China’s record-breaking drought hits major rice-growing regions

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Cracks run through the partially dried-up river bed of the Gan River, a tributary to Poyang Lake during a regional drought in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, China, on Aug 28, 2022. (Reuters photo)

HONG KONG: A record-breaking drought has continued to hit China’s two major rice-growing regions, adding to challenges over food security, drinking water and the conservation of endangered Yangtze River mammals.

The National Meteorological Centre issued a nationwide drought warning for the 33rd straight day on Monday, pointing to the fact that there has been not a single drop of rain in the capital cities of the southern provinces of Jiangxi and Hunan this month.

Jiangxi has suffered “severe” drought for 69 days this year as of Monday, when 95.7% of its county-level areas were deemed to be under an “extremely severe” drought, according to the national and provincial meteorological authorities.

“[The] numbers of days of high temperature, average temperature and days of no rain all reached a new high,” Hu Jufang, senior engineer of the Jiangxi provincial climate centre, told state broadcaster CCTV on Monday.

A similar scene has also haunted the neighbouring southern province of Hunan, where the local water resource bureau warned on Monday that the drought situation is still “developing”.

It is expected that there will still be no significant rainfall in the coming week after nearly 60% of the local monitoring stations failed to record meaningful precipitation for a month.

The situation of the two Yangtze River basin provinces offers a glimpse into the overall situation for the world’s third longest river, which has been experiencing its most serious drought since 1961 for two months, even though it is supposed to be flood season.

The national observatory forecast on Monday that rainfall is likely to remain scarce in many parts of the river’s lower reaches in the next 10 days, amid increasing worries about a prolonged drought extending into the autumn or even the winter.

“The extreme drought has had a serious impact on people’s drinking water, agricultural production and ecology,” Wang Chun, director of the Jiangxi provincial water resources bureau, said last week.

Since late June, the drought in Jiangxi has caused drinking water difficulties for 17,000 people, affected 612,500 hectares (1.5 million acres) of farmland – with 67,200 hectares losing all of its yield – and already lead to a direct economic loss of 5.89 billion yuan (US$840 million), the provincial disaster reduction authorities said on Sunday.

Both Jiangxi and Hunan are major producers of rice, a critical staple food that Beijing has vowed to ensure “absolute security”, or self-sufficiency, for its 1.4 billion population.

The two provinces combined to contribute over 22% of China’s rice output in 2020, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

China imported 42.5% more rice than a year ago in the first eight months of the year, in contrast to a 9.9% fall in overall grain imports, according to Chinese customs, although the overseas purchases were still small compared with the national year-round consumption.

The provincial agricultural authorities have issued more than 300 million yuan (US$43 million) of anti-drought funds and sent dozens of working groups to help farmers save water via irrigation, Li Shiqin, chief engineer of the Jiangxi provincial emergency management department, told CCTV.

Domestic media warned last week that the water level of Poyang Lake in Jiangxi province had fallen below the extremely low level of 8 metres in early September, representing the fastest fall on record.

There are also rising concerns that the lack of water will also threaten aquatic animals in the country’s largest freshwater lake, including the Yangtze finless porpoise. It is the country’s only known freshwater cetacean following the functional extinction of the Yangtze dolphin.

The body of a finless porpoise was found washed up next to Poyang Lake earlier this month, representing the seventh death of the “critically endangered” species this year, although the cause remains under investigation.

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