China Beat Archive


Date of this Version


Document Type



February 12, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright February 12, 2009 Ken Pomeranz. Used by permission.


The Chinese droughts have just begun to move onto the front pages of the world’s newspapers, but the droughts are just the latest sign of much more dire warnings of water woes in China. Some China experts are talking about this (see, for instance, today’s event at the Wilson Center on “Temperatures Rising: Climate Change, Water, and the Himalayas“), but, in China Beat fashion, we’re hoping to encourage many more people to do a little more reading and talking about it too, so we invited Ken Pomeranz to reflect on the present news and suggest a few further readings for those who are interested.

Water is back in the China-related news lately – and that’s almost always a bad sign. Most recently, we have had stories about the grinding North China drought; this may be the worst since the late 50s drought that exacerbated the Great Leap Forward famine. A bit earlier, we had the report of credible (though unproven) research suggesting that last May’s catastrophic Sichuan earthquake may have been triggered by pressure from the water stored behind Zipingpu Dam. (Seehere for an early report, and then the slightly later piece, with more about the key Chinese scientist involved, by Evan Osnos of the New Yorker). Late in January, Jiang Gaoming of the Chinese Academy of Sciences released a sobering piece (China Dialogue, January 22, 2009) about how accelerating the construction of dams in China’s Southwest – part of the P.R.C.’s ambitious stimulus package to fight the global recession – is worsening the already considerable environmental and social risks involved, with some projects beginning before any Environmental Impact Assessments have been completed. Such a confluence of events is enough to make a historian think back…to about six weeks ago.