How China’s extreme summer weather affects its safety – The Diplomat


This summer has been the driest and hottest in China since consistent record keeping began in 1961. The severe heat wave has led to and continues to worsen a drought.

Even as the heat wave subsides, water levels continue to drop in China’s largest 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 more than 900 million people in more than 17 provinces and around 2.2 million hectares of farmland in China.

Along with a significant reduction in hydropower generation and the resulting power shortages, raising questions about the country’s energy security, it has also raised concerns about China’s water and food security.

Impacts on food security

There have already been growing concerns about China’s food security situation amid an unprecedented global food crisis and a complex geopolitical environment. China’s top leaders have repeatedly stressed the strategic importance of safeguarding the country’s food security in recent months. After publicly linking food security to China’s national security, President Xi Jinping also called for more efforts to safeguard grain security and protect farmland from rising domestic production.

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Responsible for nearly 50% of China’s grain production, the YRB plays a vital role in the country’s food security. There are already huge concerns about the impact of the drought on the fall grain harvest in China. As Liu Weiping, China’s vice minister of water resources, recently pointed out, China’s autumn harvests are at a “critical period.”

A bigger concern, however, is China’s rice supply. Since rice is the most widely consumed staple food in the country, especially in southern China, safeguarding China’s rice supply has always been a matter of utmost importance in this regarding food security. This is precisely why Xi has consistently used the phrase “rice bowl” in his speeches to illustrate how vital food security is for China.

Domestically, China has faced a rice glut in recent years. In 2020, China even became a net exporter of rice, according to official statistics. However, China’s rice supply faces a structural imbalance. Japonica and Indica rice are the two main types of rice 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 displacement of Chinese grain production in recent decades, more and more rice (mainly Japonica rice) is produced in northern China.

In contrast, Indica rice production in southern China is declining. On the demand side, despite the increasing consumption of Japonica rice in southern China, many still prefer Indica rice to Japonica rice. As a result, China has imported millions of tons of Indica rice from the international market, especially from Southeast Asia. The ongoing drought in the YRB, where about two-thirds of China’s rice (mostly Indica rice) is produced, is likely to exacerbate structural imbalances in China’s rice supply.

Casting shadows over China’s clean energy transition

After Xi’s bold pledge that China would peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, reducing carbon emissions and transitioning to clean energy are emerging as priorities central policies in the 14th five-year plan. As China moves away from coal, which provides almost 70% of its energy consumption, clean energy alternatives like hydroelectricity are expected to grow in importance.

Rich in water resources and hydroelectric potential, the YRB is essential to the adjustment of China’s energy structure. Among the YRB provinces, Sichuan stands out as the hydropower center of China. Estimates suggest that 80% of the province’s energy comes from hydroelectric dams. Much of the province’s hydropower is exported to other provinces (such as the industrial provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu). Since the drought dried up up to 50% of Sichuan’s reservoirs, it had a domino effect on the province’s hydropower generation and exports.

In some areas, such as Sichuan Province and Chongqing, power shortages and rationing have forced many cities to seek power from other parts of the country. To help ease the pressure, the State Grid Corporation of China, the country’s main power utility, said it would try to send power to Sichuan. Factories in Sichuan have also been forced to shut down or scale back to save electricity for residential use. Similarly, offices and shopping malls had to turn off air conditioning and lights, according to various Chinese media.

Given reduced water levels in reservoirs in Sichuan and low levels of rainfall, the drought and its impacts are expected to be prolonged. The looming specter of further electricity shortages raises questions about the reliability of renewable energy sources, especially those that rely on water. So far, Beijing has responded to the electricity shortage by increasing its reliance on coal. China’s National Energy Administration recently said coal production increased 19.4 percent year-on-year from Aug. 1 to Aug. 17, mostly to supply fuel for coal-fired power plants.

New resistances towards the western way of the south-north water transfer?

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The drought further raises questions about China’s quest for water security. The unequal spatial and temporal distribution of water in the country is well established: the north suffers from severe water shortages, while the south is prone to severe flooding. To overcome the challenges posed by this spatial distribution and uneven rainfall, the Chinese government has proposed the South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP). The SNWTP diverts water from southern China to northern China along the eastern, central, 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 east and middle roads have been built, the west road has yet to be built.

The official route plans to connect the Yangtze and the Yellow River through the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. According to this plan, an annual diversion of 17 billion cubic meters of water would flow from the upper 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 in the arid provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi and Shanxi. This transfer is massive but notably much smaller than two alternative water transfer schemes targeting Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau water.

In 2006, the Western Route Official Plan was suspended due to criticism from water experts of the socio-economic consequences of the plan. Some southern provinces, such as Sichuan, have also strongly opposed the western route, as any diversion of water from these provinces threatens their own water supplies and local hydropower sectors.

As droughts have become common in parts of these provinces, the Sichuan government has openly supported local scientists by expressing their concerns and strong objections to the Western Route, which has sparked renewed interest. interest from China’s top leaders. For opponents of the SNWTP, the Western Route is to save the Yellow River by destroying the Yangtze River. Against this backdrop, the current drought, which has severely affected water and power supply in China’s southern provinces, is likely to lead to greater resistance to central government attempts to revive the Western Route.

Look forward

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 increasingly at risk from extreme weather events, and that urgent actions are needed to improve coping mechanisms. ‘adaptation.

As the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, producer and importer of food, and also home to the headwaters of most major rivers in Asia, the current drought in China is expected to have long-term regional and global impacts. . The first significant impact concerns food security, in particular the global supply of rice. The YRB is where about two-thirds of China’s rice is produced. The YRB drought combined with curbing rice exports from India and joint attempts by Thailand and Vietnam to raise the export price of rice could quickly worsen global rice supply.

The second major impact concerns energy security. The electricity shortage resulting from the drought has also already led to an increase in coal consumption in China and elsewhere.

The third significant impact relates to water security. The YRB’s water shortage could force Beijing to adopt more ambitious versions of the proposal as the SNWTP’s western route. Rather than connecting the upper Yangtze River to the Yellow River, these proposals suggest transferring water from the upper reaches of transboundary and transnational rivers (such as the Brahmaputra, Mekong, and Salween) from Tibet to the northwest. from China. As these proposals have long worried downstream countries, this approach to water management and water security in China could easily exacerbate growing tensions between the downstream region and China.

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