Three Gorges Probe

Is drought the new normal for the Yangtze?

Liao Jiehua and Qiu Min – Guangzhou Daily
February 12, 2007

Amid widespread worry about a shrinking river and speculation about the role of the Three
Gorges dam in exacerbating the downstream drought, officials in charge of managing the Yangtze say they lack the clout to address serious dry-season problems.


The following is an abridged version of an article that
appeared in Guangzhou Daily (Guangzhou Ribao) on Feb. 7. Translation by
Three Gorges Probe.

Cracked banks of the Yangtze in Yunyang county, Chongqing, in August. Photo: Xinhua

Everybody knows the Yangtze River has long been troubled by floods,
but nobody knows when exactly it became gripped by a new problem:

Normally, July and August are the peak months of the flood season.
But in 2006, only half as much water as usual arrived from the upper
reaches in July, and there were no floods at all in August.

Hydrological monitoring stations along the Yangtze below the Three
Gorges, including Yichang, Zhicheng, Shashi and Shishou, reported
historically low water levels by mid-August. In November, the section
of the river in Jiangxi province experienced the lowest water levels in
half a century.

For 2006 as a whole, the Yichang monitoring station recorded total
run-off of 284.4 billion cubic metres, the smallest volume ever
reported since hydrological record-keeping began there in 1877. And on
Jan. 3 this year, the river section that passes through Shashi in Hubei
province was at its lowest level in 142 years.

Wang Hongcai, who earns his livelihood as a fisherman in Wuhan,
capital of Hubei province, told Guangzhou Daily: “It’s terribly hard to
catch anything now because the Yangtze is so shallow and the fish have
all swum out to the middle of the river” [where they are harder to
reach and the river is busier and more turbulent].

Mr. Wang said he saw a similar situation many years ago in his
youth, when the level of the Yangtze at Wuhan was so low that the
bottom of the river was exposed and crowds gathered to gaze at this
strange sight — and some to play soccer on the riverbed.

“In the past, I was able to earn 10,000 yuan a year selling fish,”
Mr. Wang said, “but last year was a different story because, from
September on, so little water came from upstream.The riverbed and even
the underwater foundations of the Yangtze Bridge were exposed. And the
less water, the less fish.”

Boats laden with coal have become stranded due to the low water level

A drought-stricken Yangtze also creates major navigation problems,
particularly in the middle and lower reaches of the river. Boats,
especially those laden with coal coming down from the Three Gorges
reservoir area, have become stranded due to the low water level.

Normally, these boats need a water depth of 4.2 metres — and 3.8
metres at the very least — but some sections of the river below the
Three Gorges dam are only 2.9 metres deep. “The Yangtze has become much
quieter than before because so few big boats are out on the river now,”
Mr. Wang said.

The director of the water-quality monitoring station at the Wuhan Water
Bureau is also worried. “Any further drop in water levels will not only
affect the shipping industry but also the supply of drinking water,” he
said. So far the drought has not posed a significant threat to the
Wuhan water supply, but water-treatment facilities are having more
difficulty than usual pumping water from the river.

The drought is also hurting hydropower companies. Yangtze Power, for
example, announced on Oct. 13 that its hydropower output in the first
three quarters of last year was 26.8 billion KWh, down 7.2 per cent
from the same period in 2005. A stock analyst who monitors Yangtze
Power says the company suffered a revenue loss of at least 10 per cent
compared with the same period the previous year as a result of the
decline in output.

However, there are a few people who welcome the situation — for
example, archeologists at Yichang, 40 kilometres downstream of the
Three Gorges dam, who have been able to extend their work onto vast
stretches of newly accessible riverbed.

According to some experts, climate change and drought are the main
causes of the low water level in the Yangtze valley. But many people
believe the policy of encouraging the construction of ever more dams in
the upper reaches of the river, plus the filling of the Three Gorges
reservoir, should be held responsible for the problem.

Some people are warning that drought in the Yangtze valley could become routine, rather than a rare event

There is no shortage of criticism of the Three Gorges project in
online discussions on the Chinese Internet, with the enormous volume of
water held back behind the dam being blamed for making the downstream
drought much worse.

Some people are warning that drought in the Yangtze valley could
become routine, rather than a rare event. The Changjiang [Yangtze]
Water Resources Commission (CWRC) has responded to the criticism by
insisting that whether the Yangtze valley is wet or dry is directly
related to seasonal rainfall patterns and has nothing to do with the
Three Gorges project.

“For three years, we kept the water level in the reservoir at 135
metres in the flood months,” an official with the commission said. “And
as long as the reservoir was maintained at that level, we didn’t hold
back any additional water that arrived from upstream.”

An expert identified as Professor Mei of Wuhan University’s Water
Conservancy and Hydropower College disagreed with the official: “It’s
hard to say that the dam has no impact on downstream areas after
billions of cubic metres of water were stored in the reservoir when it
was raised from 135 metres to 156 metres last September.”

The professor, who has studied the Yangtze for many years, noted
that Three Gorges project officials kept the gates of the dam closed
from Sept. 20 until the end of October during the operation to raise
the reservoir. “The reservoir is something of a bottomless pit, and the
water will never be allowed to flow [to downstream areas] until it is
completely filled,” he said.

Some people believe the Three Gorges dam is already competing with
other users for water. Hydro dams generally do not store water in the
flood season, but it’s a different story in the dry season. Some
experts have warned that fierce competition for water in the Yangtze
valley will be unavoidable in future.

However, Mr. Yang, a water resources protection official with the
CWRC, sees things differently. “The Yangtze drought is a natural
phenomenon, because wet and dry do co-exist. From a long-term
perspective, there has been no significant change in the total volume
of Yangtze water resources despite annual variations in climate and
precipitation.” On the role of the Three Gorges dam, Mr. Yang says:
“The project has an impact on the drought in the short term, but not in
any long-term way.”

‘In the race to generate profits, the Three Gorges project will compete for water with the downstream areas’

However, other experts are worried that the competition for water
will become even more intense once the Three Gorges project is
completed. Another water expert at Wuhan University expressed this
concern: “In the race to generate profits, the Three Gorges project
will compete for water with the downstream areas below the dam. The
middle and lower reaches of the river will be deprived of adequate
supplies of water as more and more dams are built in the upper reaches
and the water is held back behind them. It will be difficult to solve
the drought problem in the absence of legislation regulating how the
water is distributed.”

Even the officials in charge of water resources at the CWRC agree on
that point. “Legislation in the Yangtze valley is the weakest link,”
one official said. “All we have had to date is a regulation on
sand-mining in the river valley. Our authority over local governments
and power companies is really limited. “In the case of the Yellow
River, a comprehensive law is in place covering a variety of issues in
the valley as a whole. This is because there were more problems with
the Yellow River, and so the government gave more power to the
commission managing water resources in the valley. We have more clout
in the flood season but can do nothing in the dry season to address the

A number of water experts have made this same point: “It appears
there is no major problem with the water supply and power generation in
the flood season, but the issue does become serious in the dry season,
particularly in the event of a drought. “The giant power companies play
a significant role in producing energy, but how to balance the
competition for water resources, and take the public interest into
account, is a major issue.”

Read the Chinese original.

See also:
Quenching China’s thirst
by Yongchen Wang, China Dialogue, Feb. 02, 2007

China’s lakes and rivers are drying up, says Yongchen Wang, and
rising temperatures are partly to blame. The country needs to take its
worsening drought into account Ð before it’s too late.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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