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China’s Record Drought is Drying Rivers and Feeding Its Coal Habit

HONG KONG — Car assembly plants and electronics factories in southwestern China have closed for lack of power. Owners of electric cars are waiting overnight at charging stations to recharge their vehicles. Rivers are so low there that ships can no longer carry supplies.

A record-setting drought and an 11-week heat wave are causing broad disruption in a region that depends on dams for more than three-quarters of its electricity generation. The factory shutdowns and logistical delays are hindering China’s efforts to revive its economy as the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, prepares to claim a third term in power this autumn.

The ruling Communist Party is already struggling to reverse a slowdown in China, the world’s second largest economy, caused by the country’s strict Covid lockdowns and a slumping real estate market. Young people are finding it hard to get jobs, while uncertainty over the economic outlook is compelling residents to save instead of spend, and to hold off on buying new homes.

Now, the extreme heat is adding to frustration by snarling power supplies, threatening crops and setting off wildfires. Reduced electricity from hydroelectric dams has prompted China to burn more coal, a large contributor to air pollution and to greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

Many cities around the country have been forced to impose rolling blackouts or limit energy use. In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, several neighborhoods went without electricity for more than 10 hours a day.

Vera Wang, a Chengdu resident, said that just to charge her electric car, her boyfriend waited in a long line overnight at a charging station that was only partly operating. It was 4 a.m. by the time he reached the front of the line.

“The line was so long that it extended from the underground parking lot to the road outside,” she said.

The heat wave has scorched China for more than two months, stretching from Sichuan in the southwest to the country’s eastern coast and sending the mercury above 104 degrees on many days. In Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis in the southwest with around 20 million people, the temperature soared to 113 degrees last week, the first time such a high reading had been recorded in a Chinese city outside the western desert region of Xinjiang.

The searing heat set off wildfires in the mountains and forests on Chongqing’s outskirts, where thousands of firefighters and volunteers have worked to put out blazes. Residents said the air smelled of acrid smoke.

The drought has dried up dozens of rivers and reservoirs in the region and cut Sichuan’s hydropower generation capacity by half, hurting industrial production. Volkswagen closed its sprawling, 6,000-employee factory in Chengdu for the past week and a half, and Toyota also temporarily suspended operations at its assembly plant.

Foxconn, the giant Taiwanese electronics manufacturer, and CATL, the world’s largest maker of electric car batteries, have both curtailed production at factories in the vicinity.

In Ezhou, a city in central China near Wuhan, the Yangtze River is now at its lowest level for this time of year since record-keeping began there in 1865. People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the Communist Party, reported on Aug. 19 that the Yangtze River had fallen to the same average level it normally reaches at the end of the winter dry season.

But the disruptions from the hydropower shortfall are being felt far from the southwest, including in China’s eastern cities, which are buyers of hydropower. Some factories and commercial buildings in cities like Hangzhou and Shanghai are rationing electricity.

Kevin Ni, an online marketing worker in Hangzhou, said that his office was stifling because few air-conditioners were allowed to run.

“We have to eat ice pops and drink iced drinks,” he said. “I just put my hands on the ice pops, that cools me the most.”

The falling water levels in major rivers that serve the region’s main transport hubs have also led to delays elsewhere in the supply chain. The Yangtze River has receded so much that many oceangoing ships can no longer reach upstream ports. The upper Yangtze basin normally gets half its entire annual rainfall just in July and August, so the failure of this year’s rains may mean a long wait for more water.

That is forcing China to divert large numbers of trucks to carry their cargo. A single ship can require 500 or more trucks to move its cargo.

“We’re losing a few months of really efficient shipping,” said Even Rogers Pay, a food and agriculture analyst at Trivium, a Beijing consulting firm.

The heat wave and drought are also starting to drive food prices higher in China, especially for fruit and vegetables. Farmers’ fields and orchards are wilting. Sichuan is a leading grower in China of apples, plums and other fruit, and fruit trees that die could take five years to replace. The price of bok choy, a popular cabbage, has nearly doubled in Wuhan this month.

“That’s going to create more economic pain, which is the last thing the leadership wants to see,” Ms. Pay said.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and four other departments issued an emergency notice warning on Tuesday that the drought posed a “severe threat” to China’s autumn harvest. China’s cabinet on Wednesday approved $1.5 billion for disaster relief and assistance to rice farmers and another $1.5 billion for overall farm subsidies.

The government has urged local officials to seek out more water sources and allocate more electricity to support farmers and promote the planting of leafy vegetables, which are highly perishable, in big cities. Fire trucks have been used to spray water on fields and deliver water to pig farms.

The extreme weather sweeping across China also has potential implications for the world’s efforts to halt climate change. Beijing has sought to offset at least part of the lost hydropower from the drought by ramping up the use of coal-fired power plants. China’s domestic mining of coal has been at or near record levels, and customs data shows that its imports of coal from Russia reached a new high last month.

But China’s reliance on the fossil fuel raises questions about its commitment to slowing the growth of its carbon emissions.

“In the short term in China, the very, very painful realization is that only coal can serve as the base” for the electricity supply, said Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing environmental group. Sichuan Province has lured energy-intensive industries like chemical manufacturing for many years with extremely low electricity prices, he said, and some of these industries have squandered power through inefficiency.

Mr. Ma struck an optimistic note, however, about the direction of China’s climate strategy, saying that in the medium term, “China is very committed to carbon targets and renewable energy.”

The government has sought to mitigate the effects of global warming on its economy. The National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning ministry, set up a working group last winter to analyze the effects of climate change on water-related industries like hydroelectric dams.

While such efforts may help China preserve the viability of renewable energy programs, they may not prompt China to limit the burning of coal this year as a quick fix, said Ed Cunningham, the director of the Asia Energy and Sustainability Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“They’re much more comfortable with coal,” Mr. Cunningham said, “and the reality is that when there’s a shortage of hydro, they use coal.”

Muyi Xiao contributed reporting.

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