China has issued its first national drought alert of the year as authorities battle forest fires and mobilize specialist teams to protect crops from scorching temperatures across the Yangtze River basin.
China’s National Meteorological Center also renewed its high-temperature red alert on Friday, the 30th consecutive day it has issued alerts, it said on its Weibo channel. State forecasters now predicted that the current heatwave hitting China would only start to abate on August 26.
The national drought “yellow alert”, issued late on Thursday, comes after regions from Sichuan in the southwest to Shanghai in the Yangtze delta have experienced weeks of extreme heat, with government officials repeatedly citing global climate change as the cause.
The yellow alert is two notches short of the most serious warning on Beijing’s scale.
In one of the Yangtze’s important flood basins in central China’s Jiangxi province, the Poyang lake has now shrunk to a quarter of its normal size for this time of year, state news agency Xinhua reported.
As many as 66 rivers across 34 counties in the southwestern region of Chongqing have dried up, state broadcaster CCTV said on Friday.
Rainfall in Chongqing this year is down 60 percent compared with the seasonal norm, and the soil in several districts is severely short of moisture, CCTV said, citing local government data.
The district of Beibei, north of Chongqing’s urban center, saw temperatures hit 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) on Thursday, according to China’s weather bureau.
Chongqing accounted for six of the 10 hottest locations in the country on Friday morning, with temperatures in the district of Bishan already approaching 39C (102F). Shanghai was already at 37C (98F).
Chongqing region’s infrastructure and emergency services have come under increasing strain, with firefighters on high alert as mountain and forest blazes erupted across the region. State media also reported an increase in cases of heatstroke.
A gas utility in the district of Fuling told customers on Friday that they would cut off supplies until further notice as they deal with “serious safety hazards”. The Chongqing agricultural bureau has also set up expert teams to protect vulnerable crops and expand planting to compensate for losses ahead of the autumn harvest.
China’s water resources ministry has instructed drought-hit agricultural regions to draw up lots determining who can access supplies at any particular time, to ensure they do not run out.
Factories in Sichuan and the adjacent metropolis of Chongqing have also been ordered to shut down after reservoirs that supply hydropower fell to half their normal levels and demand for air conditioning surged in the scorching temperatures.
The drought’s impact in Sichuan is unusually severe because the province gets 80 percent of its power from hydroelectric dams.
Hardest hit areas
Al Jazeera’s Patrick Fok, reporting from Chongqing, said the area was one of the hardest hit by the heatwave in China and where temperatures hit an all-time record of 45C (113F) earlier this week.
“It’s hard to escape the effects of this heat wave and the drought that comes with it,” Fok said. “Reports say more than 350,000 people in rural Chongqing are suffering because of the shortage of water supplies.”
Commenting on the threat to the Chinese economy from the drought, David Mahon, a political economist and founder of Mahon China, said the water shortage is a “major issue short term”.
“It’s going to have a considerable impact in the short term because it comes on top of a zero-COVID policy which, for most of this year, has meant that a lot of economic activity has slowed down,” Mahon told Al Jazeera from Beijing .
“But China moves quite swiftly,” he said.
“When it comes to solving a problem and acting on something, it often can move much faster than other political cultures. So I think that in the situation they are facing, we will see, as we go into next year, a number of remedies, certainly a diversification of energy sources. But right now it’s very, very hard for the residents of many provinces and cities.”
According to data from China’s emergency ministry, high temperatures in July alone caused direct economic losses of 2.73 billion yuan ($400m), affecting 5.5 million people.
The national weather agency said in its daily bulletin on Friday that 4.5 million square kilometers of national territory had now experienced temperatures of 35C (95F) or more over the past month – nearly half the country’s total area – with more than 200 weather stations recording record highs.