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Special Report


Unprecedented droughts around the Northern Hemisphere have prompted new thinking about China’s strategies to safeguard food and energy security

By Yu Xiaodong , Huo Siyi , Yu Yuan Updated Nov.1

A farmer waters his withered chili pepper plants, Chongqing, August 20, 2022

For much of the summer, unprecedented droughts swept across the Northern Hemisphere, threatening crop production, disrupting transportation and causing wildfires and power shortages. 

This summer’s drought is not a one-time challenge. “The past seven years were the warmest on record, ” said the World Meteorological Organization in its report United in Science released on September 13. It estimated that “There is a 48 percent chance that, during at least one year in the next five years, the annual mean temperature will temporarily be 1.5 C higher than [the] 1850-1900 average. ” 

Given this, China needs to get better prepared to safeguard its food security and improve its power supply structure, as the rest of the world must also do.

State of Alert
In Europe, two-thirds of the continent was in a state of alert or warning as a persistent drought, which some say was the worst in at least 500 years ravaged the continent. According to a report by the Guardian, there have been four times as many wildfires across the European Union as the historical average, and an area equivalent to one-fifth of Belgium had been ravaged by flames as of mid-August in countries including Spain, France and Portugal. Many of the continent’s once mighty rivers, including the Loire, Danube, Rhine and the Po, were reduced to trickles. 

In the US, about 50 percent of the country, especially the Western US, was experiencing drought as of early August. Images released by NASA show that Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, is on the verge of completely drying up following a 22-year downward trend. The Colorado River system is at 34 percent of peak capacity this year, down from 40 percent last year. 

In the Horn of Africa, its worst drought in more than 40 years has caused 18 million people to face severe hunger in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 

In China, record-breaking heat waves led to the worst drought the country has seen since it started recording meteorological observations in 1961, which hovered over the entire Yangtze River Basin, a vast area stretching from coastal Shanghai to Sichuan Province in China’s southwest, for almost three months, causing unprecedented drought in a vast area with rainfall at less than 50 percent of the usual summer average.

Long-term Pattern
Zheng Fei, a research fellow with the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), told NewsChina that under La Ni Nina, an atmospheric and oceanic phenomenon, the western Pacific subtropical high, which channels moisture from the tropics to East Asia in the summer, strengthened and moved further north and west than in past years. This meant it was stationary over the Yangtze River Basin for an extended period this year, leading to persistent heat waves and droughts. Usually, the western Pacific subtropical high causes a rain belt that moves north in May from southern China, before withdrawing in August, providing the region’s summer monsoon precipitation. 

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), this La Ni Nina, which started in September 2020, could last until the end of the year. “La Ni Nina conditions in the tropical Pacific have strengthened as trade winds intensified during mid-July to mid-August 2022, affecting temperature and precipitation patterns and exacerbating drought and flooding in different parts of the world,” the WMO said in its El Ni Nino/ La Ni Nina Update released on August 31. 

The WMO added that like all climate events, La Ni Nino takes place “in the context of human-induced climate change, which is increasing global temperatures, exacerbating extreme weather and climate, and impacting seasonal rainfall and temperature patterns.” 

Zhang Lixia, an associate research fellow with the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, CAS told NewsChina that under the impact of global warming, rainfall will become more uneven with more violent transitions between droughts and floods. She added that projections using climate models show that the frequency of seasonal droughts in China will increase by 17 percent if the average global temperature increases by 1.5 C, and will increase by 18 percent and 26 percent if temperatures rise by 2 and 3 C. 

According to Lü Juan, director of the Research Center on Flood and Drought Disaster Reduction of the Ministry of Water Resources, it is clear that droughts are becoming more frequent and more severe, especially in southern China where water resources are usually more abundant than in northern regions. 

In the past two decades, the Yangtze River Basin has already experienced several droughts, though at smaller scales. Further south, in the autumn of 2020 the Pearl River Basin was also struck by a persistent drought that lasted for more than a year until the end of 2021. The unprecedented drought, the worst in more than 60 years, forced authorities to impose water rationing in the subtropical region previously known as one of China’s most water-rich regions. 

