Explained | China’s record heatwave, drought and the fallout

China’s longest sustained heatwave and drought has disrupted water supply and caused a power crunch leading to factory shutdowns

China’s longest sustained heatwave and drought has disrupted water supply and caused a power crunch leading to factory shutdowns

The story so far: China, the world’s second-largest economy, is now 74 days into its longest and most intense heatwave in more than 60 years, with about 4.5 million sq. km or nearly half of its total land area under the grips of extremely high temperatures, according to the World Meteorological Organisation. This is compounded by a severe drought that has shrunk several rivers including Asia’s longest and the world’s third largest river, the Yangtze, leading to the closing of shipment ways in sizable tranches of the crucial trade waterway.

On Tuesday, August 23, four government departments issued a joint warning that China’s autumn harvest, which constitutes 75 per cent of the country’s annual grain produce, was under “severe threat” from the heatwave and drought.

While high temperatures continue, the National Meteorological Center put out on its social media channel that the heat was expected to fall in parts of central China by Wednesday, and in Sichuan and Chongqing from August 29. 

When did it all start and how bad is the situation?

The scathing regional heatwave which started on June 13 has now spread across Sichuan in the South and Henan in the central region to the Jiangsu province on the East Coast. More than 200 national weather observatories have registered record high temperatures, with the heat having touched 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) in the Beibei district in Southwest China’s Chongqing last week. The heatwave has affected more than 900 million of China’s 1.4 billion population and led to a power crunch as people use more air conditioning to battle the heat.

China’s National Meteorological Centre for the twelfth consecutive day on August 23 issued a red alert warning- the highest in the three-tier heat warning system where red is followed by orange and yellow- for the southern part of the country. This was also the 34th day in a row for high-temperature warnings by the national observatory.

In the grips of drought

The heatwave has brought along a record drought since July 1, which has affected half of China’s total landmass, according to a chart issued by the National Climate Centre on August 24. The most damaging effect of the drought has been felt in the Yangtze River Basin, which stretches from coastal Shanghai to Sichuan in the southwest and hosts a population of 370 million. Notably, the drought has also reached the generally frigid Tibetan plateau region.

The Yangtze river, supplying drinking water to more than 400 million people and crucial to China’s economy, is witnessing water flows more than 50 per cent below its average over the last five years, The Guardian reported. It added that the drought has affected more than 2.4 million people as well as 2.2 million hectares of agricultural land.

According to the South China Morning Post, water levels in Its largest freshwater lake, the Poyang lake, have fallen by 75 per cent the lowest since 1961 when the meteorological records began. This has impacted drinking water supplies for nearby communities. China’s Xinhua news agency released an image of how the low water flow exposed the dried branch-like pattern of channels on the lake bed, which the Chinese media dubbed the ‘Earth tree’, warning of the future impacts of climate change.

In this aerial photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, water flows through chanels in the lake bed of Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake, in eastern China’s Jiangxi Province, Monday, Aug. 22, 2022. With China’s biggest freshwater lake reduced to just 25% of its usual size by drought, work crews are digging trenches to keep water flowing to irrigate crops.
| Photo Credit: AP

In the megacity of Chongqing, home to over 30 million people, as many as 66 rivers spread across 34 counties have dried up, according to state-owned broadcaster CCTV. The broadcaster added that the city has 60 per cent less rainfall than the seasonal norm. The extent of Yangtze’s shrinking was seen in Chongqing when receding water revealed a submerged island and on it, a trio of 600-year-old Buddhist statues, as per a Xinhua report.

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, China, August 20, 2022.  REUTERS/Thomas Peter     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

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, China, August 20, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
| Photo Credit: THOMAS PETER

Forest fires in some districts and flash floods in others have exacerbated the situation. On August 22, China’s departments of Emergency Management, weather, and the State Forestry and Grassland Administration, jointly issued the first red colour warning of high forest fire danger this year. Sichuan and Chongqing battled forest fires on Tuesday and the latter was forced to evacuate 1,500 people because of the fire risk. Both the areas, which have received 80 per cent less than normal rainfall, have dealt with 19 wildfires since August 14, Reuters said, quoting Chinese financial news service Caixin. According to the government, Jiangxi, Hunan, and Guizhou provinces were also on high alert for forest and grassland fires.

