A fishing boat runs aground on grass at Poyang Lake in Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province, China on Saturday. The Yangtze river is suffering from a severe drought, with the lowest level of rainfall in 5 decades.
By Eric Baculinao, NBC News’ Beijing Bureau Chief
BEIJING – “Oh waters of Honghu Lake, wave after wave. The fishermen live ever better, year after year…” are the happy lines from a popular folk song sung by communities in Hubei province who have depended on the vast lake for their economic sustenance for centuries. But now the lake is drying up in what many are calling the worst drought in more than 50 years and the song may not be heard for quite some time.
In the neighboring province of Jiangxi, fishing boats sit eerily stranded on grassland that was once the bed of Poyang Lake, China’s largest fresh water lake, a dramatic scene that attests to the severity of south China’s 200-day drought.
Already, the lack of rainfall and water shortages have affected 35 million people in five provinces, with some 4.2 million directly threatened by lack of drinking water, prompting authorities to adopt emergency rationing and distribution of water.
The implications of the drought in southern China, traditionally a region with abundant water resources, have not been lost on Ma Jun, China’s leading environmentalist who has focused on the fragility of the water resource system of China for years.
“It is a new warning signal,” said Ma, the author of “China’s Water Crisis.”
Time to re-examine China’s water policy
Ma’s seminal book is widely acknowledged as the most comprehensive and authoritative documentation of the enormous challenges facing China’s water resources. Many observers have likened Ma’s 1999 book to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” which has been credited for launching environmental movement in the U.S., and believe it has done the same thing in China.
“This drought tells us that water scarcity does not only exist in north China, but increasingly south China is also facing water challenges,” Ma told NBC News. “It is a new warning signal because it shows the south is no longer a store with unlimited water supply.”
He suggested China needs to re-examine its long-term water strategy and propensity for mega-projects, including the $62 billion South-North Water Diversion Project that would transfer nearly 36 billion cubic meters of water every year from China’s Yangtze River Basin and ship it to the arid north.
The gigantic water diversion project, which started in 2002 and is planned for completion in 2050, will be China’s greatest engineering project after the Great Wall, and will cost more than twice as much as the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s biggest dam.
DAVID GRAY / Reuters
A farmer's hat is seen on a dried-up portion of an irrigation canal leading from Honghu Lake, as a fisherman manoeuvres his boat with a pole on the canal near Honghu city in central China's Hubei province on Sunday.
“We were going to divert [this] large volume of water from the Yangtze River to support north China, but now we are encountering this drought in south China, which is a warning bell for us,” Ma said.
Is the Three Gorges Dam a culprit?
For Ma, however, the more immediate issue is the possible role of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project, in the current drying up of lakes and rivers in the south China region. “The Yangtze River and the lakes downstream have quite a delicate relationship,” he said, that might have been upset by the dam’s construction.
“These great lakes connected with the Yangtze River would take flood and excessive waters from the Yangtze during the rainy season, and will feed water into the Yangtze during the dry season, but now things have changed with the Three Gorges Dam,” he said, arguing that the dam has reduced the amount of water available in the lake areas.
“With lesser water running from the Yangtze into the lakes, the lakes will be losing water over time,” he added, citing the progressive shrinking of south China’s great lakes.
Referring to the flow of water from the dam to refill the lower Yangtze rivers and lakes during the dry season, he said it is “helpful in theory,” but not in practice.
More alarming, according to Ma, is the plan to build 12 more dams on the Yangtze River and tributaries, with a combined capacity larger than the Three Gorges Dam. “It is time to review the negative impact of the Three Gorges Dam,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ma’s concerns have recently been echoed by the government which in an unprecedented statement admitted that while the Three Gorges Dam has been successful, it has also created “urgent” environmental, geological and economic problems.
China confronts raft of problems at Three Gorges
Researcher Xu Yuan contributed to this report.