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The Planetary Patient: A China Update

Posted Apr 25 2014 10:02pm

Posted on | April 23, 2014 |

Eight  years ago, I wrote about a range of ecological issues impacting water policy in China. It seemed as if unintended consequences were coming about at every turn. Two examples I mentioned at that time had to do with the Three Gorges Dam and the diversion of the Shiyang River.

Most are still aware of China’s gigantic Three Gorges Dam project, based at the upper margins of the Yangtze River , which feeds 186 cities. The Yangtze historically has actually been pretty clean, not because it isn’t regularly polluted, but rather because its massive flow has provided cleansing wash-out into the sea of Shanghai. But new dams have reduced  flow, and Beijing has been suffering its worst drought in 50 years. It sits in the northern provinces, within reach of the Yangtze’s life-preserving flow.

Ecological management is all about choices. In China, the size and scale of their economic expansion has forced a trade-off that severely limits options. Dams produce much needed hydro-electricity. But they also impact much required fresh water supply and the survival of fish and wildlife species that support a good portion of China’s human population.

In 2013, The Guardian reported that, “Between now and 10 June the dam will release 5 billion cubic metres of water – equivalent to the volume of Lake Windermere in Britain every day – as engineers sacrifice hydroelectric generation for irrigation, drinking supplies and ecosystem support.”

The article continues:

“The dam’s role in the drought has been the subject of a fierce debate. Downstream communities have accused the Three Gorges of holding back too much water to generate power. Environmentalists say this has contributed to the demise of lakes and wetlands, which are already under pressure from urban development and the demands ofagriculture. The operators, however, say the reservoir is helping to ease shortages through a timely release of water…Last week the state council – China’s cabinet – acknowledging that Three Gorges faces “urgent problems” of geological disaster prevention, relocation and ecological protection. It noted the negative impact on downstream water supplies and river transport…The dam is not the only hydro-engineering project that has come under scrutiny as a result of the drought. The state’s massive south-north water diversion project, which aims to tap the normally moist Yangtze basin to supply arid northern cities like Beijing, is also being called into question because one of its source reservoirs at Danjiangkou has fallen 4 meters below the minimum requirement for its operation.”

The diversion of the Shiyang River, dating back to Mao’s time in the 1950s, was intended  to support the agricultural expansion of Minqin, a desert oasis. Today, not only is Minqin having trouble surviving , but wide swaths of formerly viable land are being gobbled up by an ever-enlarging, north central China desert that is now even threatening Beijing. As a result, China’s large population, which has been migrating for the past 200 years from south to north for opportunity, is now reversing that migration.

Now Mongolia has come into the picture with problems. Dust from the Gobi Desert, some 300,000 tons worth, covered Beijing in one storm in 2007. In the 50s, you’d have one or two of these bad sand storms every seven years, and in the 70s, every two to three years. On  April 26, 2012, NASA satellite’s recorded images of the dust storms from outer space. Spring is dust storm season in Mongolia, and 20 to 30 days of storms are expected this year. The Gobi Desert borders Mongolia on its southern border and China on its northern border. Gobi dust travels around the globe, with traces found in places like Kansas. But in Mongolia, it’s more than a trace. About 50,000 square miles have now given way to desert. 683 rivers have dried up in recent years. Average temperatures have risen 3.6 degrees since the 1940s with a 10% drop in rainfall during the same time span. In winter it can drop to -40 degrees Fahrenheit and in summer hit 110 degrees with ease.

My point? When it comes to water and the support of life, everything is integrated. Global warming, river damming and diversion, political collapse of a sponsor nation, the culture of herding and fishing, all now are part of the desertification of a large part of Asia.

I focus on China (the world’s largest growth engine at the moment) because it illustrates how important it is for the human race to act wisely as we make local, regional, national and planetary decisions. Our planet is increasingly fragile that we know. What we need now to grasp is that our health, and our lives, over this next century are tied to our management of this planet. And in many areas around the world, citizens’ lives already hang in the balance.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee.

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