-opening exhibit of the Asia Society. (The Telegraph of Britain had an early report on the startling photos.) The two pictures show an alarming retreat in ice over more than 80 years.

The first was taken in 1921 by British mountaineer George Mallory. The Asia Society commissioned the same picture to be taken of the main Rongbuk glacier on the northern slope of Mount Everest in Tibet in 2007.

The new picture by mountaineer David Breashears show that the glacier is shrunk and withered. Breashears retraced the steps of the 1921 British Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition Team, using photos taken then by surveyor and photographer Maj Edward Wheeler and amateur photographer George Mallory, who later died attempting to reach the Everest summit in 1924.

Asia Society-The 2007 photograph taken by David Breashears of the Rongbuk Glacier taken from the same place as Mallory's 1921 photograph

Asia Society-The 2007 photograph taken by David Breashears of the Rongbuk Glacier taken from the same place as Mallory's 1921 photograph

The Himalayan glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, as is starkly documented in photographic comparisons between archival images and recent photographs taken by mountaineer David Breashears in the new Asia Society Museum exhibition Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers in the Greater Himalaya. “That melting also has a profound impact on the local communities the Himalayan glaciers serve, and has emerged as a primary bellwether of global climate change,” said the Asia Society.

The surface area of glaciers in these high altitude valleys is often covered by layers of debris or snow. To determine the full measure of loss in the ice mass in these photos, look not only at how far the glaciers have receded, but at the surrounding valley walls. In many cases, the loss in depth is upwards of 300 vertical feet.