Record Heat in Central China Causes Power Shortages, Economic Strain, and Suffering

A massive, months-long heat wave has scorched regions in central China. Intense droughts and evaporating water sources have choked energy supplies in several regions reliant upon hydropower, causing widespread power cuts and forcing businesses of all sizes to halt operations. Human suffering has accompanied the economic strain, with many netizens testifying to fatalities in their communities. As China grapples with interminable pandemic lockdowns, rising geopolitical tensions, and economic slowdowns, global climate change has reasserted itself as an existential issue that is too hot to ignore. David Stanway from Reuters reported on the intensity of this recent heatwave

China’s heatwave, stretching past 70 days, is its longest and most widespread on record, with around 30% of the 600 weather stations along the Yangtze recording their highest temperatures ever by last Friday.

[…] China’s National Meteorological Centre downgraded its national heat warning to “orange” on Wednesday after 12 consecutive days of “red alerts”, but temperatures are still expected to exceed 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in Chongqing, Sichuan and other parts of the Yangtze basin.

One weather station in Sichuan recorded a temperature of 43.9C [111 Fahrenheit] on Wednesday, the highest ever in the province, official forecasters said on their Weibo channel. [Source]

The heatwave has caused widespread droughts. China’s National Meteorological Center stated that parts of Jiangsu, Anhui, Henan, Hubei, Zhejiang, Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan, Guizhou, Chongqing, Sichuan, Shaanxi, Gansu and Tibet have all experienced moderate to severe droughts. Jiangxi’s Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake, was reduced to 25 percent of its usual size. Rainfall in the Yangtze River basin has been about 45 percent lower than normal since July, and water levels dropped so low that previously submerged 600-year-old Buddhist statues were uncovered in the river. 

Officials have sprung into action to mitigate the drought’s impact on the country’s autumn harvest, which accounts for 75 percent of China’s total grain supply. China’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs declared an “all-out battle” against drought, and four government departments issued an urgent joint emergency notice urging local authorities to ensure “every unit of water … be used carefully.” The government has begun using cloud seeding, forcing rain by firing chemicals into the sky, and discharged hundreds of cubic meters of water from reservoirs to replenish rivers in agricultural zones. Noel Celis from AFP reported on other government measures to protect the harvest

China produces more than 95 percent of the rice, wheat and maize it consumes, but a reduced harvest could mean increased demand for imports in the world’s most populous country — putting further pressure on global supplies already strained by the conflict in Ukraine.

State media reported Wednesday evening that the government had pledged 10 billion yuan ($1.45 billion) to help ensure good rice harvests this autumn.

A meeting of Beijing’s State Council, presided over by Premier Li Keqiang, had agreed the government should “do an even better job in fighting and reducing drought”, broadcaster CCTV said.

Officials also called for “a combination of measures to increase water sources to fight drought, first ensure drinking water for the people, ensure water for agricultural irrigation, and guide farmers to fight drought and protect autumn grain”, it added. [Source]

In provinces such as Chongqing and Sichuan, which are heavily reliant on hydropower, energy resources have been stretched thin. CK Tan from Nikkei Asia reported that due to hot temperatures and low water supplies, local governments have ordered power cuts in order to save electricity

Last week, the temperature soared to 45 C in Chongqing city, where some residents scrambled to find cooler refuge in subway stations and supermarkets.

On Monday, the city ordered that opening hours at hundreds of shopping malls be shortened from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. to “ensure the safe and orderly supply of power and guarantee the people’s basic needs,” the local government said.

Sichuan had ordered companies using industrial power to suspend production for six days starting Aug. 15. Local media report that businesses have been told to extend that suspension. The policy applies to 16,000 companies in 19 cities across the province, including a Toyota Motor factory and production facilities for key Apple supplier Foxconn.

Meanwhile, Huzhou City in Zhejiang Province, an industrial hub near Shanghai, advised residents to keep air conditioning at certain levels, while tenants living on the first three floors of high-rise buildings were asked to use stairs instead of elevators. [Source]

Manya Koetse from What’s On Weibo documented how local residents in Sichuan and Chongqing adapted to the heat wave and energy cuts:

[The power cuts] led to some extraordinary scenes from Sichuan and Chongqing subways, where travelers found themselves traveling in the dark or with only emergency lights on.

