SHANGHAI — It is an annual tradition for Chinese to race dragon boats at the end of each spring, but this year, the tradition has run aground. Many streams and lakes along the Yangtze River have almost dried up.
The world’s third-largest river — stretching from the Himalayas thousands of miles to the east meeting the sea — has been experiencing its worst drought in decades. The drought is withering farmers’ wallets, threatening a Chinese species even rarer than the panda and raising questions about a clean energy source that China hopes to bank its energy future on.
“Because of the drought, what used to be a lake is now dry land,” said Liu Jinghua, a woman living by China’s second-largest freshwater lake — Dongting — which has lost two-thirds of its water over the past few months.
“I have never seen such a terrible drought in my life,” said the 56-year-old. Neither have millions of others who live along the Yangtze River downstream, which is traditionally blessed with water but is now suffering a shortage.
Chinese officials say extreme weather caused by climate change is to blame. This year, rainfall levels along the river have declined by up to 50 percent compared with previous years. Meanwhile, the river has been losing its ability to provide relief when rainfall is low since it has fallen victim to man-made development.
The once robust natural water reservoir network of the Yangtze River was ruined as a result of converting connected lakes into farmland in recent decades, said Wang Limin, deputy director at World Wide Fund for Nature. In addition, a booming sand mining business caused water leakage into the underground.
“Imagine the Yangtze River network as a water tank,” explained Wang. “As the tank is being downsized and getting holes on its bottom, it cannot possibly store and provide sufficient water once needed.”
Shutting off power, losing drinking water
To cope with the drought, Beijing ordered the Three Gorges Dam — the world’s largest hydroelectric plant, built at the upstream Yangtze River — to sacrifice its power generation for irrigation and drinking water.
Over the last three weeks, every minute, some 600,000 cubic meters of water — equivalent to the volume of seven Olympic-size swimming pools — was released from the dam to the drought-stricken areas. But this is viewed as a late gift.
“The dam operators lack experience in managing the water flow,” said Yang Fuqiang, a senior adviser on climate and energy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They waited for too long until the drought impact reached extremes. And when they finally released water, the natural connection between the river and surrounding lakes was already broken, making it difficult to refill the lakes.”
Water levels in many lakes, streams and reservoirs along the Yangtze River were reported to be close to historic lows, until last week saw heavy rains. In part of the drought-hit regions, the sudden water increase on sun-baked soils caused floods that blocked roads, destroyed houses and displaced families. However, in other parts, some 2 million people are still lacking drinking water.
Meanwhile, the drought is intensifying China’s energy problems by hitting China’s hydroelectric generation hub, which makes up more than 40 percent of the country’s total hydropower capacity.
The drought is also stinging a major aquafarming belt that produces half of China’s freshwater fish, crabs and other aquatic products, leaving the industry with at least $1 billion of economic loss.
And although the drought is not expected to threaten the nation’s food supplies, thanks to crops stocks from previous years, it is wreaking havoc on the livelihoods of Chinese farmers.
Farmers fight for access to water
For Li Huaming, a rice grower in central China, water isn’t free this year. Li used to collect rain for irrigation, but now he has to pump water from the retreating Yangtze River. Despite 12 hours of hard work each day, the 65-year-old said he still worries whether he will break even.
“This year, irrigating totally depends on transferring water from the Yangtze. This is expensive and is driving my costs very high,” said Li, while sighing.
Several hundred miles away from Li’s rice fields, at a nature reserve called the Swan Island, the yearning for water is not only costly, but also violent. Last month, farmers who were angry about restrictions to access a stream inside the nature reserve broke into the reserve office and injured seven workers there.
“They want water for agriculture from an area which is home to the freshwater finless porpoise,” explained Tao Le, the nature reserve director, referring to a type of dolphin-like marine mammal that is said by biologists to be as smart as a 3-year-old child and to only exist along the Yangtze River.
Already, the drought has forced the endangered porpoise to live on less food and swim in a more polluted stream due to shrinking water flow. Worse yet, the recent fight ended up with the porpoise losing water to humans. Currently, for every liter of water flowing into its habitat, 2 liters is taken out for drinking and irrigation.
“The porpoise community usually delivers two to three babies this time of the year. But with water level falling by the day, there is no doubt that there will be losses,” said Tao. “The stream level already dropped to a point which poses a death threat to the 40 porpoises living in the reserve.” It is believed that no more than 1,200 of such creatures live on the planet.
Parched fish, absent birds
Similar tragedies are also reported in other reserves. Honghu Lake, which was recognized by international organizations as the world’s best protected lake in 2006, parched to become a death valley covered with scorched fish. Wild lotus no longer blooms there, and hundreds of thousands of migrant birds have skipped their once-favored summer stop.
“Honghu doesn’t look like a lake anymore. You see bare soil cracked everywhere,” said Zeng Xiaodong, director of the Honghu Wetland Nature Reserve Authority. “While the wetland flora is dying, invading species began taking over and are destroying the fragile ecosystem.”
“This is a shock for us. Nobody ever thought of experiencing a drought in this water-abundant area,” said Zeng, adding that recovering from this nightmare could take as long as 10 years.
In yet another drought-hit lake, called Poyang, the local government is pushing to build a dam to lock in water as protection against future droughts. While the officials call such a move a key to saving the environment, environmentalists view it as another blow to Mother Earth.
“The presence of the Three Gorges Dam already changed the balance between the river and the lake, negatively impacting the ecosystem of Poyang,” said Ma Jun, an environmental activist and author of the book “China’s Water Crisis.” “We shouldn’t try to offset this environmental damage by building another dam that will for sure do more harm than good for nature.”
Besides the debate on the planned dam in Poyang Lake, there is also a call for rethinking the nation’s ambition to tap into its water resources. China, which leads the world in hydroelectric power production, aims to add another 120 gigawatts into its hydropower capacity by 2015.
“China’s hydropower development goal is frightening. We believe the Yangtze River has already been overdeveloped and if these new dam plans materialize, it would cause an irreversible damage to the ecosystem and worsen the water supplies,” warned Ma.
But Beijing is unlikely to give up its set plan, given the fact that construction of several large-scale dams is already under way, according to Yang from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
However, Yang continued, one thing did change because of the drought: “Dam operators will no longer be allowed to only consider their hydroelectric generation. Instead, all the various needs along the river will have to be taken into account while managing the water flow.”
This shift is reflected in a newly issued government statement. Last month, amid doubts that the cause of the drought is rooted in the Three Gorges Dam, Beijing for the first time admitted its negative impact, urging the dam team to prioritize the water needs of people and ecosystems along the river.