A Brief Report on Yunnan Drought

Just a month ago the southwest China’s Yunnan Province was in the grip of persisting drought. Cracked lands and withered crops stretched across the province. Thirsty local residents and livestock rose into 8 millions and 1.5 millions respectively. 1, 6, 7 & 9 What came to known locally as “the great drought” has also dried up over 273 rivers and 413 small reservoirs in the region. 6, 7 &  9  The sustained aridity has reportedly cost Yunnan $1.6 billion dollars9 in failed crops and severely crippled key industries like flower, tobacco, and hydropower generation, to name but a few. As I write this drought report, however, heavy rains wreaked havoc many places across China including many parts in Yunnan. Weather is like that, as Paul Krugman points out in his recent article Loading the Climate Dice, it fluctuates.

It is also this very observation that “dooms us to climate catastrophe,” argues Krugman. It is the variability in rainfalls from season to season and year-to-year that makes it “easy to miss, ignore or obscure the longer-term trend.”22 It is easy for people to miss the big picture in the presence of short-run fluctuations.

At the beginning of August 2012, Climate Change and Energy Consul Bob Easton and I took a fieldtrip to Yunnan. We have called on relevant governmental departments, research institutes, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and visited local villages (Please see Annex 1 for the complete list of departments, organizations, and villages we have visited). 

Based on findings from literature review and in person interviews with relevant organizations and individuals, the current report provides an overview and preliminary analysis of Yunnan’s drought, its impact assessment, causal factors, adaptation measures, political debates, and potential opportunities for enhancing Sino-UK water collaboration.

I. Rich in Water Resources, but Susceptibility to Drought 

Yunnan is celebrated as the third national water-rich province in China right after Tibet and Sichuan province. However, its provincial capital Kunming is one of the 14 cities in China with the lowest water resources.15

Uneven distribution of regional water resources withholds Yunnan’s development and utilization of its water only at 7%, which is less than a third of the national average of 22%.15Temporally, rainy season normally spins from May to October and brings approximately 85% of the total annual rainfall. The remaining of the year is considered as dry season and only contributes about 15% of annual rainfall.

Geographically, 94% of the provincial terrain is mountainous, and only about 6% of the region lies flat. The region’s flat plains (6% of the total area) accommodate 2/3 of the population and 1/3 of the total farmland, but only have access to 7% of total water resources. In the absence of adaptive water resource management and efficient water infrastructures, rivers in the depth of low-lying valleys hardly contribute much water to the upper level of the highland. 

Yunnanese enjoyed four times more per capita water resource than the national average. Six major river systems, including Yangtze River (Jinsha River), the Pearl River, the Mekong (Lancang), the Red River (Honghe), the Salween (Nu River) and the Irrawaddy (i.e., tributaries like Dulong River), either originate or run through Yunnan Province. However, the region has suffered from three consecutive years’ drought—2009 to 2011. Whether 2012 will sustain the Great Drought into a fourth year is still open to discussion. The sustained drought in a region celebrated for its rich water resources begs the questions of what have induced the persisting drought and why the impact is so severe.

II. The Great Drought: An Overview

Since July 2009, a lingering drought for more than three years left Yunnan’s land parched and populations desperate. River flows decreased, water levels in lakes and other impoundments dropped to record low. Cracked riverbeds and withered plants upset the natural abundances, which were once celebrated as an epicentre of Chinese biodiversity.21 Concerns over drought induced disruption of social harmony7 and economic loss22 saturated headlines of the Chinese media.  

The occurrence and severity of the Great Drought is uncontested. Sustained precipitation reduction reset the lowest rainfall record in decades. In 2011, annual rainfall in 60 cities and counties across Yunnan province hit the lowest in 20 years. 41 of which suffered from the lowest annual rainfall in past 50 plus years11. Counties like Fumin have undergone three years’ consecutive drought, according to Yunnan official data Fumin county’s annual rainfalls in 2009, 2010, and 2011 were 558, 652, and 530 mm, which are much lower than its annual average of 853mm. Comparing to the annual average, Fumin’s precipitation in these three years decreased by 35%, 23% and 38% , respectively.11

Reduction in annual rainfall led to abnormally low river inflow across Yunnan Province. From January to May 2012, average inflow of Yunnan watersheds is 32% lower than the averages in corresponding time periods in previous years. In May, average water level is 40% lower than the averages in similar time periods. Figure 1 shows Yunnan’s six major watersheds and their main tributaries’ water level in comparison with historical average over many years.12

