Severe drought and saltwater intrustion hit Pearl River basin

The Pearl River basin, which includes some of south China’s most populous urban centres such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong, has been experiencing a severe drought since last autumn. The situation has recently escalated into a looming drinking water crisis, as drought-induced saltwater intrusion threatens tap water quality in the region.

On 13 February, Minister of Water Resources Li Guoying convened an emergency meeting to coordinate response to the crisis, reported The Paper. The minister declared the drought “the most severe in 60 years.” Saltwater intrusion is a consequence of the prolonged drought, as decreasing levels of freshwater fail to flush salts out of soil and groundwater, degrading water quality. Monitoring stations in Zhongshan and Zhuhai were already recording elevated levels of chlorine near drinking water sources. The emergency was exacerbated by a projected storm surge.

At the meeting, the minister called on multiple upstream dams along the Pearl River to increase their release of freshwater into the river system, to try and push back the seawater. But reservoirs in the region were already facing water shortages. A few were at their dead storage level, meaning they may struggle to dispatch water.

Wang Lixin, the top official for water resources in Guangdong province, told the press that five more saltwater intrusion events may happen in the coming weeks and “pressures are mounting to fight them back.”

In recent years, saltwater intrusion has become an increasing problem in China’s coastal regions. In addition to droughts, sea level rise caused by climate change is a major contributing factor. On top of emergency measures, experts called for long-term actions including river basin conservation and water-saving to preserve freshwater resources.