How has the power supply suffered?

The sustained heatwave has led to a spike in air conditioning demands, mounting pressure on power companies. Provincial governments have resorted to thousands of factory closures, turning off air conditioning in malls and government offices, dimming the lights on subways and advertisement hoardings, and on Shanghai’s iconic cityscape.

In parts of Sichuan province and Chongqing, locals seeking cooler temperatures have resorted to sleeping in car parks and subway stations due to daily power cuts.

Reuters quoted government data to state that high temperatures in July alone caused direct economic losses of 2.73 billion yuan or $400 million affecting 5.5 million people.

The drought in the Yangtze basin, meanwhile, has substantially impacted hydropower generation, which accounted for 18 per cent of China’s power generation in 2020, according to Bloomberg.

The worst affected is the Sichuan province, which hosts a population of 83.75 million and depends on hydropower for 80 per cent of its power supply. With large dams facing a lack of water, Sichuan’s hydropower generation capacity has fallen by over 50 per cent, as per the State’s power grid office. Meanwhile, due to the unprecedented heat, power demands in Sichuan have risen by 25 per cent this summer according to regional media.

Residents have faced power blackouts and all factories in Sichuan were ordered to shut down for six days, including those of Tesla, Toyota, and Foxconn. The plunging hydropower generation has also impacted other areas like Chongqing and the Hubei province. According to the South China Morning Post, the central government has allocated $1.7 million in assistance to Chongqing, including 23 power-generating units.

The hydropower crunch is leading to ramped-up generation of coal power and according to experts, an opportunity for coal power companies to lobby for use of coal in future extreme weather situations. China’s Vice-Premier Han Zheng said last week that the government will take measures to enhance supply from coal plants to ease difficulties. Case in point, the 67 coal plants in Sichuan were firing all cylinders over the weekend and plants in Anhui province raised output by 12 per cent as against usual years.

Besides power, agricultural cultivation has also come under strain. Multiple government departments said this week that the country’s autumn harvest was under “severe threat”, adding that local authorities should take all possible measures to use “every unit of water” carefully and employ water optimisation methods such as staggering the rotation of irrigation and using cloud seeding rockets to produce artificial rainfall. This time of the year is important for water-intensive crops such as rice and soybean.

Meanwhile, shipping routes shutting down in the Yangtze could threaten supply chains and impact trade activity till water levels come back to normal.

What is the reason behind the extreme weather events?

The Chinese government in the first week of August released its annual climate assessment, which said that average ground temperatures in the past 70 years rose more quickly than the rest of the world and categorised the country as “a sensitive region in global climate change.” It said that regional average temperatures in China in the future will also rise more quickly than in the rest of the world. Studies also showed that compound heatwaves or heat extremes both in daytime and nighttime drastically spiked in China between 1961 and 2017.

Chinese authorities have also attributed the current heatwave and drought to climate change, pointing out similar heatwave conditions in Europe, the United States and other parts of the world.

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Large swathes of Europe, the U.K. and the U.S. have been sweltering under extreme heat wave conditions since July. Europe, reeling under what has been described as a “heat apocalypse”, faced wildfires, drought, and hundreds of heat-related deaths, ringing alarm bells about a looming climate emergency. Parts of France, Spain and Portugal recorded temperatures between 42 and 46 degrees.

Climate change is a matter of great concern when it comes to China, which relies on coal for 60 per cent of its power generation and is the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gases. While it has committed to reaching its carbon emission peak before 2030 and becoming “carbon neutral” by 2060, it has turned to coal during the recent global energy crisis.

Scientists are near-unanimous that the heat waves are a result of climate change caused by human activity. A 2022 study said that a heatwave previously having a one in 10 chance of occurring is now nearly three times as likely. The United Nations said in July that the negative trend of heatwaves will continue well into the 2060s despite climate mitigation efforts. The UN’s climate report last year said that extreme heatwaves earlier expected once every 50 years were now expected to happen almost every six years, if the planet warms at 1.5 degrees Celsius. If it warms at 4 degrees Celsius, such heatwaves could even occur annually.

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