Figure 1:

Figure 1 Jan – May Yunnan Watersheds’ Average Water Level in Comparison with its Temporal Corresponding Historical Average (Yunnan Water Resource Bureau, 2012)

Impact of the Drought

Millions of people and animals suffered from shortage of drinking water.  In 2010, reportedly 18% of the provincial population were short of drinking water and suffered over $2.5 billion worth of crop failure.1 

Over 130-thousand hectares of forests and 520-thousand hectares of croplands were at the mercy of drought induced wildfire.22

Competition over scarce water resources ignited sporadic disruption of social harmony.7 Quarrels and outright fights broke out among desperate farmers as they struggled to meet their water needs. There were reportedly over 1,500 cases of disputes where officials had to step in.7

The booming hydropower generation has also slow down into an infinite halt. According to personal communications with Yunnan provincial development and reform commission, the sustained drought has decreased more than half of the electricity generation from the hydropower stations in the region. There is no way of knowing when it will resume normal production.

As Yunnan’s altitude ranges from few hundreds to over six thousand meters, its tropical environments and snow-capped mountains support one of the most concentrated and diverse spectrum of flora and fauna species. The topographic range has also created a safe haven for an extremely high degree of endemism. The once-in-a-century drought also imposed serious threat to the very survival of many endemic species whose numbers are small and habitats are highly concentrated.23 

Drought induced alteration in regional species composition will most likely lead to replacement of endemic species by drought resistant ones.24 Zhu Hua, an ecologist at XTBG and his colleagues noted a 10% increase in the abundance of liana species over the past few decades in southwest Yunnan’s tropical forests.1              

The replacement of matured tropic forest with fast growing commercial forest also deprives the ecosystem of its ability to capture moisture and absorb carbon dioxide. Cao Kunfang of XTBG points out, “having more lianas in tropical forest could compromise their function as a carbon sink.”1

In short, the impact of the drought is prevailing and severe. It deprived millions of people and livestock of their drinking water, flora and fauna of their bloodlines, ecosystems of their contents and basic services.    

Causes of the Drought: Anthropogenic and Natural

While government officials and peasants all grieve over the sustained drought, they disagree on the probable causes and corresponding mitigation measures of the drought. The difference in their causal analyses also seems to have induced political sensitivity over the issue.

As our field research in Yunnan has revealed, local NGOs and academicians tended to point to failed governmental policies and ill management of natural resources as a major, if not the only, cause of recent climatic anomalies. Quite the opposite, relevant government officials whom we interviewed attributed the decrease in rainfall and delayed rainy seasons as extreme weathers of the historical distribution. “Climatic disaster is nothing new to Yunnan. As the saying goes ‘no climatic disaster does not constitute a year’,” jokes Chen Jian, the deputy director of Yunnan Water Resource Department (Henceforth abbreviated as Yunnan WRD). 


Large-scale clearance of tropic forest and plantation of commercial trees upset regional microclimate.16, 24 “Natural forests are the key regulator of climate and hydrological processes,” says Xu, China’s representative at the World Agroforestry Centre.1 The deforestation in mountainous Yunnan weakened the region’s ability to retain moisture during rainy seasons and to sustain a myriad of flora and faunas during dry seasons. 

Dr. Liu of Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG) also expressed similar concerns with large-scale deforestation, suggesting that forest clearance results in soil erosion, landslides and flash floods. It also “removes the valuable ecological services natural forests provide”1. The impact of deforestation is the most acute during prolonged droughts, whereas, in wetter monsoon seasons there are more floods.

The removal of forest’s ecological services is then compounded with the plantation of water-thirsty commercial trees, namely rubber trees and eucalyptuses.16, 23 By 2010, rubber trees, also locally known as water pumps, cover 20% of Xishuangbanna’s land.1 In Ailao Mountains, where climatically prohibit rubber plantation, fast growing eucalyptus are replacing primary forest to feed the paper industry.1  

Chen at Yunnan Water Resource Department believes Yunnan’s mountainous topography and uneven distribution of water resources make the region vulnerable to drought. He prides Yunnan (~52%) being the third in forest coverage right after Fujian (62%) and Jiangxi (61%). 15,18 Chen argues the negligible percentage of commercial forest in comparison with the overall provincial forest cover does little, if any, damage to the local ecology.

