To Fight Severe Drought, China Is Turning to Technology

“You could actually exacerbate the drought situation,” says Gabriel Collins at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Texas, arguing that excessive future water transfers could lead to two large swathes of the country becoming prone to seasonal water shortages, rather than just one.

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

Collins recently coauthored an article on China’s longstanding water-scarcity issues with Gopal Reddy, founder of Ready for Climate, an environmental research organization. “The structural problem is, to me, far scarier than this season’s drought,” says Reddy, who notes that China has limited usable groundwater reserves—which can sometimes be tapped to alleviate drought—and that these are already overexploited, particularly in the north of the country.

Groundwater reserves are “the lender of last resort,” says Nathan Forsythe at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, because they take the longest to replenish once depleted. They’re dependent on rainwater filtering down deep into the earth—most rain simply evaporates or washes away.

But filling reserves is, in principle, a good way to plan ahead for drought. China has huge capability in this area and could be building reservoirs to hold more rainwater on farms, or planting vegetation that is good at retaining moisture. For thousands of years, small-scale farmers in China have been using ponds to hold water in place, according to reports. Expanding the use of such interventions could help too.

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

All of these interventions may go some way toward improving China’s chances in the battle against drought. But the threat of ever-drier conditions, driven by climate change, looms large, says Aiguo Dai of the State University of New York at Albany. It’s possible that some areas of China, particularly those in the north, might see more precipitation in the coming years. But if the overall trend leads to hotter and drier conditions in places unable to adapt quickly to water scarcity, things will get very difficult.

Forsythe notes that the most immediate thing any country can do in response to drought is to curtail demand and ensure that water is not being wasted. But in a country of 1.4 billion people, where factories toil night and day to produce products that are shipped around the world, there are clearly limits to how much those brakes can be pumped. The recent, relatively brief electricity shortages caused by a lack of hydroelectric power alone are estimated to have left around 1 million electric vehicles and 400,000 charging stations short of energy, for instance.

Water scarcity is becoming a problem that all of us will face, to some degree. But Chinese authorities must be acutely aware of just how much drought threatens the country’s ambitions. The “greatest risk” to China’s preeminence as the leading superpower of this century is probably its “environmental vulnerabilities,” says Forsythe. “Stewarding their natural capital would certainly be in their interest.”

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