Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
The Thirsty Dragon and An Iron Dust Bowl: The Politics of Water & Sand in Northern China

Northern China is drying out, and there is little to suggest that the situation will change for the better.  As a China Environmental Forum document noted in 2006, water scarcity — a problem throughout China — is most acute in the north where per capita resources are only 750 cubic meters per year (1,700 cubic meters per year is the World Bank’s defined threshold for a water-scarce area).  And most of the roughly 500 million Chinese who lack access to safe drinking water and modern sanitation, according to a World Bank study published earlier this year, are in northern China. Even the extraordinarily ambitious South-to-North water transfer project we’ve discussed previously — the $62 billion effort to divert diverting 12 trillion gallons of water annually from the Yangtze River, and transporting it in three canals hundreds of miles north to the Yellow River — will not slake the region’s thirst. Northern China relies on wells drilled to tap groundwater, and aquifers are steadily dropping as northern China’s population and industrialization grows.  As the Forum document notes:

“…Excessive water withdrawals and land degradation in northern and western China have caused desertification to advance at an annual rate of 1,300 square miles, affecting 400 million people.  24,000 villages in the north and west have been abandoned or partially depopulated due to growing desertification which has made faming untenable.  This desertification has also exacerbated the spring sandstorms – 100 are expected between 2000 and 2009, a marked increase over the 23 in the previous decade.  These sandstorms not only affect China, Korea, and Japan, but also reach the U.S. west coast….”

So, why is this an issue for Water Politics?  Not only do the sands of what some have called the Asian Sahara spread the economic & quality of life consequences beyond China’s borders to Korea and Japan, but the steady desertification of northern China has put the world’s fastest growing economy, a nation of 1.3 billion people, at the frontline of the global freshwater crisis.  As a highly-recommended recent Circle of Blue documentary notes:

“…During the first decade of the 21st century, the conditions that scientists say produce the storms—dryer climate, heavier winds, severe water shortages, over-grazing, population growth, and a clash between nomadic herders and the government over range and farmland management—worsened. Many of the same conditions that produced the American Dust Bowl in the 1930s, an environmental calamity and human tragedy that journalist Timothy Egan called the “worst hard time” in United States history, are being replicated in China with even graver consequences for the land, and for people in and outside China who are directly affected by the sand storms.

The dimensions of the disaster, like the gravitational pull of a heavy magnet, attracted Chinese scientists, prompted a nascent national environmental movement to take note, and spurred calls for action from other nations–Japan, South Korea, the United States–that choke on China’s dust. And for good reason.

In 2001, dust from a violent storm closed airports in Korea. A year later, on April 12, 2002, South Korea was engulfed by another dust storm from China that left people in Seoul literally gasping for breath. Koreans have come to dread the arrival of what they now call “the fifth season”—the dust storms of late winter and early spring. In March and April 2006 Beijing, the Chinese capital, was enveloped eight times by choking storms.

…In fact, [an] Asian Sahara of sand is moving closer every year to Beijing, blackening the sky, and producing environmental refugees and social unrest in Inner Mongolia and throughout China….”

Thus, in some cases, water politics are actually becoming the politics of sand….



This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008 at 12:04 pm and is filed under China.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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