On the other hand, however, experts and NGOs alike depict a quite different picture when it comes to local forestry coverage. They point out forest coverage may remain the same, but the ecological function has severely downgraded. Feng (2007) shared similar concerns with forestry coverage in Fujian and Jiangxi. The large-scale replacement of natural forest with commercial ones does not change the overall coverage, but loses many ecological services, thus Feng (2007) refers to large commercial forest coverage that does little to conserve the ecosystem as “Green Desert” phenomenon. 

Dr. Ou of Yunnan University explains that it is the overemphasis of economic value and negligence of ecological values of trees that have lead to large-scale conversion of tropical rain forest to commercial forest (i.e., rubber and eucalyptus).

The Time Weekly’s senior columnist Yin Hongwei points out that the causes of and corresponding solutions to Yunnan’s persisting drought cannot be sought and prescribed in Yunnan alone. He believes we have to broaden our scope of analysis, look at what is happening in Yunnan’s neighbouring countries and provinces. According to Yin, western countries’ demand for luxury woodwork is a major stimulus for the continued deforestation in Yunnan’s neighbouring places and thus indirectly contributes to the climatic anomalies in Yunnan and beyond. 

Water Management

Poor water management is yet another culprit of inducing regional climate anomalies. Yunnan’s reservoirs are aged and ill-used. Many of Yunnan’s natural lakes are severely polluted and cannot be utilized.1 & 16

Some argue that Yunnan’s drought is as much of a natural drought as it is mismanagement of water resources.16 & 23 Local experts point out water shortage in Yunnan as infrastructural and water quality-relevant.

In the absence of effective water infrastructure, Yunnan’s rich water resource does little to alleviate droughts like the recent one through 2009 to Present. Government’s interpretation of water infrastructure seems rather simplistic, which is to develop reservoirs to store water in rainy seasons to meet water needs during the dry months, and to introduce pipelines to promote irrigation water use efficiency.15 However, as mentioned earlier in the report, experts and farmers alike argue such token measures only address urban drinking water and commercial farming (i.e., tobacco and flower industries), and do little to alleviate water shortage among impoverished farmers scattered over a large mountainous region, nor suffice the ecosystems water needs.

Drought is severe, because Yunnan’s waters suffer from high level of anthropogenic pollution. Among Yunnan’s nine major lakes, only four are useable. Only 40% of all river water in the region is drinkable.16 Chen Jian of Yunnan Provincial Water Resource Department acknowledges the challenges imposed with increasing wastewater from a rapid Urbanization, and sustained reduction in Rainfall in the region.

The government’s mitigation measures, as Chen introduced it, include protection of water resources’ environments, improvement of wastewater treatment, and promotion of water-saving technologies and consumers’ behaviours. However, as he delved into the actual implementations of such measures, he mainly focused on the treatment plants in Kunming.

“There are ten wastewater treatment plants in Kunming,” said Chen, “90% of the city’s wastewater are fully treated.”16 However, Chen’s statement was later fully rejected by academicians at both Yunnan University and Kunming Institute of Geo-botany.

“An illustrative example of such wastewater treatment is the Dianchi Project,” said Dr. Ou of Yunnan University, “repeated water tests show that Dianchi’s water quality is way below any usability, not even for industrial use. It was tested positive for carcinogens.”23 Dr. Ou finds it incomprehensible that the government is considering Dianchi’ water can be purified with some immature treatments. He voices concerns for the population’ s wellbeing over such irrational government measures. 

Climate Change

As leading climatic scientist like James Hansen, director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, confessed that he had been too optimistic to think climate change is a steady process. He wrote he had “failed to fully explore how quickly that average rise [of global average temperature] would drive an increase in extreme weather.”19 

The impact of global climate change is no longer a distant theory or a future phenomenon for residents in Yunnan.   Human induced climate change has been identified as a major cause of the drought across different socio-political sectors.15, 16, 17, 22, 23 Shu at Green Kunming believes that it is perturbed changes in global climate that stress regional climate. Pich Dun, secretary-general of the Cambodian National Mekong Commission, told Xinhua News “the drought in Southwest China including Yunnan province was caused by climate change, or climatic cycles.”8  

Based on the monthly precipitation and temperature data of Yunnan’s 122 stations from 1961-2006, the evolution of Yunnan’s annual average temperature anomaly shares a similar upward trend as the global average temperature. While Yunnan’s microclimate has undergone a 0.2°C/10a rise, the global average temperature has been warming by 0.1°C/10a.13

With the warming trend, Yunnan’s annual utilizable precipitation average has been decreased by -0.8mm. According to Tao et al.’s study (2010), the utilizable precipitation decreased in summer (-1.3mm/a), autumn (-0.3mm/a) and winter (-0.02mm/a).13 Therefore, the decrease was especially severe in summer. As Figure 2 shows, Yunnan’s annual utilizable precipitation has  been decreasing consistently for the last nearly 50 years13.