Lü warned that as global warming exacerbates, droughts will no longer be rare events in southern China, and authorities need to brace themselves for more droughts in the future.

To alleviate power shortages, Chongqing switched off its night-time waterfront illuminations, as residents walk along the dry river bed, August 21, 2022

An ancient packhorse bridge was revealed after the water level in Baitings Reservoir, in Yorkshire, UK, declined due to drought, August 12, 2022

Crop Failure
The top issue during the devastating drought has been China’s food security. Given its enormous population, China has long adopted a policy of self-reliance. According to the 2019 white paper on food security issued by China’s State Council, China is self-sufficient for 95 percent of its rice, wheat and corn needs,which allowed the country to largely remain unscathed as the Russia- Ukraine war pushed up food prices around the globe. 

But if droughts become more frequent along its major rivers, China’s ability to feed its population will be challenged. Rice and wheat are the two staple foods for Chinese dining tables. Rice is mainly grown in southern China, including the Yangtze basin, as well as the northeast of the country. Several major rice-growing areas along the Yangtze River, including Sichuan, Chongqing, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi and Anhui, suffered severe drought this summer. 

On August 23, four government departments issued an urgent joint emergency notice, warning that the autumn harvest was under “severe threat,” urging local authorities to employ every tool at their disposal to safeguard it, including staggered irrigation, diversion of new water sources and cloud seeding. Central authorities ordered dozens of large reservoirs to release water downstream to ensure the availability of irrigation water. 

The autumn harvest accounts for 75 percent of China’s grain output, and is essential for China to meet its annual target of harvesting 650 billion tons of grain. A month before the autumn harvest, the extent of the drought’s damage to crops remained unclear. In Duchang, Jiangxi Province, a county on the banks of Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake, the drought has caused crop failure on more than 30,000 mu (2,000 hectares), which accounts for about 10 percent of all farmland in the county. 

Wang Jingchen, an agricultural official from Hunan Province in Central China, told NewsChina that the hardest hit agricultural areas are those that completely depend on natural precipitation, especially in hilly terrain. So far, only 54 percent of China’s total farmland has access to irrigation. 

In Duchang, local authorities told NewsChina they have enough water reserves to provide irrigation to 70-80 percent of the farmland until early September. “If the rain doesn’t come by then, there’s nothing else we can do,” said agriculture official Zhou Xiaohua. 

Despite the seemingly dire situation, China’s overall food security is under control, as the proportion of farmland hit by the drought is still relatively small and can be offset by increased crop yields because of rich rainfall elsewhere in China, said Lin Guofa, a senior analyst at consultancy firm Bric Agriculture Group. 

Parts of dry northern China, which expect rain in the summer, saw levels far exceeding the average. The three provinces in northeastern China, Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang saw rainfall of around 40 percent above average, leading to a projection of a better-than-usual autumn harvest. In 2021, grain harvest in the three provinces accounted for 26.8 percent of the national total. 

But for many experts, the drought should alert for authorities to become more prepared as droughts will become more frequent. 

Li Guoxiang, a research fellow with the Rural Development Institute with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told NewsChina that a major problem revealed by the Yangtze drought is that since the region usually has abundant surface water, there is a lack of infrastructure such as motor-pumped wells to provide alternative water sources. The drought should be a wake-up call to ensure local authorities have contingency plans, Li said. 

According to Lü Juan, China should establish a robust early warning and response system for drought. In April, the Ministry of Water Resources released a notice on working procedures for an emergency response system against floods and droughts, which Lü said outlined separate and specific criteria for an emergency response to droughts for the first time. 

Lü said the Ministry of Water Resources has established a national drought monitoring and early warning platform, which is expected to be launched in March 2023. 

