Extreme heat in China threatens major water source and hydropower abilities

China’s record-breaking heat wave, which lasted more than two months, has finally begun to ease. But the power shortages that came with the searing temperatures have raised questions about the region’s heavy reliance on hydropower and China’s ambitions to end its use of fossil fuels. Special correspondent Patrick Fok reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    China's record-breaking heat wave, which lasted more than two months, has finally begun to ease.

    But the power shortages that came with the searing temperatures have raised questions about the region's heavy reliance on hydropower and China's ambitions to end its use of fossil fuels.

    Special correspondent Patrick Fok reports from the city of Chongqing.

  • Patrick Fok:

    A cool breeze returns to the city of Chongqing. And so too have fishermen to the banks of the Yangtze River.

    Chongqing native Cai is just one of the many that have come to soak up the calmer conditions.

  • Cai, Chongqing Resident (through translator):

    Now that it's rained and the temperature has come down, I decided to come outside. It's been suffocating at home.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Many people here took cover indoors over the past two months. Chongqing was one of the region's hardest hit by China's recent heat wave, with mercury levels topping 40 degrees Celsius — that's 104 Fahrenheit — every day for two straight weeks.

    The searing temperatures brought intense drought, killing crops and causing wildfires that ripped through Chongqing's outlying mountainous districts. It also sucked dry stretches of the Yangtze and its offshoots. Hard-baked, cracked earth was all that was left in some parts.

    Asia's longest river is a water source for about 600 million people. Its flow fuels much of China's extensive hydropower infrastructure, including the world's largest energy plant, the Three Gorges Dam. But the country's worst drought in 60 years recently caused a 50 percent reduction in daily hydropower generation.

    Jinghan Wu is a climate and energy activist for Greenpeace based in Beijing.

  • Jinghan Wu, Greenpeace (through translator):

    I think what it's revealed its problems on two fronts, the first around the different ways that electricity is generated and the second on the usage.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Southwestern China is particularly reliant on hydropower. Sichuan province, for instance, gets 80 percent of its energy from it.

    Scorching temperatures drove demand to run air conditioners, piling pressure on a system already starved of its natural power source. As part of efforts to ration electricity usage, major manufacturers like Tesla and Toyota, with plants in Southwestern China, had to suspend operations.

    Authorities also restricted mall operating hours in Chongqing, only allowing them to open for five hours every day.

  • Zhang Zhuoyue, Chongqing Resident (through translator):

    It was pretty inconvenient. Before, if you went and got groceries and had to carry large bags, it was quite hot. And if you were going upstairs, you could take the escalator. But if you wanted to go down, you had to walk, which was annoying sometimes. A lot of elderly people worried about falling.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Still, Chongqing student Zhang Zhuoyue says many people in businesses are pitching in to try and help conserve, even now as the heat wave has begun to ease.

    She's come to study here at a fast-food restaurant to avoid using the A.C. at home. The section she sat in has light switched off when it's less busy. Recent unpredictable weather is keeping people in Chongqing on alert.

  • Zhang Zhuoyue (through translator):

    It's still not as it is normally. Right now, it should be wet season, but the water levels are still quite low. So I'm still a bit worried.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Authorities aren't taking chances either.

    We can see there are lots of efforts going into try and save energy and to address this power plant. So, here, on underground trains, air-con temperatures are being dialed higher on lights are being dimmed. So you can see here that every other light is switched off right now.

    But these really are just stopgap measures that only help to alleviate the problem in the short term. In the long term, Southwestern China may need to rethink its reliance on hydropower. Extreme weather events have become a threat to this clean energy resource.

  • Jinghan Wu (through translator):

    The power cuts reveal the problems around coordinating the use of different sources of power generation and the need for more long-term, systematic planning and improvements in the entire energy grid. This is more important than looking at any one energy source alone.

  • Patrick Fok:

    But many environmentalists fear policymakers may resort to burning more fossil fuels like coal to meet the country's energy demands and to reduce the risk of energy crunches brought on by extreme conditions.

    Thermal plants in Southwest China fired on all cylinders to generate as much power as possible in response to recent shortages.

  • Jinghan Wu (through translator):

    There are indeed discussions needed around how to balance short- and long-term problems. In addition to the construction of new energy projects, I think energy regulators also need to look at how to adjust the overall consumption of power, because it's consumption that will directly impact carbon emissions.

    If you make plans around peaking emissions or other concrete development goals based on consumption, you will have a much clearer direction.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Still, unpredictable weather-related events blamed on climate change cast uncertainty over the country's energy infrastructure. China has pledged to go carbon-neutral by 2060, but it says emissions won't peak until 2030, a target many environmentalists think isn't aggressive enough to meet its long-term green goals.

    Any shift in the balance back to relying more on coal could make it even harder to achieve them.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Patrick Fok in Chongqing, China.

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