China currently faces a drought lasting over 200 days; the worst in over 50 years. About 10 million people in the central Yangtze farming region have been affected. As a result, operations have been compromised at crucial hydropower plants , potentially leading to nationwide power shortages.
To help downstreams farmers suffering from water shortages, 17 billion gallons of water have been released from the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province. However, water levels have now fallen to a dangerously low 152.7 meters, below the 156m mark required for the plant’s 26 turbines to run at full capacity.
With a total capacity of 18.2GW and an output equal to that of 15 nuclear reactors, the Three Gorges is the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant. Industrial consumers greatly depend on the electricity it produces.
As the Energy-Water Conundrum worsens in China, officials are facing difficult decisions. Without Three Gorges plant running at full capacity, China may face significant power shortages during times of peak summer consumption. Already, a lack of electricity has shut down activity in nearly half of the silicon manufacturing facilities in Hunan province. Water-reliant aluminum and copper smelters in the region could be next.
On the other hand, lack of water for irrigation poses its own problems. The Hubei, Hunan, Jiangzi, Anhui and Jiangsu provinces together account for close to 47% of China’s rice production, but all areas have been affected by the drought. If it persists, Chinese farmers could miss the crucial early rice harvest, which typically accounts for one-fifth of the year’s total yield. “Fundamentally there is a conflict between hydropower generation and water supply, irrigation and navigation,” said Ma Jun of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.
Hydropower is typically a major contributor to the power grid during the summer season, but at present, 1,392 reservoirs in the Hubei province are too water-depleted to generate electricity at all. The dire situation has lead to accusations that large-scale hydropower, long a fundamental part of Chinese energy policy, is actually worsening risk of drought in important agricultural production regions.