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Drought without end?

Some parts of China are suffering their worst drought in 50 years. The country needs to focus on how it uses water for agriculture and industry, writes Li Taige.

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Between October 2008 and February 2009, the central Chinese province of Henan endured its worst drought since 1951.

Henan was not the only province affected. Many provinces, including Hebei, Shandong and Anhui, have suffered a lack of rainfall; some areas have gone without precipitation for 100 days. According to figures from the Office of State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters (SFDH), at the height of the drought on February 7, 2009, 107,333 square kilometres of cropland were affected – around double the annual average of 50,666 square kilometres. Rural residents have been worst affected, with millions left short of drinking water.

The drought has now been eased by a number of rain and snow falls. This may have calmed the worries of many people, but the sad truth is that the drought will be back again. As the SFDH points out, droughts have long been a problem for China, particularly in the basins of the Yellow River and Huai River in the north, where water pressures are most acute. This area has only 7% of the nation’s total water resources, and sees droughts nine years out of every 10. The Chinese government and the people must face up to the fact that droughts are a regular occurrence.  

Australia has suffered terrible drought for the past several years, which many scientists link to global warming. This helped to focus climate change as a political priority, which led to prime minister Kevin Rudd signing the Kyoto Protocol at the 2007 UN-led climate-change talks in Bali, Indonesia.

In China, global warming will worsen already grave water shortages. The government and the people are taking action on climate change, but this year’s drought needs to refocus our attention on the problem.

Many experts are giving recommendations for dealing with the symptoms of the drought. Irrigation equipment has been left for years without maintenance in many Chinese fields and some call for increased investment in bolstering anti-drought technology; others call for the popularisation of water-efficient agriculture.

They are not wrong. A lack of long-term government spending on irrigation and water-saving technology – combined with the low returns from agriculture that have caused farmers to leave the land and look for work elsewhere – means that Chinese agriculture is very inefficient in its use of water resources.

A report from the World Bank in January, Addressing China’s Water Scarcity [pdf], put the value of China’s productivity per cubic metre of water at US$3.60, compared to US$4.80 for average middle-income countries and US$35.80 in high-income countries. The most important factor is agriculture, which uses two-thirds of China’s water. The Ministry of Water Resources says that only 46% of water used in irrigation actually reaches the crops. In developed countries this figure is between 70% and 80%.

A survey by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture found that before Chinese New Year, over 20 million migrant workers had lost their jobs in the recent economic downturn and returned to their villages. Encouraging these people to help save water in agriculture will help increase water efficiency and could provide employment for some. 

Qian Zhengying, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and former minister of water resources, wrote with colleagues in Science Times that there is more to water-saving in agriculture than simply improving irrigation. They write that the balance of crops, forestry and livestock needs to be adjusted across arid and semi-arid regions to ensure that local industry is suited to the natural environment. For example, the decision not to plant water-intensive rice crops around Beijing has helped reduce water use.

Farmers need to cut water use, but so do households and industry. And if water pollution is not controlled, the country’s water crisis will only worsen.

China is currently working on a huge water engineering project known as the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, which aims to move much-needed water across regions. The eastern branch of the project will take water from the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and the central branch of the Han River. Plans will see at least half of the water carried by the eastern branch used in agriculture, while the central branch will meet urban and industrial demand in cities like Beijing and Tianjin.

Although the central branch passes through central Chinese provinces such as Hunan and Hubei, they will not benefit until it starts carrying water in 2014. At that time, water shortages may be relieved to some extent, but the real solution will only be water conservation and the improvement of water management.

Water resources minister Chen Lei stressed the importance of implementing strict rules on water management at a national meeting on February 14. These should include, he said, laws, regulations and policies on water use and the setting of “red line” benchmarks for water resources, which must not be crossed.

But water management is not a matter only for the Ministry of Water Resources – or indeed the government. The World Bank report points out how China needs to shift from the traditional top-down model of water management to a more modern style.

The report suggests forming a national water resources committee to lead and coordinate water affairs, or combining departments with responsibility for water management at the ministries of water, environmental protection, housing and urban-rural development into one new ministry. It also emphasises how full use can be made of market measures, such as water rights, water pricing and environmental compensation mechanisms; and says that public participation should be put on a sound legislative footing.

