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The Yangtze River is shrinking as drought disrupts the world's No. 2 economy

Students carrying umbrellas stand on the dry riverbed of the Jialing River in southwestern China's Chongqing Municipality, Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.
Mark Schiefelbein
/
AP
Students carrying umbrellas stand on the dry riverbed of the Jialing River in southwestern China's Chongqing Municipality, Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.

CHONGQING, China — Ships crept down the middle of the Yangtze on Friday after China's driest summer in six decades left one of the mightiest rivers barely half its normal width and set off a scramble to contain the damage to a weak economy in a politically sensitive year.

Factories in Sichuan province and the adjacent metropolis of Chongqing in the southwest were ordered to shut down after reservoirs that supply hydropower fell to half their normal levels and demand for air conditioning surged in scorching temperatures.

River ferries in Chongqing that usually are packed with sightseers were empty and tied to piers beside mudflats that stretched as much as 50 meters (50 yards) from the normal shoreline to the depleted river's edge.

Normally bustling streets were empty after temperatures hit 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in Chongqing on Thursday. State media said that was the hottest in China outside the desert region of Xinjiang in the northwest since official records began in 1961.

"We cannot live through this summer without air conditioning," said Chen Haofeng, 22, who was taking pictures of the exposed riverbed. "Nothing can cool us down."

The disruption adds to challenges for the ruling Communist Party, which is trying to shore up sagging economic growth before a meeting in October or November when President Xi Jinping is expected to try to award himself a third five-year term as leader.

The world's second-largest economy grew by just 2.5% over a year earlier in the first half of 2022, less than half the official target of 5.5%.

The drought's impact in Sichuan is unusually severe because the province gets 80% of its power from hydroelectric dams.

Thousands of factories that make processor chips, solar panels and auto components in Sichuan and Chongqing shut down this week for at least six days.

Some announced there was no disruption in supplies to customers, but the Shanghai city government said in a letter released Thursday that Tesla Ltd. and a major Chinese automaker were forced to suspend production.

The city government of Chengdu, the Sichuan provincial capital, told households to conserve power by setting air conditioning no lower than 27 C (80 F). Another city, Dazhou, earlier announced rolling three-hour daily power outages for neighborhoods.

The Yangtze basin, covering parts of 19 provinces, produces 45% of China's economic output, according to the World Bank.

The national impact of shutdowns is limited, because Sichuan accounts for only 4% of industrial production, while other provinces use more coal-fired power, which hasn't been disrupted.

The government says China's two main state-owned power companies, State Grid Ltd. and Southern Grid Ltd., are moving power from 15 other provinces to Sichuan.

A member of the Communist Party's seven-member ruling Standing Committee, Han Zheng, promised official support to ensure power supplies during a visit Wednesday to State Grid, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

China suffered similar disruptions last year when a dry summer caused hydropower shortages and shut down factories in Guangdong province in the southeast, a global manufacturing center. Other regions suffered blackouts due to coal shortages and mandatory power cuts to meet official energy efficiency targets.

This year is unlikely to be so severe, according to Larry Hu of Macquarie Group.

"If the power rationing in Sichuan only lasts a few weeks, the impact on the industrial production at the national level should be very limited," Hu said in a report.

Xuguang Electronics Co. in Chengdu said the six-day shutdown would reduce its output by 48,000 electronic circuits. The company said it expected to take a 5 million yuan ($600,000) hit to its annual profit.

BOE Technology Group Co., which makes electronic displays, said a Sichuan subsidiary would suspend production. BOE promised in a statement issued through the Shenzhen Stock Exchange to "fully guarantee delivery of customers' products."

News reports said producers in Sichuan of solar panels and lithium for electric cars also shut down, but no companies announced disruptions in supplies.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
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