To combat severe droughts, China is turning to technology

“They could actually be making the drought situation worse,” says Gabriel Collins of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Texas, arguing that excessive future water transfers could leave two large parts of the country vulnerable to seasonal water shortages, rather than just one.

He adds that other technologies, such as desalination, while tempting, are hugely expensive and would likely be limited to heavily industrialized coastal areas where demand makes them economically viable.

Collins recently co-authored an article with Gopal Reddy, founder of Ready for Climate, an environmental research organization, about China’s long-standing water scarcity problems. “The structural issue is much more frightening to me than this season’s drought,” says Reddy, noting that China has limited usable reserves of groundwater — which can sometimes be tapped to alleviate droughts — and that these are already overexploited, particularly in the north of the country.

Groundwater reserves are “the last resort,” says Nathan Forsythe of Newcastle University in the UK, because they take the longest time to replenish when they are depleted. They rely on rainwater to seep deep into the earth—most rain simply evaporates or is washed away.

But stocking up on reserves is, in principle, a good way to plan ahead for droughts. China has tremendous capacity in this area and could build reservoirs to store more rainwater on farms or plant crops that are good at storing moisture. Small farmers in China have reportedly used ponds to hold water in place for thousands of years. Expanding the use of such interventions could also help.

One of the most serious effects of this year’s drought is the impact on crops. Photos of sun-scorched fields full of dead fruits and vegetables have already surfaced. But China is more or less leading the world in attempts to develop drought-resistant crops, argues Rebecca Nadin of the Overseas Development Institute, a global affairs think tank. This could soon extend to genetic engineering of wheat and rice. China also recently approved the use of drought-resistant soybean seeds marketed by Argentine company Bioceres.

All of these interventions could help improve China’s chances of fighting the drought. But the threat of ever-drier conditions brought on by climate change is looming large, says Aiguo Dai of the State University of New York at Albany. It’s possible that some areas of China, particularly in the north, will see more rainfall in the coming years. But when the overall trend is toward hotter, drier conditions in places that can’t quickly adapt to water shortages, things get very difficult.

Forsythe notes that the most immediate action a country can take in response to a drought is to curb demand and ensure water is not wasted. But in a country of 1.4 billion where factories work day and night to make products that ship around the world, there are clearly limits to how hard those brakes can be applied. For example, recent relatively brief power outages caused solely by a lack of hydroelectric power have estimated that around 1 million electric vehicles and 400,000 charging stations are without power.

Water scarcity is becoming a problem that we will all face to some degree. But Chinese authorities need to be acutely aware of how much the drought is threatening the country’s ambitions. The “biggest risk” to China’s supremacy as the leading superpower of this century is probably its “ecological vulnerabilities,” says Forsythe. “Managing their natural capital would certainly be in their interest.”

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