Figure 2 Temporal Evolution of annual average temperature anomaly over (a) the globe and (b) Yunnan Province from 1961 to 2006 (Tao et al., 2010)

While local researchers, NGOs, and residents point their fingers to the government, the latter direct its finger to the global climate and nature as the causes of the great drought in Yunnan.16 As we put forward the question of potential causes of the drought, Chen Jian of Yunnan WRD referenced back to the pages he was holding. “Drought is not new to Yunnan. Looking at last hundred-year’s temperature and rainfall data, Yunnan had six sustained droughts, two of which went on for five consecutive years. Drought is not surprise to anyone in Yunnan.”16 However, the drought in past three years can be attributed to “atmospheric pressure irregularities and strong El Nino,” concludes Chen.15

Similarly, according to Wang Gao from the Chinese Academy of Engineering, Yunnan’s drought is caused by atmospheric pressure. “Dry and warm airflows from India and Pakistan have controlled the province. The streams are so strong that they prevent the humid currents from the Indian Ocean and South China Sea entering. The two air streams meet over the sky in Thailand and Cambodia, so these regions have plenty rainfalls, while Yunnan always suffers drought.”9

Mitigation and Adaptation of the Drought

Different interpretations of causal analyses have directly resulted in different proposals of mitigation measures to combat drought. Chen of Yunnan WRD prides on the large sum of money the Chinese central government has allocated to accelerate water infrastructure developments in Yunnan. NGOs and researchers, however, criticize such drought mitigation measure as being myopic. Dr. Xu, the director of Kunming Institute of Geo-botany, points out that the construction of reservoirs and big dams can only supply address urban drinking water. It neither guarantees water supply for populations scattered over a large area, nor suffices the need of ecological systems’ water needs.

Senior columnist Yin Hongwei of the Time Weekly questions the actual application of government funds to proposed infrastructure projects. “The central government’s allocation is one thing, but the actual delivery of the proposed project is quite a different animal,” says Yin.

Yin’s suspicion seems to resonate among local peasants in two of the villages we visited. In Jizi village, we have visited a reservoir that was built in 1958. Since then it has received a series of repairs, but no additional reservoirs were built in the area. Villagers were also very reluctant to disclose any info at the present of governmental officials.

Despite such distrust and criticism from the general public, the central government has allocated 20 billion yuan to support Yunnan’s water infrastructure development since 2011.15

Government’s other drought mitigation measures include conversion of monoculture to intercropping,1 employment of artificial precipitation,8 and drilling wells.1 The most severely impacted regions have also promoted temporary population relocation in the form of immigrant workers.7

According to Zhu, president of Yunnan Agricultural University, in 2010, 80% of the farmland in Yunnan adopted intercropping.1 Large-scale hillside farmlands were converted into terraced cropland to mitigate soil erosion and landslide.

Over 2000 drought relief workers were reportedly deployed to drill wells around the clock in southwest China in 2010.1 Between Mar 22 and 28 in 2010, a dozen flights were made and nearly 10,000 artillery shells and 1,000 rockets were fired into the atmosphere over southwest China.2

Major water diversion projects were yet another drought adaption strategies mentioned time and again during our visit to Yunnan Water Resource Department. However, concerns over insufficient environmental assessment and associated ecological and social impacts of such large-scale water diversion projects are well registered among local experts, NGOs, and indigenous peasants. The continuation of such ecological alteration is most likely going to upset social and ecological stability in the long run.23  

Political Debate of the Drought

While dried riverbeds and failed crops forbid denial of the occurrence of a severe drought, its causal analyses and mitigation measures seem to become more of a political debate and thus subject to political sensitivity.

