Gan Bingdong walks through the basin of a community reservoir near his farm that ran nearly empty after its retaining wall started to leak and hot weather and drought conditions accelerated the loss of water, in Longquan village in southwestern China’s Chongqing Municipality, August 20, 2022.
This summer has been China’s driest and hottest since consistent records began being kept in 1961. The severe heatwave resulted in and continues to exacerbate a drought.
Even as the heatwave eases, water levels continue to drop in China’s biggest freshwater lake, Poyang Lake, and other parts of the Yangtze River Basin (YRB). Estimates from the South China Morning Post (SCMP) suggest that the current heatwave has affected over 900 million people in more than 17 provinces and an estimated 2.2 million hectares of agricultural land in China.
Aside from a significant reduction in hydropower production and subsequent power shortages, raising questions over the country’s energy security, it has also caused concerns over China’s water and food security.
Impacts on Food Security
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There have already been mounting concerns regarding China’s food security situation amid an unprecedented global food crisis and complex geopolitical environment. China’s top leaders have at multiple times in recent months stressed the strategic importance of safeguarding the country’s food security. Having publicly linked food security to China’s national security, President Xi Jinping also called for further efforts to safeguard grain security and protect farmland from increasing domestic production.
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Responsible for nearly 50 percent of China’s grain production, the YRB plays a vital role in the country’s food security. There are already huge concerns that the drought may impact China’s autumn grain harvest. As Liu Weiping, China’s vice minister of water resources recently remarked, China’s autumn crops are at a “critical period.”
A more significant concern, however, is China’s rice supply. Given that rice is the most widely consumed staple in the country, particularly in southern China, safeguarding China’s rice supply has always been a matter of utmost importance as far as food security is concerned. This is precisely why Xi has constantly used the phrase “rice bowl” in speeches to illustrate how vital food security is to China.
At a national level, China has been confronted with a rice glut in recent years. In 2020, China even became a net rice exporter, according to official statistics. However, China’s rice supply faces a structural imbalance. Japonica and Indica rice are the two main rice types grown in China. Japonica rice is produced in the central and northern regions, while Indica rice is grown in southern China. There is currently a surplus of Japonica rice but a shortage of Indica rice. Due to the spatial shift of China’s grain production in recent decades, more and more rice (primarily Japonica rice) is produced in northern China.
In contrast, the production of Indica rice in southern China has been declining. On the demand side, despite increasing consumption of Japonica rice in southern China, many still prefer Indica rice over Japonica rice. As a result, China has been importing millions of tonnes of Indica rice from the international market, particularly from Southeast Asia. The ongoing drought in the YRB, where about two-thirds of China’s rice (primarily Indica rice) is produced, is undoubtedly set to exacerbate the structural imbalances in China’s rice supply.
Casting Shadows on China’s Clean Energy Transition
After Xi’s bold commitment that China would reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, carbon emission reduction and the transition to clean energy stand out as central policy priorities in the 14th Five-Year Plan. As China shifts away from coal, which supplies nearly 70 percent of its energy use, clean energy alternatives like hydropower are expected to take on more prominence.
Rich in water resources and hydropower potential, the YRB is essential to adjusting China’s energy structure. Among the YRB provinces, Sichuan stands out as China’s hydropower hub. Estimates suggest that 80 percent of the province’s energy comes from hydropower dams. Much of the province’s hydroelectricity is exported to other provinces (such as industrial powerhouse provinces Zhejiang and Jiangsu). Given that the drought has caused up to 50 percent of Sichuan’s reservoirs to dry up, it has caused a domino effect on the province’s hydropower generation and exports.
In some regions, such as Sichuan province and Chongqing, the electricity shortage and rationing have forced many cities to seek electricity from other areas of the country. To help ease the pressure, the State Grid Corporation of China, the country’s leading state-owned electric utility corporation, announced that it would try to send power to Sichuan. Factories in Sichuan have also been forced to shut down or reduce activity to save electricity for residential use. Similarly, offices and shopping malls had to turn off air conditioning and lights, according to various Chinese media reports.
Given the reduced water levels in Sichuan’s reservoirs and low precipitation levels, the drought and its impacts are expected to be prolonged. The looming specter of further power shortages raises questions over the reliability of renewable energy sources, particularly those that rely on water. So far, Beijing has responded to the power shortage by increasing its reliance on coal. The National Energy Administration of China recently stated that coal output has increased by 19.4 percent year-on-year from August 1 to August 17, largely to provide fuel for coal-burning power plants.
New Resistance Toward the Western Route of the South-North Water Transfer?
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The drought further raises questions about China’s quest for water security. The country’s unequal spatio-temporal water distribution is well established: the north suffers from acute water shortages, whereas the south is prone to severe floods. To overcome the challenges presented by this uneven spatial distribution and precipitation, the Chinese government put forward the South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP). The SNWTP diverts water from southern China to northern China along the Eastern, Middle, and Western Routes. The Eastern Route diverts water from Jiangsu to Shandong and Tianjin (via the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal), while the Middle Route transfers water from Hubei province to Beijing and Tianjin. While the Eastern and Middle Routes have been constructed, the Western Route is yet to be built.
The official route plans to connect the Yangtze and the Yellow River across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Under this plan, an annual diversion of 17 billion cubic meters of water would flow from the upstream of the Yangtze and its tributaries (Yalong River, Dadu River) in Sichuan to the Taohe River, a tributary of the Yellow River in Gansu. The water would flow into the arid provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, and Shanxi. This transfer is massive but notably much smaller than two alternate water transfer plans targeting water from the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau.
In 2006, the official Western Route plan was put on hold due to criticism from water experts over the plan’s socioeconomic consequences. Some southern provinces like Sichuan also strongly opposed the Western Route, given that any water diversion from these provinces threatens their own water supplies and local hydropower sectors.
As droughts have become common in some parts of those provinces, Sichuan’s government has openly supported the local scientists in voicing concerns and strong objections toward the Western Route, which has received renewed interest from China’s top leaders. To the SNWTP’s opponents, the Western Route is about saving the Yellow River by destroying the Yangtze River. In this context, the current drought, which has severely affected the southern Chinese provinces’ water and energy supplies, will likely cause greater resistance to the central government’s attempts to revive the Western Route.
According to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), China will be among the countries hardest hit by climate shocks. The current drought in the YRB is just another warning to Chinese policymakers that the country’s economy and society are at increasing risk from extreme climate events, and urgent actions are needed to improve adaptation mechanisms.
As the largest greenhouse gas emitter, food producer, and importer, and also home to the headwaters of most of Asia’s great rivers, the current drought in China is expected to have long-term regional and global impacts. The first significant impact is on food security, particularly the global rice supply. The YRB is where around two-thirds of China’s rice is produced. The YRB drought combined with India’s rice export curb and Thailand and Vietnam’s joint attempts to raise the rice export price could quickly worsen the global rice supply.
The second major impact is on energy security. The resulting power shortage from the drought has also already led to rising consumption of coal in China and elsewhere.
The third significant impact relates to water security. The YRB’s water shortage may force Beijing to adopt more ambitious proposal versions as the SNWTP’s Western Route. Rather than linking the upstream of the Yangtze River to the Yellow River, these proposals suggest transferring water from the upstream of transboundary and transnational rivers (such as the Brahmaputra, Mekong, and Salween) from Tibet to northwest China. As these proposals have long worried the downstream countries, this approach to water management and water security in China could easily exacerbate growing tensions between the downstream region and China.