Yangtze River drought linked to government actions, not just lack of rain: expert

Germany-based water conservation expert Wang Weiluo says top-down government policies wreck the local ecosystem.
By Mai Xiaotian for RFA Mandarin
2022.09.05
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Yangtze River drought linked to government actions, not just lack of rain: expert People walk across a dried-up section of Poyang Lake that is facing low water levels due to a regional drought in Lushan, Jiangxi province, August 24, 2022.
Reuters
Photos of people taking a stroll on what was once the bed of the mighty Yangtze River near Chongqing and satellite images showing the shrinkage of China's Dongting Lake have recently been making headlines around the world, as the region sees its worst drought since the 1960s.

While China's Meteorological Bureau lifted a 41-day-long extreme temperature warning on Aug. 30, the region has likely seen far too little rainfall in recent months to make any kind of natural recovery soon.

Officials say that average precipitation in the Yangtze basin was just 160.3 mm (6.3 inches) in July, 50.4 percent lower than during the same period last year.

Water levels on the Yangtze, and in Dongting and Poyang Lakes, are currently between five and eight meters (16 and 26 feet) lower than is normal for the time of year, but officials say that not enough rain is forecast to fill them up again.

According to meteorologists, the wave of abnormally high temperature and drought is linked to a high-pressure zone sweeping across most of Asia from the Western Pacific.

Wang Weiluo, a water conservation expert living in Germany, said that, where China's drought is concerned, there are also multiple human factors involved.

"There are 52,000 reservoirs and dams built along the Yangtze River, with a water storage capacity of nearly 400 billion cubic meters," Wang told RFA.

"In theory, these reservoirs can store almost half of the water in the Yangtze River, so water levels in the various rivers in the Yangtze River basin are regulated by these reservoirs," he said.

"There are two reasons for the low water levels: one is the lack of natural precipitation; and the other is the result of artificial regulation."

According to Wang, there has been a marked official reluctance to release water from reservoirs since 89 officials and engineers were punished for doing so and causing the disastrous Zhengzhou floods of 2021.

In early May, the National Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters issued a directive requiring governments and reservoir management units across the country to ensure that water levels in reservoirs were high enough to prevent flooding ahead of the rainy season.

As a result, some 22.15 billion cubic meters of water is currently being stored in reservoirs, at a time of disastrously low precipitation, Wang said.

"This is one of the main reasons for the reduction of water levels in the Yangtze River this year," Wang said.

"This order, that was executed in the style of a planned, socialist economy was a decision-making error that has been imposed across the whole country," he said, adding that natural water flows have already been constricted by all the dams and reservoirs.

A once submerged Buddhist statue sits on top of Foyeliang island reef in the Yangtze River, which appeared after water levels fell due to a regional drought in Chongqing, Aug. 20, 2022.
A once submerged Buddhist statue sits on top of Foyeliang island reef in the Yangtze River, which appeared after water levels fell due to a regional drought in Chongqing, Aug. 20, 2022.
Three Gorges Dam


Zhou Jianjun, a professor of water conservancy at Tsinghua University, has found that average annual water flow at Yichang on the Yangtze river stood at 450 billion cubic meters before the massive Three Gorges Dam was built.

By 2016, this had dwindled to just 400 billion cubic meters, 11 percent less than in its previous state.

To make matters worse, rainfall has a tendency to reduce in areas around reservoirs, once rivers are overdeveloped, Wang said.

"This has already happened in past experience, and both Xin'anjiang Reservoir and Danjiangkou Reservoir have reached such a conclusion," Wang said, adding that the Three Gorges Dam appears to be undergoing a similar phenomenon, while rainfall in northern China, the Hexi Corridor and the Qingling mountains has increased.

But Chinese scientists are unlikely to speak out openly about these phenomena, for fear of political retaliation, and in the absence of research funding for such topics that make the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) look bad.

Since taking power in 1949, the CCP has embarked on a massive spree of dam-building, resulting in nearly 100,000 new dams and reservoirs, following the former Soviet Union's playbook, Wang said.

But in the Soviet Union, reservoirs were used to ease droughts, while the entire dam-building model began to be rejected by the 1960s and 1970s by Soviet-era planners, because the ecological crises they create far outweighed the benefits.

The U.S. has also started demolishing its aging dams, Wang said, adding that half of the world's reservoirs are now on Chinese soil.

A general view shows the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in Yichang, Hubei province. Credit: Reuters
A general view shows the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in Yichang, Hubei province. Credit: Reuters
Lack of sediment


Meanwhile, low water levels in Dongting and Poyang Lakes this year are closely linked to increasing reclamation of farmland from the lakes, Wang said.

Part of the issue with dams is that they prevent natural sediment from flowing along with rivers, and emit clear water.

"Clear water is like a naughty child with huge strength," Wang said. "The random digging of river channels has deepened the main channel of the Yangtze River in various sections, especially at the mouths of the Poyang and Dongting Lakes."

"When water levels in the Yangtze River are low, then water from the lake flows outside [into the river], so water levels dropped very quickly," he said.

There is a knock-on effect downstream, too.

Shanghai is now suffering from retreating coastlines due to a lack of sediment at the delta end of the Yangtze, bringing salt tides further up the estuary than before.

Yet the Chinese government continues to take risks and gamble with natural ecosystems, transferring water between rivers and reservoirs as part of the South-to-North water diversion project first conceived by late supreme leader Mao Zedong, Wang said.

In July this year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced that the Yangtze River white sturgeon had been officially declared extinct.

"This is the third species of fish in the Yangtze River that has gone extinct," Wang said. "The first was the Baiji dolphin, the second was the Yangtze shad, and the third is the white sturgeon."

"If even fish can't live in the river, what will happen to people?" he said.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
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