Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
The Thirsty Dragon: China Is Running Out of Water and That’s Scary for Asia

Via Bloomberg, an opinion piece looking at how – of all Bejing’s problems (demographic decline, a stifling political climate, the stalling or reversal of economic reforms) dwindling natural resources may be the most urgent:

Nature and geopolitics can interact in nasty ways. The historian Geoffrey Parker has argued that changing weather patterns drove war, revolution and upheaval during a long global crisis in the 17th century. More recently, climate change has opened new trade routes, resources and rivalries in the Arctic. And now China, a great power that often appears bent on reordering the international system, is running out of water in ways that are likely to stoke conflict at home and abroad.

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.

Yet China’s natural abundance is a thing of the past. As Michael Beckley and I argue in our forthcoming book, “The Danger Zone,” 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. As Gopal Reddy notes, China possesses 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its fresh water. Entire regions, especially in the north, suffer from water scarcity worse than that found in a parched Middle East.

This is an expensive problem. China is forced to divert water from comparatively wet regions to the drought-plagued north; experts assess that the country loses well over $100 billion annually as a result of water scarcity. Shortages and unsustainable agriculture are causing the desertification of large chunks of land. Water-related energy shortfalls have become common across the country.

The government has promoted rationing and improvements in water efficiency, but nothing sufficient to arrest the problem. This month, Chinese authorities announced that Guangzhou and Shenzhen — two major cities in the relatively water-rich Pearl River Delta — will face severe drought well into next year.

The economic and political implications are troubling. By making growth cost more, China’s resource problems have joined an array of other challenges — demographic decline, an increasingly stifling political climate, the stalling or reversal of many key economic reforms — to cause a slowdown that was having pronounced effects even before Covid struck. China’s social compact will be tested as dwindling resources intensify distributional fights.

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.

Much of China’s fresh water is concentrated in areas, such as Tibet, that the communist government seized by force after taking power in 1949. For years, China has tried to solve its resource challenges by coercing and impoverishing its neighbors.

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 that depend on that waterway. The diversion of rivers in Xinjiang has had devastating downstream effects in Central Asia.

A growing source of tension in the Himalayas is China’s plan to dam key waters before they reach India, leaving that country (and Bangladesh) the losers. 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.”



This entry was posted on Saturday, January 29th, 2022 at 3:31 pm and is filed under China, Laos, Mekong River, Thailand.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

Comments are closed.


 
© 2022 Water Politics LLC.  'Water Politics', 'water. politics. life', and 'Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty World' are service marks of Water Politics LLC.