Photo by Erin With on Unsplash

The worst heatwave on record blazed through China, now flood risk is imminent

Millions suffer as a heatwave drags on, bringing drought, wildfires, power cuts, and crop failure.

Almost half of China has been affected by its strongest heatwave since 1961, when complete meteorological observation records began, according to the China Meteorological Administration.

Afflicting northwest, central, and southeast China, the heatwave began on June 13 and broke the 2013 heatwave record of 62 days on August 15. The National Meteorological Center (NMC) of China has issued 30 high-temperature red warnings since the start of the heatwave, with 12 consecutive days of red warnings. China employs a four-tier warning system with red warnings representing the most severe event.

Over 200 national weather observatories have registered extremely high temperatures, with 45 degrees C (115 degrees F) recorded in southwest China’s Chongqing city last week. 

“We are clearly witnessing the impacts of climate change.”

In Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Sichuan, and other places, many people have been hospitalized — and deaths have been registered – because of the heatwave.

“We have seen many cases of heatstroke among outdoor workers and also some elderly people who live in housing without air conditioning,” said Li Zhao, a climate risk researcher at Greenpeace East Asia.

The heatwave has been most intense in the Yangtze river basin. Entire sections and tributaries of the Yangzte river — the largest in Asia and the third longest in the world — have dried up, affecting the 400 million people who depend on it for water. China’s largest freshwater lake, Poyang, which is fed by the Yangztre river has turned bone-dry and is reportedly a fifth of its original size. 

Images captured by the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission show a comparison of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers, near Chongqing, over the last three years. Higher than normal temperatures increase the evapotranspiration of the river’s waters and, together with missing precipitation, result in lower water levels and sediment transportation downstream, which explains the significant color difference of the Yangtze in the 21 August 2022 acquisition (far right). Several areas of dry and exposed riverbed can also be seen west of Chongqing. Credit: contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2020-22), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The drought has put pressure on China’s hydroelectric power supply, forcing the country to restart old coal power plants. Sichuan is in distress because 80 percent of the southwestern province’s energy needs are met by hydroelectric power. The drought has cut the electricity yield in half. 

“The energy shortage has made the situation worse because there is an urgent need for cooling in buildings for survival,” said Zhao. 

Many regions have employed power cuts, like the dimming of subway lights and cutting back on the opening hours of shopping malls. Authorities in Sichuan even ordered the shutdown of factories for six days to ease the power shortage.

China has already suffered economic losses estimated at 2.73 billion yuan or USD 400 million. Farmers across China have faced direct impacts of the drought and are estimated to incur income loss due to crop damage

To make matters worse, wildfires raged across Chongqing last week while the city was in the middle of a mass covid testing drive. Images of testing carried out as wildfires blazed in the backdrop have prompted strong reactions and raised sharp criticism online. 

The NMC put out an announcement on its official Weibo channel that the heatwave was expected to retreat in parts of China by August 24, and in Sichuan and Chongqing by August 29.

However, the temperature relief that arrived on Monday was brought by heavy rains and a flood risk warning. The heatwave has left the soil dry, hard and cracked, which increases the risk of disastrous extreme weather once rains hits, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Rains are expected to persist for another week, and already over 100,000 people have been evacuated.

Analysts have said the energy crisis caused by the drought will continue to persist through the winter, even if the heatwave ends immediately.

Meanwhile, northern parts of China have been experiencing deadly rainfall with four regional heavy rainfall events in July itself. Flood disasters occurred in Heilongjiang and Liaoning Provinces in North China and Sichuan and Gansu provinces in West China.

“The weather and climate situation in China is severe and complex,” said World Meteorological Organization Assistant Secretary-General Dr. Wenjian Zhang. 

“Extreme temperature and drought in the South and high precipitation in the North. The superimposed situation of drought and flood has brought challenges to disaster prevention, mitigation, and relief work.”

“We are clearly witnessing the impacts of climate change.”

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