China’s Water Woes Affect its Neighbors

Although China’s trade policies, currency, and territorial disputes in the South China Sea have garnered much attention as of late by those concerned with regional security, there is another pressing problem in China that is slowly receiving more attention from outside observers: China’s growing water crisis. China’s unprecedented economic growth has of course come at great cost to its environment, including its water. But these ill effects are not purely a domestic problem. Just as air does not respect borders, waters often flow freely from one state into another. As China continues to grow, water security issues will become more acute, more obvious, and more dangerous for regional security. China’s growing need for water, both to provide for industrial expansion and to meet the potable water needs of a growing population in its megacities, has the potential to destabilize the region and warrants close observation over the next few years.

China’s water woes can be broadly broken down into two categories: scarcity and quality. Both of these problems are exacerbated by the accelerated pace of urbanization we see taking place across the country.

China’s rapid economic growth goes hand in hand with the increasing pace of urbanization, especially in the megacities of the north. The flight of rural residents seeking economic opportunities in the big city has put stress on already limited supplies of water in northern China. According to a standard put forth by the United Nations, when water supplies drop below 1000 cubic meters, or 260,000 gallons, per person per year, a region faces water scarcity. Beijing has about 100 cubic meters of water, or 26,000 gallons, per person per year. The Chinese government is acutely aware of this problem, which has only been exacerbated by climate change, which has the potential to reduce access to clean water supplies in the near future and to increase the pace of desertification that has been slowly encroaching on Beijing for years. Excessive pumping of surface and groundwater has also intensified desertification in the area. The more water the parched region pumps from surrounding areas to meet the needs of the city, the quicker the desert threatens to choke the region in a sea of sand. Elizabeth Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, explores the intricacies of China’s water problems in her book, “The River Runs Black.” She explains that the pace of desertification has doubled since the 1970’s, with dust storms from the north falling on Japan, Korea, and even the western United States.

Desertification continues to encroach upon Beijing

Economy goes on to state that water scarcity from changing ecosystems, skyrocketing demand, increasing pollution, and less than successful conservation efforts have limited access to water for more than 60 million people, with almost ten times that number drinking contaminated water daily. Water demands will not abate in Beijing. According to Hou Dongmin, a scholar of population development at Renmin University of China, migration from the countryside means that the city’s population is now growing by one million every two years.

So why should Beijing’s water woes concern the rest of us? Is a little dust the only thing we have to worry about? One thing must be clearly understood about China’s growth if nothing else. The leadership in Beijing has determined that it must be sustained for the foreseeable future due to fears about unemployment and the subsequent social unrest that would follow a significant contraction in growth. Although China is becoming more cognizant of the environmental impacts associated with its industrial activities and has been engaging in efforts to mitigate these adverse effects for some time, sustained economic growth remains the paramount concern. This growth and the economic benefits it generates are seen as essential to maintaining the legitimacy of the CCP. If we view China’s recent actions in the South China Sea as a signal that it may engage in aggressive actions against its neighbors when valuable resources are at stake, this may also indicate that there may be future tensions over coveted water sources in border regions, especially if water is seen as necessary for sustaining economic growth and social stability. As Peter Gleik, one of the world’s leading experts on water and co-author of the biennial series “The World’s Water” states, China’s water problems are threatening to slow economic expansion and weaken political stability in a variety of ways. Companies are canceling business deals due to water concerns and there is growing internal dissent over how water is allocated as well as its quality, ratcheting up pressure on the central and regional governments to solve the problem.

The Irtysh River is a prime example of China coming into conflict with a neighbor due to water issues. In recent years China has been seeking to quicken the pace of development in the western province of Xinjiang, which has traditionally lagged behind the rest of China. The Irtysh River flows through Chinese territory for 618 km before crossing the border into Kazakhstan.

The PRC has set the goal of raising Xinjiang’s GDP to the average level in the country by 2015. According to some experts, China is taking so much water out of the Irtysh to meet these development goals that Kazakhstan and Russia will have to make due with a flow of less than a cubic kilometer a year. This is an amount, Russian ecological commentator Dmitry Verkhoturov warns, that will put “the future of entire regions of Russia and Kazakhstan in the hands of China”.

Political analyst Paul Goble writes, “By unilaterally taking out of the Irtysh far more water than ever before, China has put at risk the economies and populations of downstream communities in Kazakhstan and Russian Federation, threatened a delicate eco-system and raised questions about Beijing’s plans regarding other trans-border rivers in the Russian Far East.” The proposed Black Irtysh – Karamai Canal water diversion project continues to be met by staunch resistance from Russian and Kazakh environmentalists. There is no international treaty governing the use of trans-boundary rivers, however both Moscow and Astana have pressed China to accede to the 1992 Helsinki Convention on the Protection and Use of Trans-Boundary Watercourses, which requires that upstream states ensure that downstream states receive water in approximately the same amount and in the same quality as the former took in from rivers passing through both, in the absence of separate bilateral agreements modifying these rules.

Many Southeast Asian nations have also expressed fear that China’s Ministry of Water Resources will control their access to water in the future. The Mekong River, which stretches 2,700 miles from the Tibetan plateau into Yunnan Province, then through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam is a growing source of concern. The river has been targeted for several hydroelectric projects by China, which have resulted in the construction of three dams, with a fourth to be completed soon. With the Mekong River at record lows last year, leaders in these nations began to accuse Beijing of damming the river to benefit Chinese citizens, while disregarding the livelihoods of those downstream. In all of these nations Mekong River water is essential to agriculture and therefore national security. More than 60 million people in these nations rely on the Mekong for food, water, and transportation. In addition, various NGO’s and governments have also warned that the dams are adversely affecting fish migration patterns and the natural cycle of water flows. Further complicating the situation is the fact that China has refused to join the Mekong River Commission, an inter-governmental agency whose members include four of the downstream nations. Although China is increasingly courting its neighbors in Asia with trade, investment, and energy cooperation in an attempt to create China-centric regional integration, this strategy may backfire if Southeast Asian nations come to the conclusion that China is hindering their development goals through irresponsible water policies on the Mekong.

Mekong River

China's construction of dams along the Mekong is of great concern to downstream Southeast Asian nations

In both of these border regions, in the north and the south, China’s water policies are creating frictions with its neighbors. Not only is water scarcity a concern for China’s neighbors, so is the threat of cross-border water pollution that has become commonplace in China, which has persistently had issues with the implementation and enforcement of environmental protection policies. Strategic water sources that flow from China into other nations will continue to be a security concern in the region for the foreseeable future. Indeed, tensions are likely to increase, as China’s water demands show no sign of abating.

– Leland Butisbauch, graduate intern

**The views expressed in this article are purely personal and do not represent Scripps Institution of Oceanography or the University of California, San Diego**

Comment are closed.
scripps oceanography uc san diego