The extreme heatwave wreaking havoc across China | The Spectator

2022-08-26 19:37:25 By : Ms. Linda Ruan

China is struggling to limit the impact of its longest and most widespread heatwave since records began more than 60 years ago. Temperatures have reached the highest the country has ever recorded and a drought is wreaking havoc across much of southern China. It is compounding the multiple economic challenges facing China’s communist leaders, including the fallout from strict Covid-19 lockdowns and a bursting property bubble.

Maximiliano Herrera, a weather historian who monitors extreme heat around the world, has described China’s soaring temperatures as the most severe heatwave ever recorded anywhere. The authorities have declared a drought emergency, warning that the critical autumn harvest is under ‘severe threat’. Almost half China’s production of rice, the country’s largest food crop, comes from the six worst hit areas.

More than 900 million people across 19 provinces have been affected. The epicentre is Sichuan, a region of 83 million people which relies on now water-starved hydro-electric plants for 80 per cent of is power. It is facing its ‘severest difficulties in history,’ according to the Global Times, a party newspaper, with electricity rationed and factories forced to curtail production. In Dazhou, a city of 5.3 million people, temperatures this week reached 43 Celsius, and people took shelter from the heat in air-raid shelters. In Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital and a major manufacturing hub, factories making cars, auto components, solar panels and microprocessors have been forced to cut production. Shopping malls have cut their opening hours because of power rationing. Emergency measures have been drawn up to protect livestock at more than 5,000 large pig farms, which face ‘severe challenges’, according to state media.

Water levels on the Yangtze, China’s longest river and a vital transport artery, are the lowest since records began. Almost a third of the 600 weather stations along the Yangtze have recorded their highest temperatures ever. In places, China’s mightiest river and dozens of tributaries have been reduced to a dribble. Long submerged artifacts, including a 600-year-old Buddhist stone carving in Wuhan, have emerged from the receding river. China’s largest freshwater lake, Poyang Lake in Jiangxi province, is now barely a quarter of its usual level, according to local authorities. The lake’s nutrient-rich water is an important source of irrigation, and work crews are reportedly digging emergency trenches to keep rice farmers supplied. The lake is also an important stop for migratory birds. Thousands of firefighters have been called in to battle forest fires.

Chinese social media have been full of images showing how residents are dealing with the heat and power crunch. These include eerie photos of passengers travelling in the dark on the Chengdu metro, diners eating by candlelight in restaurants and takeaway food being hoisted by rope to a 25th floor apartment in a block where power cuts had shut down the elevators. Another showed residents sleeping in an underground car park to stay cool. One women described how all her chickens had died. ‘Please let it rain,’ she tearfully implored. ‘It’s so hot, how are we supposed to sleep like this?’ Images showed people struggling and even passing out during mandatory Covid-19 tests.

The government has responded with a $29 billion of funding to fight the drought, aid the rice harvest, and support power generators. In an effort to lift sagging spirits, the Communist party’s Global Times reported a sharp increase in the production of what it calls ‘rain bombs’ – the weather modification rockets used to shoot chemicals into the clouds in an effort to induce precipitation. Though the newspaper mostly induced online mirth, as there are precious few clouds around to be seeded. Earlier this week the authorities switched off the waterfront lights along Shanghai’s iconic Bund to save power.

Efforts are underway to ramp up output at coal-fired power plants, though these still require large amounts of water and it is unlikely to make much difference in the short term. The drought has come during what would normally be the wet season, when rivers, lakes and reservoirs would usually be replenished. That suggests the hydro-electric crisis will not be over quickly, deepening China’s addiction to coal, and pushing its already dubious targets for reducing carbon emissions further into the future.

Perhaps with that in mind, Chinese state media have depicted the drought as a ‘once in decades’ event and have played down any links to climate change. The irony is that China is especially susceptible to extreme weather linked to rising carbon emissions, and many of the areas now gripped by drought have in recent years suffered severe flooding.

The drought has also drawn attention to China’s longer term water issues, which had been considered most acute in the north of the country. In 2020, available water in the plains of northern China was some 50 per cent below the UN definition of acute water scarcity. Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai are among major cities facing a water crunch. There have been major efforts to shift water from south to north, and some experts believe that demand for water in China will fall 25 per cent short of demand by 2030. The country has also faced severe groundwater contamination from industrial pollution and pesticides.

The drought could not come at a worse time for Xi Jinping, China’s increasingly autocratic leader. Economic growth has virtually ground to a halt and one out of five young Chinese city dwellers are unemployed, according to official statistics. Efforts to shore up growth ahead of a communist party meeting later this year at which Xi is expected to be given a third five-year term as party leader look increasingly forlorn. Historians will tell you that drought and the resulting famine helped topple at least five of China’s 17 dynasties – a grim statistic that the latest dynasty will not want to be reminded of.

Ian Williams is a former foreign correspondent for Channel 4 News and NBC, and author of Every Breath You Take: China’s New Tyranny (Birlinn).