A national response plan is under consideration, Lü told NewsChina. Such a plan is centered on setting up a “drought limit” line for major reservoirs. When water levels drop under the drought limit lines, a response plan would be triggered. But the system needs to take into consideration a variety of factors and involves water distribution and rationing among different stakeholders for industrial, agricultural, ecological and residential uses. It will be a complex process that takes a long time to take shape, Lü said.

A resident looks at the fully exposed pier of Jialing River Bridge in Chongqing, while standing on the dried-up bed of the river, August 21, 2022

The arctic sea ice pack near the Svalbard Islands in Norway, July 17, 2022. Satellite data show that around 1.5 million square kilometers of sea ice in the Arctic regions has melted since 1970

Renewable vs Reliable
Another issue emerging from the devastating effect of the drought is the reliability of renewable energy, especially hydropower, as the pillar for China’s future energy system. 

During the recent drought, one of the hardest hit provinces was Sichuan in the upper Yangtze. Home to 83.7 million people, Sichuan is known for its abundant hydropower resources, and it is the top hydropower producer in China. 

In 2021, hydropower stations in Sichuan generated 353.1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, accounting for 81.6 percent of the province’s total electricity output and about 30 percent of all hydroelectric power generated in the country. By comparison, the overall percentage of hydropower in China’s electricity generation mix is only 15 percent. Sichuan also exported about 101 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity or 24.3 percent of its total electricity output to other provinces in 2021.  

But this summer, as rainfall dropped to half the summer average, it cut hydropower output by half and pushed up power consumption by 25 percent. The province was forced to impose a power rationing plan on August 15, which halted production in all energy-intensive industrial users for 10 days. 

On August 22, China’s National Energy Administration announced it had mobilized neighboring regions to support Sichuan by transmitting 132 million kilowatt-hours of electricity to the province. 

As the drought hit the entire Yangtze River Basin, Sichuan was not the only province that imposed power rationing. Similar plans were imposed in neighboring Chongqing, and the manufacturing centers of Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces in the lower reaches, disrupting China’s supply chains. 

“This is unprecedented,” said Professor Yuan Jianhai from North China Electric Power University. Yuan told NewsChina that as the share of clean energy in China’s energy system gradually increases, it could undermine the stability of the energy system, which can be further exacerbated by the ever-increasing frequency of natural disasters.
China has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, with 70 percent of its energy coming from renewable sources. Yuan said that such an energy structure would be subject to climate fluctuations, and the energy crisis Sichuan experienced this summer could be the future for China. 

While heat waves and droughts can substantially reduce hydropower production, high temperatures also pose threats to solar power generation. High temperatures not only reduce the efficiency of solar panels but can cause hardware failures in solar power systems. 

Many in China are now calling for a rethink of China’s long-term energy strategy. For some, China should stop phasing out coal power plants, if not build new ones. Fossil fuel use is a prime driver of global heating. 

For Yuan, one potential solution is to increase China’s nuclear power capacity. China currently has 53 nuclear power plants with a total generating capacity of about 55 gigawatts. In 2021, China’s nuclear power plants generated 207 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, accounting for 5 percent of all electricity generated in the country. 

According to Yuan, China’s coastal areas have the potential to support 230 gigawatts of nuclear power capacity, and if nuclear power plants are built inland, an additional 250 gigawatts of energy capacity can be created. Combined, nuclear power could generate 1.7 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually by 2060, which would account for 10 percent of China’s energy system. But Yuan acknowledged that there are still many controversies surrounding the expansion of nuclear power. 

According to Lin Boqiang, dean of Xiamen University’s China Institute for Studies in Energy Policy, China needs to find a balance between ensuring energy security and achieving decarbonization goals, and the key is to increase investment in energy storage and smart power grid management. But Lin warned that it means that energy will inevitably become more expensive. 

For Tu Jianjun, managing director of Agora Energy Transition China and an adjunct professor at the School of Environment of Beijing Normal University, a major challenge is that the more the world cannot curb its carbon consumption, the more extreme weather it will face, and the harder it will be to establish an energy system based on renewable energy sources. 

“The only choice we have is to improve the resilience of the power system,” Tu said.