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Tapped for Solutions

Water-abundant Sichuan Province is seeing persistent drought in the south, with authorities rushing to complete new diversion projects. Some experts warn it might not be enough to support the region’s fast economic development

By Wang Yan , Han Yuan Updated Oct.1

Hulukou Reservoir in Weiyuan County (Screenshot from video produced by Weiyuan Lingjuli)

The white dragon has left the dragon king’s palace!” tourists at Bailong Lake exclaimed in late May, referring to an emerged rock that resembles a dragon in the middle of the shallow lake. Bailong, or White Dragon Lake, is located in Hulukou Reservoir in Weiyuan County, Neijiang City in southern Sichuan Province. After a prolonged drought, water levels were so low, it exposed the cracked lake bed.  

On May 31, water authorities in Weiyuan County issued a notice that supply from Changhu Reservoir would be limited due to the drought. “Due to the continuous drought and little rain, Changhu Reservoir, the only drinking water source in the county, has encountered severe water shortages. The present total storage capacity is only about 20 million cubic meters, deducting the minimum reserve storage capacity of 8 million cubic meters, the rest can only last for about 60 days,” said Weiyuan Qingxi Water Company, the county’s sole water provider.  

In Zigong, a few dozen kilometers south of Weiyuan, Fushun County Water Bureau implored the public to reduce water use, reminding locals to “turn off the faucet while not using it.” The issued notice blamed extreme dry weather which had continued since August 2022. It warned that current reserves were enough for a month.  

Southern Sichuan, including Zigong and neighboring Neijiang, has suffered continuous drought and water shortages for some years. While some experts blame natural conditions and climate change, others say issues with water conservancy and hydrological projects have exacerbated systemic shortcomings. 

Chronic Drought 
In May, the household water provider for Huidong County, which sits by the upper stream of the Yangtze in southern Sichuan, issued a proposal. To encourage residents to save water, the company suggested that “showering frequently is not good for the skin, and it is better to do it two to four times per month.” Again, the lack of rain in 2023 was blamed, and if the situation persisted, stricter water restrictions would be imposed.  

Huidong borders Yunnan Province, and like Weiyuan and Fushun counties, is close to the Yangtze River, yet around one million people are affected by drought.  

In early June, Weiyuan County Water Resources Bureau told NewsChina the drought has been alleviated, and that household water capacity was sufficient for two to three months. Zigong Water Bureau said the drought had been alleviated somewhat due to water being diverted from the Tuojiang River, a tributary of the Yangtze. “The drought situation for farming and agriculture has been alleviated, but there are still problems over the drinking water supply in rural areas,” admitted the source. Zigong could guarantee water supplies until July, the water bureau employee said.  

The summer drought for southern Sichuan was forecast in April. Sichuan Meteorological Bureau announced that the flood season this year from May to September would see slightly lower average precipitation than other years, with higher average temperatures, and more high temperature days. There would be more rain in western Sichuan, and less in the east. Sichuan Hydrology Center warned of floods along some tributaries of the Yangtze, but it warned of drought across the northeast, central and southern parts of the Sichuan basin.  

This year’s drought is not a new situation. Southern Sichuan experienced high temperatures, drought and water shortages in 2022. According to the China Meteorological Administration, in August 2022, extreme heat waves occurred in the Sichuan Basin in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. There were more than 25 high temperature days, 10 to 20 more than average. According to the Water Conservancy chapter of the official Records of Sichuan Province, “Analysis of 30 years’ data of Sichuan Meteorological Bureau from 1951 to 1980” found that except the two years of 1954 and 1956, drought occurred in the other 28 years in Sichuan to varying degrees.” 

Changshaba Reservoir in Weiyuan County (Screenshot from video produced by Weiyuan Lingjuli)

Engineering Problem 
Yet Sichuan is not short of water. A little larger than the US state of California and with a population of around 83 million, it is known as the “province of a thousand rivers.” It is generally characterized by a hot and humid sub-tropical climate, with monsoonal rains. According to the official Sichuan Almanac, the province has nearly 1,400 rivers, more than 1,000 lakes and over 200 glaciers. Annual average precipitation is 488.975 billion cubic meters, and the total water resources is 348.97 billion cubic meters, giving it the highest per capita water resources in the country.  