[…] Left without airconditioning, some offices also used big blocks of ice to keep employers cool.

[…] Some viral images showed residents sleeping in underground parking lots (#四川达州出现停电居民发声#).

[…] Another viral video from the city of Guang’an showed how a woman used a rope to get her order delivered to the 25th floor of her apartment building, where the elevators stopped working due to the power cuts (#高温停电女子拉绳吊外卖上25楼#). The woman had allegedly ordered in food at 4pm, expecting a power cut at 6pm, but then the elevators stopped running at 5pm already. [Source]

Some netizens found news of the heat wave and power cuts entertaining and mocked those affected by the heat using the viral hashtag #ThePeopleOfChongqingAndSichuanAreAboutToCry#. Censors also took down certain WeChat posts criticizing poor energy planning in Sichuan, and some news outlets sugarcoated the heatwave and toned down its human toll. In response, many netizens criticized the sanitized news coverage and provided first-person accounts of their struggles. Some called out instances of perceived energy waste, such as Shanghai’s decision to put on a light show for pop singer Yan Haoxiang while subway stations in Sichuan had no lights. “The stinking rich are living it up, while people are dying of heatstroke on the street,” one netizen wrote on Weibo. CDT Chinese editors collected other netizen comments containing details of how people were impacted by the heat and criticism of apathy towards their suffering:

会拥有洋娃娃吗_:I’m speechless that anyone would find this amusing. At night, the emergency ward of Chengdu Hospital is packed with old people suffering from heatstroke. The ICU is full. Doctors are seriously telling relatives that their elderly family members could die at any moment. Why does the Internet still find this entertaining? I don’t understand.

重生之我是爆炒淀粉肠:It’s not that we’re not “about to cry,” we’re actually dying.

嘎嘎很尬:This hashtag waters down the suffering. Can’t they see how many people have died from heat exhaustion and heatstroke?

告诉花城我爱他nice:To the person who came up with this sort of hashtag: don’t you have a heart? Why don’t you come and find out what it’s like to spend a whole day in 40-degree heat during a power outage? I wonder how many people who survived the pandemic won’t survive this summer.

梨花:Forest fires are raging in Chongqing, old people aren’t going to survive this hot summer, hospital emergency wards have a constant stream of patients coming in with heatstroke, factories are closed, and businesses have limited their hours. Why would someone use the phrase “about to cry” to sum up these disasters? Is that hashtag even still on the hot search list? [Chinese]

The energy crunch has become a national issue, since numerous neighboring provinces source their electricity from hydropower from Sichuan and Chongqing. As a result of the energy supply bottleneck, governments are turning to coal to meet energy demands. Chen Xuewan, Fan Ruohong, and Denise Jia from Caixin reported on Sichuan’s renewed appetite for coal:

The situation is so dire, some have called for shuttered power plants fueled by coal– which accounted for 56% of total power consumption in 2021 – to be turned back on, while approvals for new plants have surged this year, seemingly flying in the face of the government’s policy to cut coal use as part of its goal to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030.

In fact, provincial governments approved plans to add 8.63 gigawatts of new coal power plants in the first quarter of 2022 alone, already 46.55% the capacity approved throughout 2021, according to a report published by Greenpeace East Asia’s Beijing office last month.

Even during the wet season that sees rains swell the Yangtze River, Sichuan needs to increase output at coal-fired power plants to meet not just its own energy needs, but also out-of-province demand, Sichuan Electric Power Trading Center said in a report early this year. [Source]

However, Zhao Ziwen from the South China Post reported that coal will not be enough to satisfy Sichuan’s energy needs, let alone those of other provinces:

[S]upport for coal-fired power plants alone will be “insufficient” to deal with Sichuan’s problem, because thermal power makes up a small part of its energy mix, said Lin Boqiang, dean of the China Institute for Studies in Energy Policy at Xiamen University.

The province relies on hydropower to generate around 80 per cent of its electricity, while thermal power generates less than 20 per cent, data from Sichuan Power Exchange Centre showed.

“Sichuan’s coal power does not account for a high proportion [of total power generation], transporting coal into the Sichuan can only ensure that coal-power equipment does not shut down,” said Yuan Jiahai, a professor at the School of Economics and Management at North China Electric Power University. [Source]

Translation by Cindy Carter.

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