The Thirsty Dragon: Downstream Impacts

Via The Circle of Blue, an interesting article on China’s water problems and its impact on downstream nations such as Laos, Vietnam, etc.  As the report notes:

“…But now, let’s talk about China in terms of their water problems. China is upstream of the Mekong, the Salween, these major rivers that flow into Southeast Asia. China is a very energy hungry country, so it’s not surprising they are damming the rivers. They’ve got two major dams on the Mekong, and third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh ones are planned. They’re putting in these dams without regard to the impact on Southeast Asia.

Besides dams on the Mekong, they’ve also been doing some channelization projects to try to, basically they dynamite the shoals and try to help improve shipping. These are done without consideration of the impacts on the downstream countries.

Now, it’s not to say that the downstream countries are also free of guilt in their management of the water. If you look at Vietnam, Laos, all of these countries downstream on the Mekong are also damming the tributaries to the Mekong and dredging. There is the Mekong River Commission, but no country is looking at this river as a whole, at the region as a whole, in terms of taking care of it.

There is the strong, short-term interest of needing energy. These are poor countries, Laos in particular. Fisheries are being destroyed, and because the dams are going in, they are not getting the siltation necessary. Agriculture is disrupted in many of the countries in Southeast Asia because of the dams further upstream in China. So many people in Southeast Asia, Laos, Vietnam, its subsistence is agriculture, its’ substance is fishing. They lose their livelihood.

So there is a question well, where will these people go? Obviously, a lot of people will have no choice but to go into the cities.

There are many other drives of urbanization throughout Asia. Some of it is that governments want to urbanize because that’s seen as modern, but you have these megacities that are growing that are not always happy places. You have slums. There are so many that are coming into these cities that have no way of living. Also, as these cities grow, again not everyone coming into these cities are poor, but as these cities grow, they need water. They need electricity. Urbanites consume more. It’s a basic fact. The question is where is this water going to come from? What will happen when cities can’t get the water?

I’m speaking at a very general, 30,000 feet level. Let’s say if we go back to China, the government has a major strategy of urbanizing even more of the population than are already urbanized. It’s seen as an important way to promote development, modernization. And not just on the coast. For many years, they’ve been doing investments in smaller counties throughout the country to make them big. There is no such thing as a small town in China. Again, cities, they need water. Something like two-thirds of Chinese cities are at some point throughout the year are water short.

In northern China cities, as well as the agriculture, they depend on ground water. Ag in northern China is 40% dependent on ground water. This is not sustainable. There are big questions about what happens when you have cities in China, we could tell stories about throughout Asia but I know China best, what happens when you have these megacities and you don’t have water? When I focus on China’s environmental issues, for me, water’s the most important issue.

Obviously, there are a lot of air pollution problems in China: 750,000 people die every year from respiratory illnesses. Maybe the numbers seem lower; only 60,000 people die from diarrhea, from dirty water every year in China. The numbers aren’t as great, but I think there are many, many more hundreds of thousands of people in China who are getting sick, who are getting cancer, who have low IQs due to contaminated water in China. I see water as the big issue, and I think that’s China’s biggest environmental issue.

There are a lot of cross sections among these issues. The water energy linkage, for example: Northern China’s very water short, and that happens to be where the coal comes from. You have to use water to clean the coal or there’s not enough water to clean the coal, so we don’t clean the coal. So China burns very, very dirty coal. That’s a definite linkage….”

This entry was posted on Friday, May 8th, 2009 at 10:19 am and is filed under China, Laos, Mekong River, Tibetan Plateau, Vietnam.  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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