Drought alert has left China’s economy high and dry

Hydropower plants hit by the fallout from a heat wave as major cities face rolling blackouts and water shortages

China’s economy risks being baked to a crisp by an unprecedented heat wave.

Soaring temperatures have triggered severe drought with vast areas of the country’s southwest bearing the brunt of climate change extremes.

Rivers have dried up to a trickle, placing pressure on the region’s water supply and crucial hydropower plants.

Amid the fallout, factories hit by rolling blackouts have been forced to close. Air conditioning has even been turned off in two major cities in Sichuan province to save vital electricity. 

“Since mid-June, China has been facing the most intense and enduring heatwave since records began in 1961, according to the National Climate Center,” China Dialogue, an independent organization dedicated to environmental challenges, reported on Friday.

“In the past week, the middle and lower Yangtze River basin has experienced exceptionally hot and dry spells in what is supposed to be the flood season, forcing provinces to suspend or restrict power to businesses to ensure supply for households,” it said.

Flood of data:

  • The Poyang and Dongting lakes – the two largest in the Yangtze basin – have fallen by up to 5.7 meters.
  • That is the lowest since records began.
  • In Chongqing, 51 rivers are cut off and 24 reservoirs have dried up.
  • Power shortages are particularly severe in Sichuan, where hydropower accounts for nearly 80% of the energy mix, China Dialogue reported.
  • A wide range of industries have been forced to shut down and China’s rice harvest is under threat.

Sichuan’s problems have serious ramifications for the rest of China.

Research group Trivium China 

Delve deeper: “Where the Yangtze reaches the sea in Shanghai, the river is experiencing saltwater intrusion due to a lack of fresh water running against it. This is threatening the municipal water supply,” China Dialogue pointed out.

State of play: The economy has already suffered a meltdown amid stringent Covid-19 policies. “Youth unemployment has reached a record high while trouble in the real estate sector has set off an unusual surge of public discontentment,” The New York Times said.

Big picture: China’s obsession with coal-fired power stations has made the country one of the largest carbon emitters in the world. Even massive wind and solar projects have failed to wean Beijing off its fossil fuel addiction.

The bottom line: “Sichuan’s problems have serious ramifications for the rest of China. [Its] hydropower projects regularly supply over 10% of the combined annual power consumed by Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang,” Trivium China, the research group, reported. 

Collateral damage: “In the run-up to the 20th Party Congress, the last thing Beijing wants is hot, angry protestors,” it warned earlier this week.

China Factor comment: The sheer scale of the problem hardly made a splash on China’s tightly-controlled state media. But then, it hardly fits the image Beijing is desperate to project.