The suggestions are all pertinent. Let us hope this latest drought can raise awareness about the need to change China’s water management systems.

Li Taige is a Beijing-based journalist. He obtained a masters degree in engineering from Sichuan University in 1997, and studied as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003-2004.

Homepage photo by GraemeNicol

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Drought - Nature's Revenge

This is nature's revenge against humankind, humankind must fear nature, or at the very least learn to coexist harmoniously. Drought has already been a way to provide feedback for humankind about their negative effects on nature, moreover this kind of thing definitely has a complex and delayed effect. We must not see the solution to this problem as simple. It's the same as the economic crisis, except the economic crisis could be solved in two or three years, but who knows when nature's vengeance against humankind will end?
(Translated by Braden Latham-Jones.)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我是一名澳大利亚人,自2005年起受邀作为国外专家到中国来开展有关预防干旱和二氧化碳减排工作。作为一名澳大利亚人,我认为文章中的一些假设是不正确的。首先澳大利亚近50年来遭遇干旱的情况(总数)是增加的,从大洋到内陆湖泊都在快速蒸发。全国只有4处水土植被区,世界银行指出60%的人类将死于此(地球是一个赖以生存的有机体)。干旱、沙漠、贫穷能够被改变。中国政府打算去做而且也有这个需要,并已开始在建立一套全球模式。--Robert Vincin Beijing
(Translated by Nichole)

Drought solutions

I am Australian serving here in PRC since 2005 as invited foreign expert in drought proofing and CO2 reversal. Your assumptions re Australia like some of your article assumptions are incorrect. Firstly Australia a case and point has suffered drought increasingly for 50years mass (almost total) land clearing stalled transpiration from oceans to inland catchments. There are only 4 assets soil water vegetation atmosphere and the World Bank state the human body dies with such damage (the planet is a living organism). Droughts deserts rural poverty can be reversed. PRC has the will the need and the people and reparation has commenced setting a global model
--Robert Vincin Beijing

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Rebuilding the irrigation system

In lots of areas, farmers have left the land considering the commercial loss from cost of seeds, fertilizer, irrigation and ploughing. The government has increased farming subsidies, however, this drought has shown that using subsidies as a method to entice farmers back to the land is not as valuable as investing the money into infrastructural constructions (e.g. irrigation equipments). If this were to be done, the cost for planting will decrease dramatically and will cause the farmers to will be more willing to return to the land.

(by Fangfang CHEN)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Only to let out a sign

These years we have witnessed highways all around the country have become longer and longer,while there's no intention of reconstructing those irrigation works facilities aged for long in villages.Where on the earth has the annual "Sannong(agriculture,villages and farmers)" fund granted by the central government gone?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


水利工程起着一个很重要的作用,而比起水利设施的计划,对土壤以及当中包含的盐分的谨慎研究来得更加必要。一些已经尝试过非常规水利工程的国家亲身经历了放牧作物地盐碱化的扩大。而事实证明,我们防旱反沙漠化的实验性C4植被具有很大的成效,在国家部委和当地政府的帮助下,我们计划着去推广它。随着这些计划的推进,我们将会及时地重新激活碳示踪元素的循环,随后降雨循环也将逐渐恢复正常。对自然本身的研究以及利用当代技术总结经验,中国可以向大家展示,这样做除了能够反转沙漠化,还可以通过它来吸收大量二氧化碳并重新启动碳循环。非常规水利项目只是解决该问题的其中一环,而一个真正的治标方案则要求对土壤、水、植被和大气进行全面修复。——Robert Vincin,北京
translated by diaoshuhuan

Ad hoc water land repair fails

Irrigation carries serious responsibilities and prior to planning irrigation a critical study of soils and indeed the likely hood of underlying salt must be undertaken. Nations have tried ad hoc irrigation witnessing widespread saline crop pasture land. Our drought proofing desert reversal trial plantings of C4 vegetation here are successful and with the ministerial and local government help we start broad plantings. With planning we will in time restart the carbon/trace element cycles and in turn start the rain cycles. The study of nature and replicating her lessons with modern expertise PRC can demonstrate not only reversing desertification but in so doing sustainably sequester mass volumes of CO2 restarting the carbon cycle. Ad hoc water is but a part of solution a master plan soil water vegetation atmospheric reparation is demanded at all levels. Robert Vincin Beijing