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    ‘The Weather Has Changed’: Historic Drought Hits Coastal China

    Amid a winter of weird weather, a persistent lack of rain has created a water shortage for millions of people.

    ZHEJIANG, East China — Standing next to his small patch of land full of rapeseed plants, Jin Guanghua is fretful. The usually low-maintenance crop is looking far too meager for this time of the year.

    “Perhaps it will grow better when the rain comes,” says the 69-year-old, who lives in Xi’an, a village in Yongjia County. It’s something he’s been waiting on for months. Zhejiang, a coastal province of countless rivers cutting through green hills, is in the middle of a historic drought.

    Xi’an sits on the Nanxi River, whose calm nature belies its vital importance to the region, supplying water to over 2 million people. The lack of rain, beginning in October, has caused water levels to drop so low that parts of the Nanxi no longer flow, exposing the riverbed’s pale stones.

    “There hasn’t been any water for several months,” says Jin Xiuli, another Xi’an villager, while holding a rope that’s tied to a foraging sheep. The 68-year-old complains that his cabbages are wilting. “This year’s drought has lasted the longest,” he says. “The weather has changed.”

    Such conditions are affecting about three-quarters of Zhejiang, a province the size of South Korea, according to Lei Yuan, senior engineer at the Zhejiang Meteorological Service Center. “According to our monitoring, we’re looking at a province-wide drought here,” she says. While fall and winter always see less rain than the rest of the year, it’s usually not dry enough to declare a drought. But the average rainfall since October has been 70% lower compared with the same period last year, Lei says. Many cities in Zhejiang have issued wildfire warnings.

    Other areas along China’s southern coast — including Fujian, Guangdong, and Guangxi — have also seen limited rainfall and regional drought this winter, affecting several million people, according to official statistics. The Ministry of Water Resources announced Thursday it had sent officials to the affected regions, and that it is allocating disaster relief funds to safeguard people’s water supply.

    “It is surely an unusual phenomenon,” says Wu Bingyi, a climate scientist at Fudan University in Shanghai. He explains that one major factor is La Niña, the cool phase of a recurring weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean that influences precipitation. Another variable is the loss of sea ice in the warming Arctic, which has been linked to cold spells across Eurasia and less rainfall in Southern China.

    Zhejiang’s drought should be examined in the larger context of climate change, Wu says, but whether the current conditions will recur more often in the future requires further research. “I think phenomena like this should be taken seriously and given the attention they deserve,” he says.

    China has seen several bouts of unusual weather this winter, including cold snaps in December followed by rapid warming. On Saturday, Zhengzhou, a city in the central Henan province that usually has bitterly cold winters, recorded a daily high temperature of 21 degrees Celsius. Such dramatic temperature swings in winter are “among the important manifestations of global warming,” Wu says.

    The lack of water and relatively extreme weather were reportedly among the reasons for a bout of power outages across China in December, as the cold spurred electricity demand but hydropower reservoirs weren’t full enough to help increase the supply. In Yongjia, too, the local government has stopped its 44 hydropower stations to hold as much water as possible.

    To alleviate drought, local governments in Zhejiang have been trying to use weather modification techniques such as firing rockets that spread moisture-attracting silver iodide particles into the sky, but with limited effect. In Wenzhou, the city that administers Yongjia County, the local state-owned newspaper has called the current predicament “the worst” fall and winter drought in the 72-year history of the People’s Republic.

    In Yueqing, a hilly county on the coast of the East China Sea that is also administered by Wenzhou, water shortages have been so severe that local authorities have resorted to rationing. Since 2012, Yueqing’s 1.3 million people have relied on water diverted from the Nanxi, which flows through Yongjia County some 25 kilometers inland. But after the river’s water level began dropping, Yongjia cut off supplies in November.

    That meant Yueqing had to fully rely on its water reservoirs until April, when authorities predict the spring rainy season will begin alleviating the drought. To save water, residential areas receive one full day of water and then four days of intermittent supply, according to a government notice — though the reality on the ground seems to differ from one area to another. Supplies to companies will be limited, or cut off entirely in the cases of certain businesses such as swimming pools and saunas.

    At Zhongqian Water Reservoir, the second-largest in Yueqing County, the water stands at an all-time low, not even reaching the concrete where the dam starts. A pagoda-shaped lookout platform built to jut out over the reservoir lake is now above dry land. On the dam, white discoloration meters above the current water level underscores how dire the drought has become.

    Jiang Junlin, a manager at a local electronic appliances factory, tells Sixth Tone that one way he and his family have adapted to the situation is by cutting back on their personal hygiene, washing themselves once every two days to save water. “Before, we’d take showers. Now we use buckets to wash ourselves,” he says.

    Jiang remembers how anxious he was when he heard diversions from the Nanxi River would be cut off in November. When the first water cut in his township happened not long after, Jiang immediately bought buckets to store water and persuaded the landlord to install a water pump to fill a rooftop water tank, something many Yueqing families now rely on during dry spells.

    Zhao, another resident, says she regrets that her family won’t be able to do their annual house-cleaning, a tradition to ring in the Lunar New Year, which starts on Thursday. “We’ll just use a rag to wipe things down,” says the Yueqing native, who declined to give her full name. “There have been droughts before, but they were never this serious.”

    In some parts of the county, water storage contraptions can be seen on the roadside. “The guys selling water buckets have made a small fortune!” jokes Huang, the owner of a car wash service in Liushi, a township in Yueqing. Huang, who also declined to give her full name, says they have to buy expensive water pumped from a private well because government policies for water-intensive businesses mean the shop’s water pipes have been completely shut off.

    The national weather service forecast rain for the coming days, which could improve soil moisture levels somewhat but won’t end the drought conditions, says Lei of the Zhejiang Meteorological Service Center. “The whole situation of severe water shortage may not get better until the rainy season comes.”

    Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

    (Header image: People walk through a largely dried-up riverbed in Xi’an Village, Zhejiang province, Feb. 7, 2021. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)