Factory shutdowns, showers for pigs: China heat wave add to economic woes

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) – Faced with China’s most searing heatwave in six decades, factories in the country’s south-west are being forced to close. A severe drought has shrunk rivers, disrupting the region’s supply of water and hydropower, and prompting officials to limit electricity to businesses and homes.

In two cities, office buildings were ordered to shut off the air-conditioning to spare an overextended electrical grid, while elsewhere in southern China, local governments urged residents and businesses to conserve energy.

The rolling blackouts and factory shutdowns, which affected Toyota and Foxconn, a supplier for Apple, point to the ways that extreme weather is adding to China’s economic woes.

The economy has been headed towards its slowest pace of growth in years, dragged down by the country’s stringent Covid-19 policy of lockdowns, quarantines and travel restrictions, as consumers tightened spending and factories produced less. Youth unemployment has reached a record high, while trouble in the real estate sector has set off an unusual surge of public discontent.

Now, China is also facing an intense heat wave that has swept across the country for more than two months, from central Sichuan province to coastal Jiangsu, with temperatures often exceeding 40 deg C.

In the south-western metropolis of Chongqing, the mercury rose to 45 deg C on Thursday (Aug 18), prompting the government to issue its highest heat warning for the eighth time this summer. The country has recorded an average of 12 days of high temperatures this summer, about five days more than usual, and the heat wave is forecast to persist for at least another week, according to statistics from the official China Meteorological Centre.

The intense heat is expected to significantly reduce the size of China’s rice harvest because it has caused long periods of drought, drying up rice paddies that are irrigated by rain, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

The intense weather is affecting other crops as well. In the eastern city of Hangzhou, tea farmers preparing for the fall harvest have covered their crops with nets in an effort to shield them from the scorching heat.

Humans were not the only ones oppressed by the heat. Pandas in zoos lay on sheets of melting ice. Pigs being transported by truck in the south-western city of Chongqing became dehydrated, prompting firefighters to hose them down. Chickens rejected their feed and struggled to lay eggs in the heat, causing egg prices to surge across the country, according to state media reports.

Mr Li Xinyi, the owner of a chicken farm in the eastern city of Hefei, told a local news site that he had installed a large fan in his henhouse but said he was still getting fewer eggs than usual. Another farmer, in the central province of Henan, told a state news outlet that about 20 per cent of his hens were refusing to lay eggs.

In Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis in south-western China with around 20 million people, the heat has been compounded by a severe drought, parching 51 rivers and 24 reservoirs and disrupting the water supply of more than 300,000 residents. Several other provinces are also experiencing droughts that are expected to worsen in the coming weeks.

With scant rainfall, the Yangtze River, the world’s third-longest river, has receded to a record low, with water levels falling by about 5m to 6m compared with the same period last year.

Climate scientists said that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events will increase in the next few decades, given the slow reduction in greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Even as parts of China were parched with drought, other areas saw heavy rainfall – including in Xining, a north-western city, where flash floods on Thursday killed 16 people and left 36 missing, state media reported.

“Following this trend, future extreme heatwaves will affect even larger areas and impact more population,” said Assistant Professor Shi Xiaoming at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s environment and sustainability division.

“Everyone, from individuals to city governors and developers, should prepare for the new norm of extremes and be aware that those new extreme events can be dangerous,” he added.