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Concerns that water shortages could impede China’s development

Heavy rain in parts of southern and eastern China has caused the deaths of over 50 people and displaced more than 100,000 according to state media sources this week.

Most of the deaths have occurred in the poor southern province of Guizhou, where tens of thousands have abandoned their houses to escape rising waters. Nearly 8,000 homes are believed to have been destroyed by floods and thousands of hectares of farmland have been deluged. The Chinese government had warned of likely floods and relief teams will be sent to the worst-affected areas.

But despite the heavy rainfall, the current downpours may not be enough to replenish water supplies which have been badly hit by severe drought over the last six months. Large swathes of southern China have experienced the worst drought for a hundred years. More than 16 million people and 11 million livestock animals were short of drinking water and crops have been lost across an estimated 4 million hectares of farmland. The provinces where harvests have been worst hit are Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Anhui and Jiangsu along the middle and lower stretches of the Yangtze, areas which are normally important food-producing regions; Hubei province is called the “land of fish and rice” by locals.

Fish and crab farms have also been affected, as have fishermen who rely on local rivers, with some rivers even drying up. And there has been particular concern about the low levels of the Yangtze, the world’s third longest river. Chinese experts have blamed the severe drought for the river’s low levels, but other scientists have questioned the effect of the Three Gorges Dam. However, engineers of the dam say the consequences of the drought would have been worse without the dam. Water stored in the reservoir has been released to raise downstream flows of the Yangtze and help farmers irrigate crops. Nevertheless, economic losses are still expected to top over 2 billion dollars.

The debate over the Yangtze comes at a time of increasing concern over China’s water. China has just 6 per cent of the worlds’ fresh water resources to support a fifth of the globe’s population. And climate change evidence is suggesting that rainfall patterns are becoming more uneven, which will mean more droughts in dry seasons and floods in wet ones. This puts even greater pressure on the management and policing of China’s water supplies.

This week, thousands of Chinese in the eastern province of Zheijiang are going without tap water after toxic chemicals made their way into a river from a factory. This incident has happened only seven days after the Environment Ministry warned that one in six major rivers in China are so polluted, the water is even unsuitable for irrigating fields. With China’s rapid industrialisation, spills into rivers are frequent. But with water increasingly precious, the government of China recognises the demands of economic development can no longer be put above those of the environment. 

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