China Is Turning Its Water-Scarcity Crisis into a Weapon

A woman stands next to the Mekong River bordering Thailand and Laos in Nong Khai, Thailand, October 29, 2019. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)
Antagonizing neighbors, imposing top-down solutions, and not actually solving the underlying problem -- as with China in other areas, so with water.

There is an understandable tendency to view global actions by the People’s Republic of China as the natural expression of the strength and confidence of the Communist regime in Beijing. In fact, though, most of Beijing’s so-called power moves reflect a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government that recognizes the country’s inherent weakness and the future challenges those weaknesses foreshadow. And many of Beijing’s bold strokes sow the seeds of bitter, unintended fruit that exacerbate those weaknesses.

The well-known Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) for global infrastructure is one example. Initially, it was seen as a classic soft-power move, giving the PRC global economic, political, and military access and influence to check the U.S. and other democratic powers that Beijing propagandists portray as in terminal decline. Missed in that analysis was that the BRI was a gambit for China’s leaders to put state-owned enterprises to work and prioritize the use of excess Chinese labor in BRI projects abroad. Over time, the BRI’s debt diplomacy and the associated chauvinism that is a natural characteristic of China’s government today have come to be seen in a negative light. In fact, the BRI has spurred a backlash in several “partner” countries, with national governments rising and falling based on support for or opposition to the PRC.

“Weaponizing Water”

Beijing is engaged in another power play; this time, about water. These actions should be seen in the same light. The moves show the PRC flexing its hegemony in its region, putting other countries at a disadvantage, and making them beholden to PRC consideration for a vital resource. Some say that Beijing is weaponizing water. This is a real danger. On closer inspection, though, Beijing’s actions reflect the government’s recognition that extreme measures are needed. Water scarcity for human consumption, power, and irrigation is a significant source of potential instability. China’s water problem is serious.

By some estimates, two billion people or more in some 18 countries depend upon a dozen or so major rivers, most of which emanate from the Tibetan plateau in the southwest. These include the Indus, Mekong, Yangtze, Yellow, Irawaddy, Brahmaputra, and other rivers. The region is sometimes referred to as “the third pole” given amount of water sourced by the Himalayan ice fields. The PRC has controlled this area through force and occupation since shortly after Mao Zedong rose to power in 1949. It has been estimated that, over the decades, Beijing has fashioned a whopping 87,000 dams on some of these rivers, among the world’s most important waterways.

The extensive damming by the PRC of these international rivers on its face is an ominous move by Beijing to exert influence and power throughout Asia and to establish dominance over water, power, and agriculture. It also seems to be aimed at undermining India’s own influence in the region, skewing the allegiance of affected countries that depend upon these waters.

China’s actions regarding the Brahmaputra River present the most immediate challenge to India. The river flows from China-controlled Tibet through India and Bangladesh before joining with the Ganges and emptying into the Bay of Bengal. China has built three dams on the Brahmaputra River; as many as eight more are planned. Border disputes between India and China over infrastructure projects are becoming more common, including last year’s clash over a highway-construction program in Kashmir. Water infrastructure is another source of cross-border tension. In 2017, India accused China of violating existing agreements by withholding hydrological data from India during the summer monsoon season, rendering Delhi unable to manage the annual floods that affect northeast India. China claimed the hydrological stations were undergoing maintenance, although a BBC report revealed that Bangladesh, further downstream, was still receiving data from China. While the situation was defused through diplomacy, further tension and perhaps conflict seems likely.

The Mekong River is another potential hotspot. China has constructed eleven upper Mekong River dams and is flexing its control of them. The river snakes its way about 3,000 miles from southwest China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia before emptying into the South China Sea through Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Another three dams are planned.

In 2020, Stimson Center analysts published a report titled, “New Evidence: How China Turned off the Tap on the Mekong River,” in which it documented that “from April to November 2019 China’s portion of the upper Mekong received uncommonly high levels of precipitation, yet its dams blocked or restricted more water than ever as downstream countries suffered through an unprecedented drought.” According to other reporting from the region, Laos and Cambodia water levels hit record lows, and production of sugar in Thailand was the lowest in nearly a decade. At the time, China attempted to convince the world that low rainfall caused the problem, but satellite photos and other data document that this was not the case. The Stimson Center scholars concluded that “China’s dams held back so much water that they entirely prevented the annual monsoon-driven rise in river level at Chiang Saen, Thailand. This has not happened since modern records have been kept.”

Water, Water Everywhere . . . Just Not Where China Needs It

China’s control of water on the Asian landmass is worrisome, to be sure. It will affect the politics and security of the region for decades. But the actions reflect not PRC strength, but weakness. Water scarcity has been long recognized as a danger for China. With nearly 20 percent of the global population, China has about 7 percent of the world’s freshwater. But the problem goes beyond sheer volume. Simply put, there is too much water where too few live, and too little water where too many live. This is not a modern problem. In 1952 Mao is said to have observed that “the South has lots of water, the North has less. If it were possible, borrowing would be good.” This at a time when China’s population was a third of what it is today.

