SHANGHAI — In glittering Shanghai, known for its hopping night life and influx of Western luxury stores, a VIP cocktail reception last Thursday night, May 26, marked the opening of a new H&M clothing store on upscale Nanjing Road. As a parade of BMWs, Audis, and Mercedes pulled up to valet parking alongside a red carpet unfurled on the sidewalk, an observer might never have suspected that the local government here in China's richest and most urbane city has been struggling with two very basic problems: keeping the water running and the power on.
Both problems stem from a drought that has been plaguing central China since January and the related shriveling of the Yangtze River. The Yangtze -- Asia's longest river -- tumbles down from the Tibetan plateau, traversing nearly 4,000 miles across the length of China, before emptying into the East China Sea near Shanghai. The water of its final tributary, the Huangpu, winds along the famed Bund area and sparkles at night under the glow of illuminated skyscrapers and the Oriental Pearl Tower. For centuries a source of inspiration for poets -- and frustration for emperors trying to manage its turbulent flooding -- the Yangtze remains in many ways essential to the modern Chinese economy.
Today, it carries 80 percent of China's river freight -- a steady procession of barges laden with coal, construction materials, and container traffic, floating from the megacity of Chongqing to the port of Shanghai, now the world's busiest. The Yangtze and its tributaries are now the site of thousands of small and large dams, including the $45 billion Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydropower station. It also supplies water for drinking, farming, and industrial activity to 400 million people in the Yangtze delta, where 40 percent of China's economic activity is located.
The mighty Yangtze's water level has been dropping for years as new towns crop up along its banks and older settlements, such as Chongqing, grow into vast megacities, with factories and farmers siphoning off their take, often in unregulated serve-themselves fashion. Meanwhile, the phalanx of dams has changed the river's hydrology, and Chinese and U.S. scientists project that glacial melt in Tibet, where the river begins, points to a diminished future. But most troubling, whether related to climate change or not, is that this year's rainfall in the provinces that water the upper Yangtze has been a trickle -- as much as 40 percent below the annual average for January to April. China is facing its worst drought in half a century.
The Yangtze, and all who depend on it, are suffering. In May, freight shipping was halted for a 140-mile stretch near the central city of Wuhan due to low water levels. In the parched central provinces of Hubei and Hunan, farmers have been struggling to keep vegetables alive, delaying planting the summer rice crop and losing livestock. The farmers' woes aren't theirs alone. The People's Daily reported on May 28 that in just one week the price of some key vegetables jumped more than 10 percent at a time when the central government is desperately trying to control inflation.