Central China Hit by Drought, as Reservoirs Become ‘Dead Water’

A farmer on his dried field last week in Wuhan, China. Crops and drinking water have been threatened by a long drought.

BEIJING — A severe drought along the Yangtze River region in central China has rendered nearly 1,400 reservoirs in Hubei Province temporarily unusable, devastated farm fields and made drinking water scarce, according to a report on Monday by Xinhua, the state news agency.

The drought, which has lasted for five months, has brought water levels in the middle part of the Yangtze to a near-record low. For the second time since the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project, began operating, officials have had to make emergency water discharges from it to help ease the drought.

As of Sunday, 4 medium-size reservoirs and 1,388 small reservoirs in Hubei had dropped below the allowable discharge levels for irrigation, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, citing the director of the reservoir management office for the Hubei Provincial Water Resources Department. One-fourth of all small reservoirs had what officials called “dead water” remaining, which could be pumped for use only in an emergency.

The drought adds to concerns over the effect that a gargantuan water-diversion project will have on the central provinces of China. The project, called the South-North Water Diversion, is supposed to move water from the Yangtze and its tributaries north to Beijing along a canal, and to Tianjin along an eastern route.

Both routes are supposed to be fully operational within the next couple of years. Criticism of the project has become widespread, and many people along the Yangtze and in the south say precious water resources should not be sent north, where there has been a chronic water shortage.

The water on the middle route is supposed to flow from the Danjiangkou Reservoir in Hubei. The water level at the reservoir was measured at 443 feet on Saturday, about 13 feet below the level at which the water is considered dead, Xinhua reported.

Du Yun, a geography scholar at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, said in an earlier interview that the central government had not done enough studies to assess the impact of the diversion project, especially when compared with all the research that was done before the building of the Three Gorges Dam.

“For that project, the preliminary discussion and studies phase was decades long,” he said. “There was the participation of institutions and experts from across China. Compared to that, this water diversion project did not do as comprehensive a preliminary study as the Three Gorges project did.”

As of Saturday, the drought had left 315,000 people and 97,300 head of livestock in Hubei short of drinking water, and more than two million acres of farmland had been affected, Xinhua reported. In neighboring Henan Province, the drought had affected at least 320,000 people.

Officials discharged 400 million cubic meters of water from the Three Gorges Dam from May 7 to May 11, according to Wang Hai, a spokesman for the dam’s construction and operation management bureau, Xinhua reported on Thursday.

This discharge is aimed at fighting the current drought and raising levels of the Yangtze to aid shipping. People in the city of Yichang, where the dam stands, have been hit especially hard. They say they have had to buy water rather than relying on water from their land.

The water levels in the section of the Yangtze between Yichang and Jiujiang in Jiangxi Province were about 8 to 18 feet lower than average, Xinhua reported, citing a statement by the Hubei provincial flood control and drought relief headquarters.

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