Water underpins a country’s development, and China, one of the fastest growing economies, is no exception. Water supports the country’s 1.43 billion population and its booming industry, but it is limited and unevenly distributed.
Natural resources have always been critical to economic and global power. In the 19th century, a small country – the U.K. – raced ahead of the pack because its abundant coal reserves allowed it to drive the Industrial Revolution. Britain was eventually surpassed by the U.S., which exploited its huge tracts of arable land, massive oil reserves and other resources to become an economic titan. The same goes for China’s rise. Capitalist reforms, a welcoming global trade system and good demographics all contributed to Beijing’s world-beating economic growth from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. The fact that China was nearly self-sufficient in land, water and many raw materials – and that its cheap labour allowed it to exploit these resources aggressively – also helped it to become the workshop of the world.
Yet China’s natural abundance is a thing of the past as Beijing has blown through many of its resources. A decade ago, China became the world’s largest importer of agricultural goods. Its arable land has been shrinking due to degradation and overuse. Breakneck development has also made China the world’s largest energy importer: It buys three-quarters of its oil abroad at a time when America has become a net energy exporter. China’s water situation is particularly grim. China possesses 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its fresh water. 2014 statistics from the World Bank indicate that the total renewable water resources per inhabitant is only 2018 cubic meters each year – 75% less than the global average. Entire regions, especially in the north, suffer from water scarcity worse than that found in a parched Middle East. Thousands of rivers have disappeared, while industrialisation and pollution have spoiled much of the water that remains. By some estimates, 80% to 90% of China’s groundwater and half of its river water is too dirty to drink; more than half of its groundwater and one-quarter of its river water cannot even be used for industry or farming.
A study by Greenpeace in 2018 revealed that 82% of China’s glaciers have retreated and more than one-fifth of the ice cover has disappeared since the 1950s. Consequently, glacial run-off into the Yangtze alone has been reduced by 13.9% since the 1990s, lessening freshwater availability. They anticipate the shortage will become ‘dramatically’ acute when the glaciers reach their ‘peak water’- when the rate of water consumption surpasses water supply – which could happen as early as 2030.
The country’s uneven resource distribution further exacerbates the scarcity problem: 80% of water is concentrated in South China, but the North is the core of national development. For instance, President Xi Jingping’s JingJinJi Project initiated in 2014 integrates three heavily industrialised Northern provinces- Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei – as a single megalopolis to compete with other world-class economic regions such as the New York Tri-State Area. The estimated population of the regions combined is 130 million, whereas the water available for consumption annually per person in the three provinces stands below 184 cubic meters (Hubei is below 100) as illustrated by the China Statistical Yearbook (CSY), far below the 500 cubic meter standard of water scarcity. Water is insufficient in the North and intense development is only putting more pressure on water demand.
The combination of inefficient water management and widespread water pollution has rendered China unable to effectively supply enough consumable water in some provinces; this is not taking into consideration the demand for water in future urbanisation.
The pressing water shortage crisis has forced China to develop various water schemes to boost water availability in dry regions; the South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP) is arguably the most well-known. With its conceptualisation traced back to the 1950s, the project is the largest and most expensive engineering work in the country; it is expected to cost $62 Billion by completion in 2050. The SNWTP aims to alleviate the water shortage problem in northern China by moving water from the Yangtze River in the South through 1500 km long canals. The East and Middle routes – each taking 10 years to build – have been in service since 2013 and 2014 respectively and are capable of transferring 20.9 billion cubic meters of water each year, while the West Route is expected to be completed by 2050.
However, the project opens the door to environmental, social and geopolitical challenges/ implications which are troubling. In 2005, Premier Wen Jiabao had stated that water scarcity threatened the “very survival of the Chinese nation.” A minister of water resources in turn had declared that China must “fight for every drop of water or die.” Hyperbole aside, resource scarcity and political instability often go hand in hand and heightened foreign tensions may follow. China watchers worry that if the Chinese Communist Party feels insecure domestically, it may lash out against its international rivals. Even short of that, water problems are causing geopolitical strife.
The project diverts natural resources to one mega-region at the expense of another, adversely impacting the social well-being of the southern water-supplying region and challenging China’s domestic stability in the long term. China’s provincial water disputes provoked the ‘blocking dam’ incident of 2001. Industries in the upstream Jiangsu province had been degrading the shared water of the Zhejiang province since the 1990s. A decline in usable water triggered Zhejiang residents to protest by sinking boats in the waterway to block the polluted water, revealing the provincial governments’ ineffective cooperation on resource management. The Project also forced about 3,30,000 people to relocate to allow for the expansion of the Danjiangkou reservoir on the Middle Route. Insufficient compensation and lack of employment opportunities have created discontent amongst displaced population, igniting a number of revolts and cases of violence. If there is any public discontentment due to the SNWTP, it will not be merely provincial but regional, which could compromise the country’s national governance.
For years, China has tried to solve its resource challenges by coercing and impoverishing its neighbors. China’s South-East Asian neighbours are equally concerned by China’s response towards its water issues. Chinese territory hosts the headwaters of many important regional rivers. For example, the Mekong originates from the Tibetan Plateau and flows through Western China before reaching Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar. The Brahmaputra also flows across the boundary of China into Bangladesh and India. Therefore, any changes upstream by China can significantly impact the water of downstream countries. By building a series of giant dams on the Mekong River, Beijing has triggered recurring droughts and devastating floods in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Laos. The diversion of rivers in Xinjiang has also had devastating downstream effects in Central Asia.
In late 2017, the ‘Red Flag River Project’, a proposal by Chinese scientists and engineers to divert Himalayan glacial water to China’s arid West, created panic among India’s media, since Himalayan glacier melt is an important source of water for two of India’s most important rivers. Although the project was found to be fraudulent, India’s response illustrated its mistrust of China’s use of the region’s water resources.
China is often feared of controlling regional water resources, shown in its reluctance to sign international agreements on cross-border water management. Because the rivers originate within its territory, China sees it as its own. The SNWTP reinforces this impression – despite the inclusion of trans-boundary rivers such as the Mekong, the Nu River and the Brahmaputra in the West Route, Beijing keeps the project unilateral and doesn’t seek inputs from the affected countries. As a study has analysed, any physical resistance by these countries would be deemed as military aggression, forcing them to comply so as not to compromise regional peace and water sovereignty.
As the Indian strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney puts it, “China’s territorial aggrandizement in the South China Sea and the Himalayas … has been accompanied by stealthier efforts to appropriate water resources in transnational river basins.” In other words, the thirstier China is, the more geopolitically nasty it could get.
(Author and columnist Binay Kumar Singh can be reached on Twitter @BinayBharat. All views expressed are personal.)