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China’s Dire Water Situation Leading to Geopolitical Tension

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Resources such as water have always been critical to economic development and global power and this can be seen especially with China. During the 19th century, the United Kingdom — a small country with abundant coal reserves led the pack because its coal reserves enabled it to drive the Industrial Revolution. Eventually, Britain was surpassed by the U.S., which exploited its vast arable lands, large oil reserves, and other resources to become a global economic titan.

China’s rise is no different. Beijing’s world-beating economic growth between the late 1970s and early 2000s as a result of capitalism reforms, a global trade system and good demographics. In addition to being self-sufficient in the land, water, and many raw materials, China’s cheap labour allowed it to exploit these resources aggressively, making it the workshop of the world.

Nevertheless, China’s natural abundance is a thing of the past. Beijing has blown through many of its resources, as Michael Beckley and I argue in my forthcoming book, “The Danger Zone.”. Ten years ago, China quickly became the largest agricultural importer in the world. As a result of degradation and overuse, the arable land there is shrinking. At a time when the United States has become a net energy exporter, China has also become the world’s largest energy importer.

China’s water situation is particularly dire. China has 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its fresh water, explains Gopal Reddy. Almost all regions of the country, especially those in the north, have water shortages worse than those found in a parched Middle East.

China’s groundwater polluted

Industrialization and pollution have spoiled much of the remaining water, as thousands of rivers have disappeared. According to some estimates, 80-90% of China’s groundwater and half of its river water is unsafe for drinking; more than half of its groundwater and a quarter of its river water cannot even be used for agriculture or industry.

The solution to this problem will cost a lot of money. As a result of water scarcity, experts estimate that China loses over $100 billion annually due to diverting water from comparatively wet regions to the drought-plagued north. Large areas of land have been desertified due to shortages and unsustainable agriculture. The country has faced energy shortages as a result of water shortages.

Water rationing and efficiency improvements have been promoted by the government, but nothing has been sufficient to address the problem. Guangzhou and Shenzhen – major cities in the relatively water-rich Pearl River Delta – are expected to suffer severe drought well into next year, according to Chinese authorities.

The consequences are troubling from an economic and political perspective. China’s resource problems have made growth more expensive, along with a growing number 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 already having significant effects before Covid struck. Dwindling resources will intensify fights over distribution in China, testifying to the social compact.

China’s water problems are causing geopolitical tension.

Water scarcity threatened the “very survival of the Chinese nation” in 2005, according to Premier Wen Jiabao. A minister of water resources said that China must “fight for every drop of water or die.” Hyperbole aside, resource scarcity and political instability often go hand in hand.

Foreign tensions may increase as a result. Observers have apprehensions that the Chinese Communist Party might lash out against its international rivals if it feels insecure at home. Even without that, water problems are causing geopolitical tension.

As a result of communist rule, much of China’s fresh water is concentrated in areas, such as Tibet, that was seized by force after 1949. In order to solve its resource shortages, China has coerced and impoverished its neighbours.

In Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Laos that rely on the Mekong River, Beijing has caused recurring droughts and devastating floods by building giant dams on that river. Xinjiang’s diversion of rivers has had catastrophic downstream effects on Central Asia.

Increasing tensions in the Himalayas have been sparked by China’s plans to dam key waters before they reach India, leaving India (and Bangladesh) to suffer the consequences. Chinese territorial expansion in the South China Sea and the Himalayas has been accompanied by stealthier efforts to gain control over water resources in transnational river basins, according to Indian strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney.

In other words, the thirstier China becomes, the more geopolitically nasty it could be.

Source: Bloomberg

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