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    Poyang Lake: Life Under Climate Whiplash

    In 2020, communities living around China’s largest freshwater lake were hit by devastating floods. This year, they have faced a record drought.

    JIANGXI, East China — Two years ago, Sixth Tone reported on the devastating floods that struck communities living around Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake. This October, we returned to the same area to record a very different scene: a historic drought.

    Global warming is leading to more frequent extreme weather events all over the world, and China is no exception. The record-breaking drought at Poyang Lake was just one of a series of disasters that struck the country this summer, as blistering heat waves caused widespread wildfires and power outages.

    Yet the events at Poyang Lake stand out. Here, communities are facing the bleak reality that climate whiplash — wild swings between different kinds of extreme weather — is becoming the new normal. Many are wondering how they can prepare for a more dangerous future.

    The disappearing lake

    Poyang Lake in the summer should look like the sea. In the past, locals living near the water only worried about the lake flooding during the wet season. In 2020, the water level surged to a record 22.63 meters, forcing 700,000 people to relocate and causing billions of dollars of damage.

    This year, however, there was no danger of flooding. As China baked amid an unprecedented heat wave, huge swaths of the lake dried up. The exposed lake bed resembled an endless grassland; some drier parts reminded viewers of the Gobi Desert.

    Surreal pictures of the drought went viral on Chinese social media, and people began traveling to Poyang Lake from all directions to take selfies and record the strange scene. Cracked ground and piles of dead fish were visible everywhere.

    But as the drought continued, the severity of the disaster became clear. By Aug. 6, the water level at Poyang Lake had dropped below the drought threshold of 12 meters, according to the Jiangxi Xingzi Hydrological Station. By Sept. 23, it had dropped to 7.1 meters, the lowest level ever recorded. And it kept going down.

    There was almost no rainfall recorded in the Poyang Lake basin between July and October, according to data from the Jiangxi Meteorological Department. It was the first time this had happened in over 70 years. The temperature in the region stayed above 35 degrees Celsius for 57 days between July and October.

    Zhan Mingjin, the chief climate change expert at the Jiangxi Provincial Meteorological Bureau, said that more than 50% of Jiangxi province experienced severe drought during that period. 

    “This year’s drought is the most severe since 1961, but we don’t know how severe it will be yet,” Zhan said.

    A bitter blow

    By October, the river running through Dixi — one of the villages near the northeastern shores of Poyang Lake — had almost dried up. Most of the riverbed was lying exposed, with just a few streams cutting through the sand.

    The bridge leading into the village was a striking sight: the falling water line had revealed its entire 30-meter-high skeleton. It was amazing to recall that only two years ago, the bridge had been almost completely submerged when the floods struck.

    Not far from the bridge, local villager Huang Laiyuan and his wife, Yu Guoyuan, were trying to decorate their new home — the second new home they have built in two years.

    In 2015, Huang borrowed nearly 1 million yuan ($143,500) from relatives to build a new house, but the building was destroyed during the 2020 flood. The couple remember the horrifying moment their five-story home suddenly tilted, sank, and disappeared under the water before their eyes.

    “Everything has gone,” Yu recalls thinking at the time. “Our house, work tools, marriage certificate, jewelry, and tally book, they’re all gone.”

    Two years later, the couple told Sixth Tone they were still recovering from the emotional damage of the flood. Now, they have had to cope with a record-breaking drought.

    Huang and Yu make a living running a farming equipment repair workshop, but business has been bad this year. Crops have failed all over the region due to the lack of rainfall. That means few farmers have been using their machinery, and there is less need for repairs.

    Huang Laiyuan’s cousin, Huang Zhigang, is one of those farmers. Two years ago, he felt fortunate to have only 50 mu (around 8.2 acres) of land destroyed by the floods. “If you survive a catastrophe, you will be blessed after,” he liked to say at the time, quoting a Chinese proverb.

    Last year, Huang and a friend capitalized on their luck by jointly contracting 220 mu of land and harvesting 600 kilograms of rice. But this fall, the drought exacted a terrible toll on their harvest. They were only able to save less than 100 kg of grain.

    “Looking at the rice drying up day after day, it’s like they are calling for help, but I can’t do anything about it,” Huang’s friend, Li Qiuxuan, said. 

    Spiraling crisis

    But the impact of the drought could extend far beyond local communities. Poyang Lake is also a crucial stop along the East Asia-Australasian Flyway, one of the world’s most important flyways for migratory birds. Last year, more than 700,000 birds spent the winter here.

    The birds’ fate looks uncertain this year. Hu Zhenpeng, a professor at Nanchang University, told Sixth Tone that the drought has had a severe impact on the Poyang Lake ecosystem. 

    Large amounts of submerged vegetation have been wiped out, the population of benthic animals like clams and shrimp has been severely damaged, and the situation for fish and finless porpoises is “worrying,” Hu says. As a result, wintering migratory birds will find their normal food sources depleted.

    The drought was also the major driver of the giant sandstorm that struck Jiangxi province earlier this year. Sandstorms are unusual in the region, which is heavily forested. But as vast stretches of the lake dried up, strong winds were able to whip up the sand on the lake bed into a giant cloud, according to Zhan, the climate change expert.

    For Zhan, the worry is that the effects of extreme weather will continue to spiral in Jiangxi. In the climate change era, it’s becoming more common for chains of disasters to occur, as multiple extreme climate events strike at the same time.

    “These phenomena are all inextricably linked to climate change, which is affecting the lives of countless ordinary people,” Zhan said.

    Editors: Qi Ya and Dominic Morgan.

    (Header image: Tourists drive motorcycles on the dried-up bed of Poyang Lake, in Duchang, Jiangxi province, Oct. 11, 2022. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)