The common expression "it flows like water," which is used to describe a supposedly limitless resource (ha!), probably never had much relevance in places like east Africa or rural China, and it certainly doesn't now. For the second week, southwest China is experiencing its worst drought in 50 years, leaving over 18 million people in fifteen Chinese provinces and regions suffering from drinking water shortages and affecting more than 130 million hectares of cropland and more than 17 million livestock. In the megalopolis of Chongqing, the water level in the legendary Yangtze river -- China's longest -- hit 3.5 meters (11.5 feet), its lowest in 100 years. According to the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources, "The severe drought will not ease up and is very likely to get worse." The situation is so bad that the government has begun to transplant farmers from the affected regions to less arid ares to the west.Suddenly, many numbers of farmers have become "climate refugees," as they are transported temporarily to the western Xinjiang region as part of an emergency government program.
The "cotton exodus" started on Aug. 19 and will last until Sept. 5. Twenty-six trains will leave from Chongqing and another eight will carry 10,000 farmers from Chengdu, capital of the neighboring Sichuan Province...
Unmentioned (in a story that has already largely gone unmentioned outside of China, and been given a positive spin on news cycles in China) are the causes--like reckless agricultural techniques, nearsighted land planning and high end-user consumption, aside from high temperatures--as well as the longer-term effects of the drought. Scarce and polluted urban water supplies will be further taxed, and widespread water table depletion and grain shortage, of the sort that Lester Brown has been making noise about for years, will get even worse.
And that's not to mention the social and political implications of direct and indirect climate migration: thousands of people may have to be moved (see what happened with the Three Gorges Dam) to make way for massive water-relocation projects in the coming years, while the continued migration of Chinese farmers into Xinjiang could further indirectly threaten the Muslim Uighur minority that has long called for independence of the region they refer to as "East Turkestan." Just as it might be argued that drought in the Sudan was partly to blame for the ongoing genocide in Darfur, so it may be said that China's drought is abetting the country's unsavory minority policies.
In Chinatown, perhaps the darkest, sexiest movie on the topic of water management, the nefarious water baron tells Jack Nicholson's detective Jake, "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't." But this ain't Chinatown, and we can know. Huge environmental disasters like this aren't common, but unless we all see them as warning signs, they could be.
P.S. In addition to rainmaking, Beijing has also announced a huge environmental clean-up ahead of the 2008 Olympics. Also see : : Drought Marches on in the U.S.: On the Role of Climate Change : : 50 Ways to Save Water and : : The Long Hot Summer: When Water Matters and : : The THtv Conversation with Lester Brown. Also, Jay Z is now tackling the world's "99 [water] problems"