The Yellow River Basin is the center of a contest over water, energy, and agriculture.
By Keith Schneider
Circle of Blue
YINCHUAN, China—Even along the middle reaches of the Yellow River, which irrigates 402,000 hectares (993,000 acres) of farmland north of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region’s provincial capital, there is still no mistaking the smell of dry earth and diesel fuel, the abiding scents of a desert province that is also among China’s most efficient grain producers.
Ningxia farmers have relied on the Yellow River since 221 BCE, when Qin Dynasty engineers clawed narrow trenches from the sand, introducing some of the first instances of irrigated agriculture on earth. Despite persistent droughts, in each of the last five years irrigation has made it possible for annual harvests to increase by an average of 100,000 metric tons.
The 2010 harvest of 3.5 million metric tons was nearly double what it was in 1990. The 3.9 million people who live and work on Ningxia’s 1.2 million farms, most no larger than three-quarters of a hectare (1.6 acres), produce the highest yields of rice and corn in the nine-province Yellow River Basin, according to central government crop statistics.
In sum, the farm productivity of this small northern China region—about the same size as West Virginia and located 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) to the west of the Bohai Sea—reflects the major shifts in geography and cultivation practices over the last generation that have made China both self-sufficient in food production and the largest grain grower in the world.
Yet Chinese farm officials here and academic authorities in Beijing are becoming increasingly concerned that China does not have enough water, good land, and energy to sustain its agricultural prowess. As Circle of Blue and the China Environment Forum have reported in the Choke Point: China series, momentous competing trends—rising energy demand, accelerating modernization, and diminishing freshwater resources—are putting the country’s energy production and security at risk.
The very same trends also threaten China’s farm productivity. Last year, the national farm sector and the coal sector combined used 85 percent of the 599 billion cubic meters (158 trillion gallons) of water used in China.
Food Supply At Risk Along Yangtze and Yellow
This spring, unmistakable evidence of just how vulnerable China’s energy and farm sectors are to moisture shortages has emerged in northern and southern China. Last week, central government and provincial authorities ordered managers at the Three Gorges Dam to release 600 million cubic meters (159 billion gallons) of water to the lower Yangtze River, where authorities began restricting electricity usage by manufacturers. The reason: a severe drought that is dramatically lowering water levels in rivers that generate much of China’s 213 gigawatts of annual hydropower capacity and are used to transport coal to power plants.
Drought in northern China is also reducing spring wheat harvests and starting to limit coal production, thus accelerating the rising prices for food and energy and putting more inflationary pressure on the entire economy. Grain production on 870,000 hectares (2.15 million acres) of farmland has been affected in Hubei Province—one of China’s largest rice producers—and about 400,000 people have no ready supply of drinking water.
Zheng Shouren, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told the Xinhua News Agency that the emergency water releases from Three Gorges have been a lifesaver. “If there was no Three Gorges Dam, the drought would be worse and shipping on the Yangtze would be very hazardous,” Zheng said.
The Yellow River Basin is another pivotal place where energy, water, and growth trends converge in damaging ways. The nine desert provinces, including Ningxia, now produce more than 20 percent of China’s annual grain harvest, which last year amounted to 546 million metric tons. Four of the Yellow River provinces are also the largest suppliers of coal, China’s primary source of energy.