In the ensuing decades since Mao’s observation, the problem as perceived by PRC leaders has not improved much. In 2005, then-premier Wen Jia Bao identified water shortage as a threat to “the very survival of the Chinese nation.”

A principal response to China’s water issues is the South-to-North Water Diversion (SNWD) Project. As Mao’s comment suggests, the vast majority — 80 percent by some estimates — of the usable water sources are in the south, but about 40 percent of the population and at least 40 percent of total water demand are in the north. The SNWD is a series of planned canals, reservoirs, and tunnels that, when completed, will divert water from the Yangtze River basin northward in three routes, the longest of which is nearly 1,000 miles. Underlining the longstanding challenge that water distribution has posed to China’s leaders, the eastern route to the capital repurposes the Grand Canal, the oldest parts of which date back 2,500 years. The central route feeds Beijing from the Han River, a major Yangtze tributary. These routes have been in operation since 2013 and 2014, respectively. A western route is being planned that likely will integrate additional dam projects from the Tibetan plateau, creating further challenges to downstream countries.

The SNWD project has been controversial in China and has been of questionable overall benefit to the country. It has resulted in the displacement of nearly 400,000 people along the routes, with local industries shut down in a largely futile attempt to limit the impact of pollution of the water.

Also, the cost of the project makes the water more expensive. But the government is loath to increase the price of water due to concerns about social instability. Thus, the project is seen as a subsidized water-supply program for the middle class and elite in Beijing, with no one else getting much benefit. Even so, the project has not closed the gap between Beijing water supply and demand, which is acute.

The diversion of the Yangtze River also has slowed the flow of the river and allowed pollutants and sludge to build over time. This is exacerbated by China’s poor record of industrial-wastewater reprocessing, and by the effects of climate change, which have reduced river-water levels. The Yangtze basin has experienced more frequent drought in recent years as ice-melt from the Tibetan plateau has diminished. Overall, the estimates of water availability made when the project was envisioned have fallen short because of all of these factors, raising the cost of a given volume of water produced. But according to a 2015 analysis in Nature magazine, the entire Yangtze-diversion project would be unnecessary and thus all these challenges avoided with better conservation and land and water management in both north and south.

Against this backdrop, water-security issues must be seen as a threat to the Chinese economy and to social stability. According to a 2017 analysis in Global Risk Insights, nearly half of China’s GDP is generated “in regions that have a similar water resource per capita as the Middle East.” With its population of about 21 million, Beijing is high on the list of water-challenged global cities. Local officials have warned that the city’s infrastructure cannot support more than 23 million people. All of this will certainly affect China’s global competitiveness as agriculture- and industrial-commodities prices are affected.

China Has a Water Crisis

The PRC government understands, much better than the outside world does, the threat that water scarcity poses to economic, social, and political stability. To the rest of the world, Beijing is “weaponizing water” in order to control the region, oppress its neighbors, and exert its continued dominance in Asia and beyond. Of course, the external effects of China’s desperate quest for water cannot be ignored. But when reviewing Beijing’s actions, we often overlook the public statements of its leaders, who often are more candid than we seem to want to accept. Wang Shucheng, a former minister of water resources, projected that Beijing will run out of water in 15 years at its current rate of usage, saying that the PRC must “fight for every drop of water or die: that is the challenge facing China.” He made these observations in 2005, and the problem only has gotten worse.

In 2008, when Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics and global leaders celebrated with the country, there was a sense of the PRC having arrived as a welcome actor on the world stage. Today, there is talk of boycotting next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics. The world continues to reel from a global pandemic about which the CCP has obfuscated and lied, contributing to the deaths of millions and the loss of countless trillions of dollars of wealth and tens of millions of jobs. More than a million Muslims languish in concentration camps in China’s far west, and Hong Kong’s democracy has been snuffed out.

Why does this matter? Because the government in Beijing needs negotiation and cooperation with its neighbors and support from the world to address its water-scarcity crisis. But trust in the PRC government has eroded, in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. And CCP actions are making the problem worse for its own citizens and hundreds of millions of citizens of other countries. Instead of working with others to achieve a manageable solution, however, the PRC seems to be on a path to addressing the problem through its customary blend of audacity, hubris, superhuman scale industrial projects, and disrespect for its neighbors and its own citizens. This combination of behaviors has become the defining trait of the CCP.

Therese Shaheen is a businesswoman and CEO of US Asia International. She was the chairman of the State Department’s American Institute in Taiwan from 2002 to 2004.


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