The Jinsha River, the westernmost of the major headwater streams of the Yangtze River, flows through southern Sichuan, and it is already heavily dammed. In 2002, construction started on the Jinsha River Hydroelectricity Base. With 27 cascade reservoirs either already in operation, under construction or scheduled for construction, it is the largest hydroelectricity base in the country.  

Experts disagree on the causes of the water shortages in parts of water-abundant Sichuan, with some saying meteorological and climate conditions are to blame, while others say human factors must be considered.  

Yu Song, a lecturer at the Institute of Water Science at Beijing Normal University, told NewsChina that precipitation is the main source of surface water resource replenishment. Decreasing precipitation is accompanied by intensified evaporation, which leads to the decrease of water inflow from rivers, water reduction in reservoirs, lakes and underground water resource, thus causing drought and water shortage.  

Dong Zengchuan, former vice president of Hohai University in Nanjing, told NewsChina that southwest China’s water shortage problems stem from the westerly wind belt, which usually brings humid and warmer conditions, moving northward. Dong also cites weakening air convective activity, which lessens the amount of moisture in the air that could condense into rain.  

Others point to human factors for at least exacerbating water shortages. Chen Ajiang, director of the Center for Environmental and Social Studies at Hohai University, said that how people act when faced with water shortages can exacerbate them. In essence, water shortages are a social problem.  

Some see the issue as primarily due to insufficient built water storage solutions.  

“Sichuan is not short of water, but short of large and medium-sized irrigation facilities,” Leng Gang, then director of Sichuan Provincial Water Resources Department, told the West China Metropolis Daily in 2016. The professional term for this is built water storage solutions. Rainfall is concentrated in July, August and September, while the other nine months witness relatively little rainfall. Over 75 percent of rainfall flows away in the form of floods, and water storage resources as a result can’t retain it,” Leng told the newspaper.  

To put it simply, Leng said, “there are not enough jars and containers to store this rainfall, so there is no water for dry areas.” 

Engineering Solutions? 
In spring 2010, a severe drought in Sichuan affected over eight million people and caused direct economic losses of 1.3 billion yuan (US$180m). Chen Lei, who was in charge of the Ministry of Water Resources, pinned the blame on uneven distribution of the province’s abundant water resources. As well as regional geology, Chen said the drought was exacerbated by “insufficient large and medium-sized water-control projects and facilities, and a lack of supporting water diversion facilities.” There is an evident lack of built water storage solutions, he said.  

Alleviating water shortages requires engineering, some experts believe. Yu Song said southern Sichuan should focus on “strengthening reservoirs, improving water diversion projects, and increasing the construction of water-saving facilities for farmland irrigation.”  

The number of large reservoirs in Sichuan lags significantly behind the national average. According to the 2021 National Statistical Bulletin on Water Conservancy Development released by the Ministry of Water Resources in December 2022, 805 large reservoirs – with a capacity of over 100 million cubic meters – were built by 2021 in the Chinese mainland, with about 26 in each provincial administrative region. According to Sichuan Provincial Water Resources Department in April 2023, the province has only 10 large reservoirs.  

Sichuan Province has a huge water storage gap, with far fewer conservancy projects relative to other provinces with a similar population along the Yangtze River. According to open statistics, combined storage capacity of reservoirs in Hubei Province amounted to 13.59 billion cubic meters in September 2022, and Hunan Province had a total water storage capacity of 23.807 billion cubic meters as of November 2022. Total storage capacity of water conservancy projects combined in Sichuan Province as of April 2022 was merely 8.109 billion cubic meters.  

Yang Yong, a Sichuan-born geologist and director of the Hengduan Mountain Research Institute, is one of the first scientists to have investigated the geology and hydrology of the upper Yangtze. In terms of built storage capacity, Yang told NewsChina that the boom in hydropower in Sichuan has significantly changed the hydrological situation.  

“Hydroelectricity development has boomed in the last three decades along rivers of various scale in Sichuan. These water diversion and hydropower projects changed the original hydrological situation of rivers. Insufficient planning and design of these water conservancy and hydropower projects resulted in the hidden problem of insufficient built water storage capacity,” Yang said. 

