China’s south-west battles forest fires as fears linger over harvest

The dried out riverbed of the Jialing River, a major tributary of the Yangtze River in Chongqing, China, on Aug 21, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SHANGHAI (REUTERS) - The south-western Chinese regions of Chonqging and Sichuan were battling fires on Tuesday (Aug 23) as they awaited a long-anticipated drop in temperatures over the next week, but the country’s important autumn harvest could remain threatened.

Officials warned this month that temperatures are rising faster in China than in the rest of the world.

The record-breaking heatwave has raised concerns about the country’s ability to adapt to rapid climate change and conserve its already scarce water resources.

Satellite images showed Poyang Lake, which usually takes on floodwaters from the Yangtze River over the summer, at a fraction of its normal size for this time of year, reducing the drinking water supplies of nearby communities, state broadcaster CCTV said.

Water from the Three Gorges and Danjiangkou reservoirs has already been released to alleviate downstream shortages, the broadcaster added.

The drought poses a “severe threat” to China’s autumn crops, the ministry of agriculture said in a notice on Tuesday, adding that local authorities had been instructed to do everything they can to increase water supplies and protect the harvest.

Farmers suffering from severe crop damage will be urged to replant, and cloud-seeding rockets will be made available wherever possible, the ministry said.

State forecasters said China's heatwave, which has lasted more than two months, was about to hit a "turning point", with a cold front looming from the west and a typhoon approaching in the southeast.

Though China remains on a heat "red alert" for a 12th day, temperatures are expected to fall in parts of central China by Wednesday, and in Sichuan and Chongqing from Aug 29, the National Meteorological Center said on its official Weibo channel.

Authorities also raised a fire "red alert" late on Tuesday, warning that the situation was "extremely dangerous" in the forest areas of central and southern Chongqing and eastern Sichuan, the official China News Service reported.

Chongqing and Sichuan, where rainfall has been 80 per cent less than during normal years, have had to deal with as many as 19 wildfires since Aug 14, according to financial news service Caixin, though no casualties have been reported so far.

The provinces of Jiangxi, Hunan and Guizhou are also on high alert for forest and grassland fires, China's Ministry of Emergency Management warned late on Tuesday.

The ministry said it had dispatched more than 2,800 state-level firefighters to Chongqing and Sichuan to help contain the situation.

Severe electricity shortages continue throughout the region, with the Sichuan capital of Chengdu turning the lights off on its subway trains to save power.

High temperatures drove up air conditioner use to around a third of the province’s total power load, and hydropower generation is down by half as a result of low water levels.

Sichuan normally delivers huge volumes of hydroelectric power to the eastern coast via the power grid, and the decline in output means that coal-fired power plants elsewhere have had to pick up the slack.

CCTV said that coal plants in the central province of Anhui are now operating at maximum capacity and have generated 12 per cent more electricity than normal in order to meet demand from eastern regions.

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