The Drying Up of China’s Largest Freshwater Lake

Local Fishermen and Wildlife Lose Out as Poyang Lake Falls Victim to Drought and Dams

When Jiang Minsheng moored his fishing boat on the eastern shore of Jiangxi’s Poyang Lake in November last year, he didn’t expect to it to be marooned. The fisherman’s village is on an island in the middle of the freshwater lake, once China’s largest. But Jiang was caught off guard by the premature arrival of the dry season, and now he is stuck in Duchang, a town on the lake’s shore, until the rain returns.

Jiang knows the lake’s natural fluctuations well; he has fished Poyang for thirty years. An annual ebb sees the 4,000 square kilometer lake shrink to the shape of a swollen river. But since the completion of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, the lake has become hard to predict

One constant is that each year the lake, which is located in eastern China, gets drier earlier. Data from the Jiangxi Provincial Hydrographic Bureau shows that between 2003 and 2013, the average date the dry season commenced was October 27. That is five weeks earlier than the average recorded between 1952 and 2002.

This year, due to an unusual lack of precipitation, the dry season came a whole month sooner than it did last year, with water levels in December reaching 7.5 meters—a record low. A million people in the cities, towns, and villages surrounding the lake are now experiencing water shortages.

In Duchang, seven whirring pumps furiously suck water from the lake through rubber, snake-like tubes leading to town. The water from the retreating lake supplies some 130,000 residents.

“The change is huge,” says Jiang from the deck of his wooden, flat-bottomed boat on Poyang’s muddied waters. His toddler grandson plays with a plastic truck in the boat’s hull, a sparse interior with an arching tin-and-tarpaulin roof. A hot plate and wok serve as a makeshift kitchen, while a halved plastic bottle nailed to the wall contains the family’s toothbrushes.

Jiang, who is fifty-two and has a tanned face crinkled by the sun, says that because of the decreased water levels, his family is earning only a third of last year’s income—around 30,000 RMB (U.S.$4,959).

“The water went down in July, and there was no fish for us to catch after that,” he says. Historically, September and October have been a “golden season” for fishermen. Now many are forced to make their livelihoods elsewhere. They are entitled to a subsidy from the local government, but that hasn’t happened for years, according to Jiang. “Fishing is my only skill so I can’t find another job,” he adds.

Jiang says the early onset of the dry season coincided with the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. No hydro-engineering project rivals the colossal structure, the largest hydroelectric facility in the world. It stretches for a mile and a half across the Yangtze, and generates ten times the hydropower of the Hoover Dam.

Read From Our Archives: “Crisis at Poyang Lake”

Four rivers feed Poyang Lake (the Gan, Fu, Xin, and Xiushui) from its southern shores. The lake then empties into the Yangtze, which flows along the north of the lake. When the Three Gorges Dam stores water upriver the Yangtze, as it rushes through, is depleted, causing even more water to flow out of Poyang.

“It is obvious that lots of provinces have benefitted from the power generated by the Three Gorges Dam,” says Liao Guochang, Director at the Mountain-River-Lake Sustainable Development office (MRLSD) in Nanchang. “But Jiangxi’s Poyang Lake is paying the price.”

Yuan Qi, a bird enthusiast and Editor-in-Chief of local web-based news portal Duchang Online, monitors the lake’s water levels closely. He finds it ironic that Duchang is so close to the lake but the residents have no water to drink. He accompanies us to what in the wet season is the lake bed. Cracked mud flats stretch to the horizon, while hillocks covered in lilac knotweed flowers and wild grass yield hundreds of crushed mussel shells, tangled fishing nets, and shredded plastic.

Birdlife and Biodiversity

But Poyang’s dry season also harbors life. As the waters recede, the wetlands are exposed. These provide respite and nutrition for astounding numbers of migrating birds. Eighty-seven bird species winter at the lake, including almost half the world’s swan geese and ninety-eight percent of Siberian cranes, one of eleven endangered species that migrate to Poyang.

Unofficial figures suggests bird numbers are dwindling every year. Compared to a decade ago, only a tenth of their number now arrive. Lower water levels mean less food.

Meanwhile poachers, spurred by the soaring prices fetched by rare birds, can access their habitats more easily. The hunters plant their nets, often several kilometers in length, on poles in the mud, entrapping the birds indiscriminately.

Poyang’s abundant flora and unique fauna—besides the Siberian crane the lake provides a habitat for the critically endangered finless porpoise—has spurred the government towards protective action in the past. China applied for Unesco heritage status for what many Chinese refer to as the “bright pearl” in 1996, but the lake remains on Unesco’s tentative list.

What Price for the Environment?

More recently, Poyang’s natural charm has attracted the interest of the tourism industry, with the provincial government investing 100 million yuan (U.S.$16.5 million) in tourism infrastructure and planning. In November 2013, some 230,000 tourists visited the lake—a thirty percent increase on the previous year.

Harm to the environment here means harm to this growing industry. And Jiangxi’s provincial government appears to be showing some concern over the receding waters. It has proposed to install sluice gates at the mouth of the lake, reducing the output when the Yangtze River runs low.

“This proposal certainly benefits Jiangxi province,” says Liao of the MRLSD. “But controversially, it could aggravate the drought situation in other Yangtze River basins…For instance, if the water level is too low when it reaches the estuary in Shanghai, then a problem as serious as seawater backflow could occur.”

But their solution has also aroused concerns about damage to the wetlands, which would become flooded during the dry season, destroying the birds’ habitat. Despite this opposition, the proposal passed a review by the Ministry of Water Resources and is awaiting approval from the Ministries of Agriculture, Forestry, and Environmental Protection.

In the long-term, Yuan Qi says local authorities need to start thinking more about the lake’s ecosystem. “Local governments along Poyang Lake worship GDP growth,” he says.

“They don’t care about the environmental impact in ten years’ time. They’re thinking about GDP progression this year—how many job opportunities are created and how pristine the newly-built houses are.” If the lake dries out, he says, they can build even more houses.

Energy, Environment, Health
Poyang Lake, Energy, Drought, Dams