One of the top leaders at Tai’an Township, Yulong County in Yunnan, warned us not to talk to any farmers on the subject of drought. “I can tell you what’s happening, because I know it,” said Li, “I am telling you not to speak to any farmer about it, because they don’t know the whole story. If you insist on doing so, I am afraid I will have to call the security to escort you off the village” warned Li.

In response to our question of why drought was a sensitive topic, Li laughed and jokingly stated, “It relates to their survival, very livelihoods. Do you think it is sensitive?”

This level of nervousness seemed rather present among all levels of the relevant government departments. Our appointments with Lijiang Water Resource Department and Lijiang Civil’s Affairs were cancelled at the last minute. To their convenience, Naxi ethnic group’s Bonfire Festival was on same day as our visit. We were told officials from both departments had changes of plan and weren’t available to meet us.

Similarly, the head of Jizi reservoir in Jizi village also refused to speak to us. His presence even quieted otherwise very friendly peasants in the village. 

Such sensitivity begs the question what is there to hide?

The relevant governmental officials prided over the allocation of large sums of emergency aids and grand proposals of mega-water infrastructure projects. However, local farmers and experts alike mourned over the oxymoronic phenomenon, in which much was invested, but little had been achieved.  In Yin Hongwei’s words, “the central government’s allocation is one thing, but the actual delivery of the proposed project is quite a different animal.”

A clear dichotomy was also brought into being, when it came to the drought’s causal analyses. While the government attributed the causes of the great drought to global climate irregularity and the abstract concept of a nature, people uniformly directed their complains toward the government’s failed policies, ill management of natural resources, and preference of economic and political gains to ecological values and environmental protection.

Some even explained the government’s reactive attitude towards one of the worst drought in Yunnan’s recent history as a sign of its gratification in positive publicity and being portrayed as the ultimate savoir at times of natural disasters. “There is no alternative explanation for the government’s token measure employed to mitigate what is clearly a once-in-a-century disaster.”16


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  11. Yunnan Xinglong Information Net. (2012, February 27). 云南到底有多旱,监测数据来说话. [How severe is the Yunnan drought? Let the observed data speak.]Yunnan Xinglong Information Net. Retrieved from http://www.ynnw.gov.cn/Modules/Image/Imgtxt.aspx?kid=207972
  12. 云南省水文水资源局. “云南省水情简报.” 1(2012), 23 July 2012.
  13. Tao, Yun, Hua He, Qun He, Changchun Duan, and Juzhang Ren. “Evolutional Characteristics of Utilizable Precipitation over Yunnan Province Form 1961 to 2006.” Advances in Climate Change Research 6.1 (2010): 8-14. Web. 28 July 2012. <http://www.climatechange.cn/CN/abstract/abstract8614.shtml#>.
  14. People’s Net. (2010, March 23). 云南水资源总量全国第三 为何会干旱?[Yunnan’s water resource ranks national third, why the drought?]. Www.people.com.cn. Retrieved from http://society.people.com.cn/GB/1063/11202525.html
  15. Yunnan Water Resources Department, Personal Communication, August 8-9, 2012
  16. Local NGOs in Yunnan, Personal Communication, August 8-12, 2012
  17. Field trip to Tai’an Town and Jizi Village, August 13, 2012
  18. Feng, Y. F. (2007), Environmental Protection, Declare War Against Radical Developmentalism
  19. Hansen, J. E. (2012, August 03). Opinions climate change is here — and worse than we thought. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/climate-change-is-here–and-worse-than-we-thought/2012/08/03/6ae604c2-dd90-11e1-8e43-4a3c4375504a_story.html Jul. 22, 2012
  20.  UNESCO (2010,). Three parallel rivers of Yunnan protected areas. UNESCO.
  21. (2012, February 29). More emergency relief for drought-stricken Yunnan. China Bystander. Retrieved from http://chinabystander.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/more-emergency-relief-for-drought-stricken-yunnan/
  22. X. Ou, Personal communication, August 9, 2012
  23. J. Xu, Personal communication, August 10, 2012
  24. EU. (2012, March 14). China Europe water platform launched. Delegation Of The European Union To China. Retrieved from http://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/china/press_corner/all_news/news/2012/20120314_en.htm
  25.  (2012, May 21). China to allocate $79bn to prevent water pollution. Water-technology.net. Retrieved from http://www.water-technology.net/news/newschina-allocating-79bn-to-prevent-water-pollution/
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