An article published this week in the UK’s Guardian newspaper – ‘China crisis over Yangtze river drought forces drastic dam measures’ – warns that Asia’s biggest river, the Yangtze, is suffering its worst drought in 50 years. The extreme dry spell is damaging crops, threatening wildlife and aquatic ecosystems, and raising widespread alarm about China’s massive water diversion projects.

From January to April, the worst hit area – the province of Hubei – had 40% less rainfall than the average measured annually since 1961. Shanghai, Jiangsu and Hunan are also severely affected. Regional authorities have declared more than 1,300 lakes “dead”, which means they are out of use for irrigation and drinking supply, and risk having their ecosystems destroyed.

The Yangtze delta supports 400 million people and 40% of China’s economic activity. The water shortages are affecting 4.4 million people and 3.2 million farm animals, according to the Office of State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters. The resulting narrowing and shallowing of the Yangtze and its tributaries has stranded thousands of boats and left a 220km stretch off limits for container ships. Fear is growing for the survival of the finless porpoise, the only remaining cetacean in the river since the extinction of the baiji dolphin.

In response, the Chinese government has ordered an unprecedented release of water from the Three Gorges reservoir –5bn cubic metres of water. The drastic measure comes amid warnings of severe power shortages resulting from diminished water levels for hydroelectric power generation, and highlights the significance and scope of the dry spell.

Climate change projections suggest that global changes in hydrological regimes will include longer, hotter, drier periods such as the drought in China and the current similar crisis in Australia, as well as warmer winters and more extreme weather events. Industry professionals dealing with water management and decision-makers must consider climate change adaptation in long-term infrastructure design, as well as in policies guiding water use.

ACT’s fifth report “Climate Change Adaptation and Water Governance” authored by Bob Sandford, Chair, Canadian Partnership Initiative of the UN Water for Life Decade, is due for release in September 2011.