Three Gorges Dam Opens to Refill Yangtze

The Chinese government has ordered the Three Gorges Dam to be reopened to replenish the Yangtze River and help alleviate drought in Hubei region. From Bloomberg News:

China ordered the operator of the world’s biggest dam to begin disgorging about 5 billion cubic meters of water today to replenish the Yangtze River and counter the Hubei region’s lowest rainfall in half a century.

The Three Gorges Dam will discharge enough water to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools by June 10, according to a government statement. Lower water levels on the 6,264-kilometer (3,915-mile) river may increase China’s oil demand by 300,000 barrels a day to make up for lost hydropower generation, Barclays Capital said last week.

China’s longest river sustains 65.7 percent of the nation’s paddy fields, according to the Agricultural Yearbook. Poyang Lake, China’s biggest, has shrunk to less than a fifth of its usual area, the country’s meteorological agency said. State-run China Daily said there was 40 percent less water in almost 1,600 reservoirs in Hubei province than a year ago.

The record-low rainfall in the Hubei region has caused the worst drought in fifty years. From the Financial Times:

The monsoon rains that usually flood southern China’s middle Yangtze river in spring did not come this year, and officials say rainfall in Hubei, Jiangxi, Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang is at its lowest level in more than 50 years

While droughts are not uncommon in China, water shortages have steadily worsened during the past decade, as increased agricultural irrigation and worsening water contamination have hit supplies. China’s available water per capita is just a quarter of the world average and the lowest of any large economy, according to the World Bank.

Water releases from the Three Gorges reservoir, which is upstream from the drought areas, will be increased by 10-20 per cent today, according to the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Office.

Water has already been released at a rate of 10,000 cubic metres per second since last Friday, causing the level of the reservoir to fall by one metre every two days, say dam operators.

In Hubei and Hunan provinces, the drought has threatened drinking supplies for more than 1m people. In neighbouring Jiangxi province, Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake, has hit a 59-year low and rice transplants around it have stopped.

“It rings a big alarm bell when the Yangtze itself is facing drought,” says Ma Jun, an environmental activist and author of China’s Water Crisis. “The total population supported by this river basin is around 400m people – it’s the most important watershed in China.”

This comes after the Chinese government recently admitted that the Three Gorges Dam faces “urgent problems”. From the Guardian:

The frank assessment of the challenges posed and benefits offered by the dam came amid growing concerns about a drought on the middle stretches of the Yangtze. This has left 1,392 reservoirs in Hubei with only “dead water” and has affected the drinking supplies of more than 300,000 people.

Chinese media reported this month that the Yangtze water levels near Wuhan hit their lowest point since the dam went into operation in 2003. Long stretches have apparently been closed to water traffic after hundreds of boats ran aground in the shallows.

There have been claims that the Three Gorges plant has exacerbated the problem by holding back water for electricity generation, but operators claim they have alleviated the problem by releasing 400m cubic metres of water from the reservoir. As a result the levels have fallen below 156 metres – the amount needed for optimum power generation.

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