Thirsty Dragon: Chinese Dams Make ‘Upstream Superpower’ Presence Felt In Asia

Via Nikkei Asia, the first article in a three-part series exploring the effects that the actions of upstream nations – exacerbated by climate change – have on countries downstream:

Water is released from the Xiaolangdi Reservoir Dam on the Yellow River in a sand-discharging operation. July 2022, Luoyang, China. (Footage via Getty Images)

Drought in China dried up parts of the Yangtze river last year – but the largest water transfer apparatus ever built still drew from it to supply Beijing’s needs. 

More than a billion cubic meters flowed through the colossal South-to-North Water Diversion Project in 2022. It traveled from a reservoir in central China to millions of households in the capital 1,200 kilometers away. The journey, via underground tunnels and canals that cross the Yellow River, roughly equaled the distance between Amsterdam and Rome.

The movement highlights the scale of China’s measures to shore up water security – and the profound potential effects these have on neighboring countries.

Many of Asia’s transboundary rivers originate in the Indo-Tibetan plateau in China. They flow into 18 downstream nations such as India, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh and Vietnam, delivering water to a quarter of the world’s population.

That alone makes the world’s second most populous nation an upstream superpower with enormous influence over irrigation of much of the continent. Projects such as building dams and hydropower plants potentially fuel existing regional political tensions – and create new ones.

“These [measures] of course have created major concerns from the downstream countries, such as environmental concerns that have potential impacts on water resources and the ecosystems,” said Dr. Hongzhou Zhang, a water specialist at Nanyang Technological University.

China’s problems are part of a growing global threat of water shortages. By 2030, half the world will face water stress or outright shortages, manifested primarily through food insecurity and access to electricity, the United Nations forecasts.

Asia, home to more than half the world’s population, will feel the pressure most intensely because of the imbalance of demand and supply, according to the think tank Asia Society.

Countries that neighbor China – including India, Bangladesh and Vietnam – rely on the Third Pole, the area with the most glaciers outside Antarctica and the Arctic. It includes the Tibetan Plateau and the surrounding Hindu Kush Himalayan mountain ranges. 

The region, also known as the “Asian Water Tower,” is the source of 10 major rivers. It is geographically within China’s sovereignty, giving the nation upstream control over the region’s water supply. 

“This gives China so-called unparalleled influence in terms of water supplies in the region.”  

– Dr. Hongzhou Zhang, Nanyang Technological University

Climate change is expected to aggravate the situation significantly. Rising global temperatures are already melting Himalayan glaciers and snowpacks.

As global average temperatures climb, Third Pole glaciers are expected to lose around 30% to 40% of their volume by 2100, according to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, an intergovernmental agency with a goal to protect the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.The increased volume of meltwater may be welcomed initially as it will allow hydropower dams to generate more power. But scholars say glaciers will reach peak water — a tipping point when meltwater begins to decline — within the next decade. In the long term, the thaw of snow and ice could cause severe water shortages across Asia. 

China’s fundamental domestic difficulty is that its historically arid northern plain has seen massive industrialization, even though the country’s south holds 80% of the country’s freshwater resources. Combined with that rapid economic development is population growth over the decades that has placed increasing strain on water supplies in the nation of 1.4 billion.

Former Premier Wen Jiabao once described water shortages as a threat to “the very survival of the Chinese nation.” If the country were to experience a multiyear drought, it could have disastrous effects on food and energy production.

“You’re going to create potentially enormous disruptions in global commodity markets.”

– Gabriel Collins, Baker Botts fellow, Rice University’s Baker Institute. 

“Whether it’s a case where China has to go out and procure grain on the international market in a way that they didn’t before to get through a couple of bad years [due to a drought] – or whether it’s electricity cutoffs to metals and materials manufacturers,” Collins said. “The impacts would be global and substantial.”

All this has led China to make water a central focus of national policymaking over the past few years. 

Beijing developed its first five-year-plan for water security in 2021. In May this year, it issued a blueprint for an ambitious national water network to boost irrigation and cut the risk of droughts. The plan aims to improve water management, supply and quality, and expand existing infrastructure. 

The $62 billion South-to-North diversion project is expected to be extended westward after years of delay, in a further effort to tackle the country’s severe water supply and demand imbalance. 

Minister of Water Resources Li Guoying told state media that leveling the country’s unequal water distribution is crucial for productivity and socioeconomic development.

“These problems are completely contradictory to the essential requirements of Chinese modernization,” he said. 

Experts say China has added 100 water diversion projects over the past five years. These measures have their roots in the late leader Mao Zedong’s ambitions to hydrate the north of the country in the 1950s. 