Structural water shortage and water-quality-induced water shortage are also to blame, Yang said. In southern Sichuan, cities including Yibin, Luzhou and Zigong are key centers of economic growth. The original river system can no longer support the development momentum of urbanization and industrialization in the area, known as the South Sichuan Economic Zone.  

As a result, Yang said, the Xiangjiaba water diversion project has been developed to transfer water from the existing Xiangjiaba Hydropower Project via canal pipelines to irrigate agricultural lands.  

Xiangjiaba Dam, at the border of Sichuan and Yunnan, sits on the lower Jinsha River not far from where it meets the Min River at Yibin to become the Yangtze proper. It is China’s fifth-biggest hydropower station in terms of generation capacity and the 11th biggest in the world, as of 2022.  

Extensive development has led to river pollution, water quality deterioration, and even loss of water resources in many water systems. These have caused water shortages due to poor water quality, Yang said. “This situation has slightly improved through better governance and industrial adjustment, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed. Southern Sichuan is a center for the chemical industry, including paper making, and there is still a very difficult and long way to go in addressing the pollution-induced water shortage,” he said. “Local and seasonal water shortages may occur in different periods and in different years in southern Sichuan. The present-day water shortage is a systemic, overall and even a long-term problem.”  

On December 31, 2010, central authorities issued a decision that proposed to “accelerate the construction of key water source projects in southwest China and other areas suffering from built water storage shortages.” Accordingly, Sichuan Province stepped up efforts to build more water conservancy projects. Data released in May this year shows that total investment in water conservancy projects under construction in Sichuan has reached a record high of up to 130 billion yuan (US$18.2b).  

The Xiangjiaba irrigation project, with a total investment of about 30.5 billion yuan (US$4.3b), according to an estimate by Sichuan Provincial Water Resources Department in 2020, is expected to serve more than a million people and significantly increase agricultural yields.  

The official plan shows that the project will provide 1.782 billion cubic meters of water every year, irrigate 3,533 square kilometers of farmland, and provide supplemental water to 143 counties and towns with more than four million rural residents.  

Its completion “will solve the water shortage issue of agricultural irrigation, urban and rural production and living water consumption, and improve drinking water security within the region,” a manager of Xiangjiaba Irrigation Project Construction and Development told NewsChina under condition of anonymity. The first phase of the project which started construction in December 2018 will cost 11.69 billion yuan (US$1.64b) and will go into operation in August 2024. The whole construction period is planned to last 15 years.  

Water consumption per capita in Sichuan is much lower than the national average. According to a release by the Ministry of Water Resources in June 2022, China’s per capita water consumption was 419 cubic meters for 2021. Figures for 2021 released by the Sichuan Provincial Water Resources Department show per capita water consumption in Sichuan was 292 cubic meters in 2021, 127 cubic meters less than the national per capita level.  

Data from the seventh national census found the permanent population in southern Sichuan was 14.47 million in 2020. To reach the national average per capita water consumption, total water consumption in southern Sichuan needs to increase by about 1.82 billion cubic meters. The belief is that if the Xiangjiaba irrigation area project functions as expected and it provides 1.78 billion cubic meters of water per year, southern Sichuan will no longer suffer water shortages. 
Yang, one of a group of specialists who expressed concerns over big dam projects in the region, sounds a note of caution over whether China can “engineer” its way out of water shortages as a permanent solution. He feels that plans and the design of existing projects did not fully take into account issues like water shortages in surrounding areas, and that even the current Xiangjiaba diversion project may present future problems, which may require even more “engineered solutions.”  

“China’s water resources management has always followed an ‘engineering mentality.’ The initial insufficient planning of [hydropower and water conservancy] projects may require follow-up adjustment projects, and further result in a vicious cycle,” said Yang.  

New projects may be required to correct the initial shortcomings of earlier projects, he said. “The Xiangjiaba water diversion project has been decided and launched, but solutions like this that purely rely on [more] projects can’t solve the [systemic] problems,” he said.

Built in the 3rd century BCE, Dujiangyan irrigation system regulates the waters of the Minjiang River and distributes it to the fertile farmland of the Chengdu Plain. It is hailed as a good model for effective water control and irrigation (Photo by VCG)