Pearl River’s source now ‘almost dry’

Impact of drought reaches far beyond the mainland’s parched southwest

Stephen Chen
23 March 2010

The source of the Pearl River in Qujing, Yunnan, has almost dried up.

Zeng Lingyan, administrative director of the Pearl River Source Natural Reserve, said yesterday that the water which used to rush from a granite cave at the foot of a hill as a “thundering waterfall” was now “as big as a finger”.

More than 100 million people depend on the river for drinking water and the drying up of its source signals that the impact of the drought in southwest China is spreading.

And because many major rivers originate or flow through Yunnan, mainland provinces such as Guangdong are not the only ones worrying. Many countries in Southeast Asia have also raised concerns.

Zeng said the Pearl River’s source began to dry up at the end of December, about three months after drought hit the province.

“The water volume dropped very fast,” she said.

“The ecological system in the reserve has not had time to adapt. We have lost more than 10,000 rhododendrons, as well as many other plants. If the city government hadn’t called in fire trucks to spray water on the hills, the landscape would looked like we’d been nuked.

“But if the rain comes in June, as some experts predict, it will be too late. The reserve will be a wasteland. Everyone here, from ordinary citizens to government leaders, is praying to the sky for water.”

Qian Yan, deputy director of the Drought and Flood Relief Department at the Pearl River Water Resource Committee, which is under the Ministry of Water Resources, said yesterday that the drought was having a significant impact on water flows to Guangdong from the west.

Water flow to the Tianshengqiao No1 Hydropower Station, at the first major reservoir collecting Pearl River water flowing out of Yunnan to Guangdong, was only 53 cubic metres per second yesterday morning, compared with hundreds of cubic metres a second normally and peak flow in the thousands.

“It’s a record low,” she said.

To make the situation worse, the reservoir itself was about to dry up, Qian said.

“The current water level is about 740 metres. The bottom is 730 metres. If the drought continues, most of the western sources of Pearl River will be cut off,” she said.

But Qian said residents in Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau should not panic.

“If you take a look at the water inflow to major dams in Guangdong, such as Feilaixia, it is ample,” she said. “Water supply shortage is unlikely to occur in our province, because we not only have water coming in from the west, but the north and east as well. The Pearl River branches from the other two directions, so we will be okay.”

But some Southeast Asian countries could have problems, according to Yu Xiaogang, an environmentalist based in Yunnan.

Several major rivers, including the Lancang (Mekong) and Nu (Salween), pass through Yunnan, where many huge dams have been built or are under construction. Countries such as Vietnam and Thailand have long been concerned that China could reduce the amount of water flowing south.

“The drought has intensified these worries,” Yu said.

“Citizens and media of these countries are complaining that water levels in their rivers have been reaching historic lows in recent months, severely affecting their economies and ecological systems.

“The root of the issue is that the Chinese government keeps the operational data of the dams in Yunnan secret. Nobody knows how much water has flown in and how much comes out.

“Chinese government officials have reiterated they would never hurt the interests of neighbouring countries, but they never use data to back up the claim.”

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