“The south has plenty of water, the north much less. If possible, the north should borrow a little.”

-Mao Zedong

Some of these developments have been controversial. One is a 2017 proposal by Tsinghua University academics for the 6,180-km Red Flag River project. The plan received attention from state media, seen by observers as a sign of official backing, but alarmed neighboring states.

“If this proposal (becomes) an official diversion project, that will have an impact on downstream countries, because the water will be taken from upstream rivers of at least three or four international rivers,” said Mark Wang, a professor at Melbourne University who has studied the proposal.

Downstream countries have been further dismayed by China’s ever-expanding program of dam building to meet its energy needs.

Plans announced in 2021 for a 60-gigawatt megadam to be built on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo unnerved downstream countries. The river flows from Tibet into India, where it becomes the Brahmaputra, and later passes into Bangladesh. The project runs close to the disputed border between India and China and could escalate tensions between the world’s two most populous countries. 

Genevieve Donnellon-May, a water specialist focused on China at Oxford Global Society, said unilateral moves to build infrastructure upstream “can at times give [China] leverage over other countries and even go along with a greater influence in military projection and with trade.”

While transboundary rivers around the world are generally governed by multilateral agreements, Asia’s are mostly subject to bespoke arrangements. China has not signed the 1997 U.N. Watercourses Convention – and neither have the majority of its 17 downstream neighbors.

Instead, China is a party to roughly 50 water or water-related bilateral agreements and instruments, according to Dr. David Devlaeminck, an international water law scholar at Chongqing University.

The agreements “have permitted cooperation between China and its neighbors through institutions they have established in the past few decades, Devlaeminck said. But he added the deals often use “vague language,” creating the possibility for disputes.

The Mekong River, which rises in China’s southeastern province of Qinghai and runs through continental Southeast Asia, has been a particular flashpoint

Downstream from the Gongguoqiao Dam on the Mekong River, known locally as Lancang Jiang in Yunnan, China. (Photo via Getty Images)

The first mainstream hydropower dam on the Mekong, which the Chinese call the Lancang, was built in 1995 in Yunnan province. Since then the construction of many more dams has stoked fears of flooding, droughts and the possibility of China using water supply as blackmail. 

“Because of geography, [China] can make the kind of decisions that do have an impact on the quantity of water that flows to the downstream countries,” Donnellon-May said.

“You could say water is politicized. In a way, it’s tied up in … broader foreign policy.”

– Genevieve Donnellon-May, Oxford Global Society

Ambika Vishwanath, a water security specialist and co-founder of the India-based geopolitical advisory Kubernein Initiative, described China’s water agreement strategy as one of “transactional” relationships. China’s water cooperation with Central Asian countries are very different compared with its dealings with countries to its south, she said.

In 2001, China agreed to set up a joint river commission with Kazakhstan focused on monitoring water flow. Ten years later, China launched the “China-Kazakhstan Friendship Joint Water Diversion project,” with commitments from both sides to regulate the distribution of shared water.

China relies heavily on Kazakhstan for border security along the northwestern Xinjiang region.

Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities there have suffered human rights abuses in what Beijing calls a fight against terrorism and separatism. China also imports oil from Kazakhstan.

“[China] will go ahead with a treaty or an agreement if that is something that is going to benefit [them],” Vishwanath said. “Water then becomes embroiled in, say, economic development or becomes a part of your larger diplomacy and cooperation.”

Similarly, Sino-Indian politics have shaped China’s water governance of rivers like the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra. A 2005 agreement between China and India requires Beijing to provide data on rivers during flood season. But those discussions have stalled in the face of repeated military standoffs in disputed border areas between the nations. China’s construction of hydroelectric dams along the river has added to the friction. 

Often dubbed Asia’s hydro-hegemon, China is under pressure to play a responsible and reasonable role in safeguarding the region’s water supply. Its water management will affect not only its own fate but that of hundreds of millions of people across the continent.

“Asian states also need new market mechanisms, public-private partnerships, innovative practices and technologies, conservation, and astute resource management to mitigate the growing water challenges and shape a more sustainable future,” said Brahma Chellany, author of the book “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.

“Water wars, in a diplomatic or economic sense, are already being waged in several of Asia’s subregions as countries jockey to control transnational water resources,” Chellany said. “The sharpening water competition could provoke greater tensions and even conflict.”

This entry was posted on Monday, July 24th, 2023 at 7:41 am and is filed under China, India, Tibetan Plateau, Vietnam.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

Comments are closed.

© 2023 Water Politics LLC .  'Water Politics', 'Water. Politics. Life', and 'Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty World' are service marks of Water Politics LLC.