China Threat to Water Security

Experts say the Asian giant’s usage methods risk creating a regional water crisis.
2013-01-25
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Steel pipes are cooled down with water at a factory that processes rare earths, iron and coal in Inner Monglia, April 21, 2011.
AFP

Asia requires a ruled-based system to manage its water resources and maintain rapid economic growth in the region but China appears to be a stumbling block, experts say.

China does not have a single water sharing treaty in place with any of its neighboring countries, refusing be tied up by a regional regulatory framework and fearing it will lose its strategic grip on transboundary river flows, the experts told a Washington conference.

“Without bringing China on board, it is impossible to establish a rules-based water regime in Asia, given the centrality of China,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

This could not only affect the future of water resources in the region and dampen economic outlook for Asia, but also lead to regional conflict, he warned.

Nearly all of China’s neighbors have forged water agreements among themselves but not one of them has a water agreement with the Asian giant.

Chellaney acknowledged that it would be difficult to convince Beijing to consider negotiating a regional agreement, saying its key location as the source of much of the region’s water gives it little reason to share resources with its neighbors downstream.

“There is no other country in the world that comes close to the hydro-supremacy that China has established,” Chellaney said. “[But] cross-border dependency on water flows is high across Asia.”

“The fact that most Asian countries are dependent on cross-border flows to a significant degree, makes water cooperation central to ensuring Asian peace and stability,” he said.

“The question is how does one bring China on board?”

Internal crisis

The experts also warned about a simmering water crisis within China.

As China struggles with maintaining the sustainable growth of its economy and urbanizing some 300 million people in the next 20 years, tremendous strains have been placed on the country’s resources, they said.

Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said Beijing is diverting massive amounts of water to mineral abundant areas in the north of the country that lack sufficient rainfall in order to support continued reliance on coal as a its main source of energy.

Relocating huge amounts of water for the sake of power production in China is having profound effects on the availability of the resource within the country and elsewhere throughout the region, Turner said.

“We estimate that 20 percent of China’s water is going just to the coal sector,” she said. Water is used to cool China’s coal plants and wash mined coal for processing.

“The pressure in China is energy security, but … energy security at the expense of water security.”

Some 70 percent of electricity generation in China uses coal power and that is set to double by 2020, Turner said.

“Coal appears to remain the king in China and this is important for you to think about water security in China,” Turner said.

She added that growing cities across China are driving demand for energy for which coal in the north of the country is key.

“[A]nd they can get to it if they can get the water.”

If coal is “king” in China, Turner said, hydropower is “queen”—a technology which has led the country to build dozens of dams across its rivers, many of which run from sources on the Tibetan plateau to Asian neighbors downstream.

Increased demand

Chellaney said that runaway growth in the greater Asian region has significantly increased the demand for water in the driest continent in the world.

The world’s fastest growing demand for water for industrial and food production and for municipal supply is in Asia, he said.

But he said that such growth is unsustainable without a mix of international regulation and more efficient infrastructure to avoid a water crisis.

“Asia’s water crisis is assuming such critical proportions that without mitigating this crisis, Asia’s continued economic growth will not be possible,” Chellaney said.

“Water scarcity and rapid economic growth do not go hand in hand, and how Asia manages its water crisis will very much shape its security and economic future,” he said.

Turner said that another risk for the region’s water supply is the example China is setting by building massive dams without considering the interest of its downstream neighbors.

“I think that what you see in China in terms of this rapid dam building is just replicated [for example] in the Mekong River basin,” she said, pointing to recent plans by Laos to proceed with a megadam on the Southeast Asian river upstream from Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam which manages development along Southeast Asia's main waterway, ruled last year that the dam required further study, but Laos has decided to proceed with the project.

China has refused to join the MRC, although the Mekong’s source is located within its borders, saying it prefers to negotiate with other countries on a bilateral basis.

In addition to teaching other nations that it is acceptable to act without consulting their neighbors, Turner said, Beijing legitimizes its own actions when others in the region follow its example.

“All the other countries are doing the same thing … The model goes all the way down … So I think that when China looks at that, they say, ‘everyone is doing the same thing, right?’”

Reported by Joshua Lipes.