Drastic Drought Dries Up China’s Yangtze River

After making big contributions to global climate change, China is seeing big consequences from it.

Cracked silt on the bank of the Fu River, a tributary of the Yangtze River, seen on August 25, 2022 in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.
Since July, high temperature caused a severe meteorological drought in the Yangtze River Basin.

Getty Images / Stringer

For centuries, China’s Yangtze River was a torrent. Now, it’s a mere trickle, according to media reports, which indicate the once roaring river has dried up in the midst of a historic drought and heat wave.

“The water would reach street level in previous years,” a 65-year-old resident of Wuhan, China, told Bloomberg News, which said temperatures this summer have exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit in some Chinese cities. “This year even the riverbed sand is exposed.”

To those who rely on the river for water, energy, and employment, it’s as if Mother Nature suddenly turned the spigot on a hose from “on” to “off”—which could have dire consequences not only for China but also for the rest of the world.

“China is on the brink of a water catastrophe,” the Council on Foreign Relations reported this month in its magazine, Foreign Affairs. “Given the country’s overriding importance to the global economy, potential water-driven disruptions beginning in China would rapidly reverberate through food, energy, and materials markets around the world and create economic and political turbulence for years to come.”

As Asia’s longest river, and the third-longest river in the world, the Yangtze is ground zero for China’s escalating water woes. It supports more than 450 million people and a third of China’s crops.

A man seen fishing in the dry Fu River, a tributary of the Yangtze River, seen on August 25, 2022 in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.
Yangtze River is experiencing its most severe meteorological drought since 1961.

Getty Images

After more than two months of extreme temperatures and low rainfall, both the former and the latter are suffering, acknowledged China’s Ministry of Water Resources. The adverse conditions in the Yangtze river basin are negatively impacting the drinking water security of livestock and the rural population, plus crops.

Indeed, the water ministry earlier this month said the drought already had affected nearly 8,500 square miles of arable land and 350,000 livestock. And in one province alone—Hubei—the drought has impacted more than 4.2 million people, including more than 150,000 people who have only limited access to drinking water. Other parts of China are struggling with an equal but opposite problem: Heavy rains have caused extreme flooding and landslides, negatively impacting more than 6,200 people.

Experts blame both the drought and floods on climate change. “The crisis follows years of expert warnings that China, the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, would face extreme weather events as a result,” reports The Washington Post. “Both extreme heat and heavy rainfalls are hallmarks of climate change induced by human activity. Episodes of both weather have been frequent across the Northern Hemisphere this summer.”

According to a 2021 report by Rhodium Group, China’s carbon emissions exceed those of all developed countries combined. Although its annual emissions were less than a quarter of developed country emissions in 1990, its emissions over the past three decades have more than tripled, reaching over 14 gigatons in 2019, Rhodium reported. That’s over 27% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 11% contributed by the United States, the world’s second-largest emitter.

China’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Exceeded the Developed World for the First Time in 2019

Rhodium Group

Unfortunately, extreme weather is increasing instead of decreasing China’s reliance on carbon, according to Bloomberg News, which said the Yangtze’s retreating water levels have made it difficult to generate electricity at many of the country’s key hydropower plants—China’s largest source of clean energy. Without those plants, it reported, China has had to rely more on coal power. So much so that coal mines in China have increased their output this year by 11%.

A new study has identified the 425 “carbon bombs” the world needs to defuse to keep climate change from spiraling out of control. China tops the list with 141 fossil fuel megaprojects, followed by Russia (41), the United States (28), Iran (24), and Saudi Arabia (23).

Meanwhile, desperate local governments are trying to induce rain by way of controversial technology like cloud seeding, wherein silver iodide rods the size of cigarettes are shot into clouds to catalyze the formation of ice crystals, which make the clouds heavier and therefore more likely to release their moisture content in the form of rainfall.

There’s no quick fix, however—a fact that even Chinese President Xi Jinping previously acknowledged.

“Green mountains are gold mountains,” Xi said in remarks delivered last year during U.S. President Joe Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate. “To protect the environment is to protect productivity, and to improve the environment is to boost productivity—the truth is as simple as that. We must abandon development models that harm or undermine the environment, and must say no to shortsighted approaches of going after near-term development gains at the expense of the environment.”

The straightforward and science-approved solution is common knowledge: to drastically reduce emissions.

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