This is the second year of water problems in China, and the worst recorded in the last 60 years. High temperatures and the lack of rain this summer caused river levels to fall drastically, affecting the industrial sector and farmlands.

By September, the water crisis had affected more than 900 million people, in 17 provinces, and a total of 5.44 million acres of agricultural land.

The Yangtze river is one of the country’s major sources of fresh water. It runs through much of China from west to east. And this year its flow was reduced by 60%, affecting hydroelectric power plants and field irrigation. 

Although the country depends, for the most part, on the energy produced by thermal power plants, water is a fundamental element for its operation. It is estimated that 60% of the country depends on this method.

The power plants burn coal to heat their boilers, which consume large quantities of water. The steam generated turns turbines that produce electricity. It is worth noting that the country is the largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world.

According to statistics, China emits 30% of the greenhouse gases on the planet, followed by the U.S., which produces 15%. 

Even, the process of coal extraction and preparation requires a lot of water. Many of the power plants are in the center of the country, near rivers and groundwater, which were also affected by the drought.

As for other forms of energy production that require water, nuclear power represents only 3% of the total consumed in the country, but uses large amounts of water to cool its reactors.

Hydroelectric power plants account for 18% of domestic consumption. They are located next to large bodies of water, but the drought, almost paralyzed their activity. 

In addition, Poyang Lake, China’s largest lake, was seriously affected by the low level of the Yangtze river. The government of Jiangxi province, in the southeast of the country, declared a “red alert” in September, due to the prolonged lack of rainfall that dried up a large part of the lake. 

The Poyang receives its largest flow of water from surplus floodwaters of the Yangtze, which was not at sufficient levels. In some key areas it dropped from 65 to 23 feet deep, also affecting shipping.

The lack of volume flow in the river also affected large cities. Shanghai’s drinking water reservoirs were practically unusable. The low levels at the mouth of the Yangtze caused sea salt water to enter the reservoirs.

The city’s inhabitants panicked, and on October 12 the city experienced bottled water shortages in supermarkets and stores.

Industrial activity affected

Due to the lack of electricity in the country, many local governments opted to run blackouts to reduce consumption, seriously affecting factories.

The southwestern part of the country suffered the greatest consequences, as it depends mostly on hydroelectric power. The Yangtze supplies water to many of these power plants, but due to its poor level, they were seriously disrupted. 

The most affected province was Sichuan, which receives 80% of its electricity from hydropower plants. Hubei, which is further east downriver, was also hit.

The Sichuan government declared that it was going through a “particularly serious” situation in August, because the dams of the power plants were only at half their usual levels, impairing operations. 

Also, energy consumption in the summer increased by 25%, partly due to the intensive use of air conditioning, both commercial and residential. 

The Toyota automobile factory was forced to stop production after government authorities said they would prioritize the supply of electricity to residential areas.

The province has significant lithium production, which is used in a variety of batteries. And in August the world’s largest electric car battery manufacturer, Contemporary Amperex Technology, saw its production disrupted.

The technology sector also suffered. Apple supplier Foxconn Technology Group closed its factory in the provincial capital Chengdu for six days in August. And the launch of the new iPad had to be postponed.

What’s more, factories producing chips for smartphones, car components, solar panels, and other industrial products were closed in Sichuan for several days. 

To compensate for the power shortage, the CCP decided to boost electricity production at thermal power plants by increasing coal consumption.

According to the state mouthpiece, Global Times, power plants across the country burned 8.16 million tons of coal during the first two weeks of August, 15% more than last year.

Agriculture suffers the consequences

Agricultural activity accounts for more than 60% of the country’s water consumption. The intense summer heat and lack of rainfall have seriously affected farmlands.

The country depends, heavily, on its agricultural production, which was affected in its peak harvest season, autumn. Farmers have barely been able to salvage some of their crops, directly affecting the country’s fresh fruit and vegetable markets.  

The CCP has prioritized the supply of water to the large fields that grow grains, neglecting the small farmers who grow vegetables.

According to AP, a farmer in the southern city of Chongqing lost much of his crop. He said most of it is dead, or half the size it should be. He said, “The eggplants that survived were left the size of strawberries.” 

Local farmers resorted to small dams next to their fields, for irrigation, but this year, the reservoirs were almost completely dry, forcing them to pump groundwater.

However, most of this water is contaminated, and it is not suitable for irrigation. According to a study by the Australian consulting firm Lowy Institute, 80% to 90% of the country’s groundwater is unfit for human consumption, and half of the aquifers are too polluted to be suitable for industry or agriculture. 

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