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China’s water wars

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Paramilitary policemen sweep a flooded street in Guilin, Guangxi province, China, 3 July 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Stringer).

In Brief

China is often thought of as a country that suppresses internal conflicts, usually to great effect. But there are a number of notable exceptions and, of these, conflicts over water are perhaps the most intriguing. While China is by some definitions water-scarce, its domestic and international water conflicts are driven not by scarcity per se but by the impact of China’s rampant economic growth.


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Total water availability in China stands at about 2000 cubic meters per person per year — around one-third of the global average. According to one estimate, China faces a shortfall of some 200 billion cubic meters of water annually, due mostly to increasing industrial and urban water demand. But these figures mask considerable regional differences. Most of the provinces where water demand exceeds its supply sit astride the rapidly growing eastern seaboard.

Even more serious is the issue of water pollution, which affects some 85 per cent of major urban waterways and about 80 per cent of tested groundwater in China. Large-scale urbanisation is also seriously damaging China’s aquatic ecosystems like lakes and wetlands, and is dramatically increasing flood risk.

These changes are setting the stage for a growing number of water conflicts between China’s sub-national jurisdictions, and may portend more difficult relations with its neighbours as well.

China’s domestic water conflicts typically take the form of disputes between sub-national units like provinces and prefectures. These conflicts arise over a number of issues like dam and hydropower development, but they most commonly pertain to some form of inter-jurisdictional water pollution.

Domestic water conflicts can provoke civil unrest. In a landmark incident in 2001, residents of the city of Jiaxing in Zhejiang province who were fed up with pollution flowing downstream from neighbouring Jiangsu province sunk a number of old boats in the two provinces’ shared waterway to form a makeshift dam, which backed up the polluted water across the border.

China’s internal water wars have the potential to pose significant problems for China’s political system, which is set up to ensure local officials pursue centrally formulated priorities rather than their own. There are relatively few mechanisms to encourage cooperation between neighbouring jurisdictions on issues of shared concern.

Beijing has recently undertaken a number of wide-ranging reforms intended to address the problem of inter-jurisdictional water disputes. A number of regulations have been issued over the past decade to clarify how such disputes are handled, and several provinces have set up ‘dialogue mechanisms’ to try to prevent and resolve such disputes.

But the overwhelming preference of China’s leaders is for a more hierarchical solution, such as the recently established ‘river and lake chief’ system (hezhang). Under this system, China’s local officials are vested with specific responsibilities for ensuring adherence to water quality and other water-related policy measures within their jurisdictions.

The problem with this approach is that issues like pollution and flooding require broad cooperation between officials and residents of neighbouring regions that cannot easily be encouraged by fiat. Decades of research and examples from across the globe show that durable, effective cooperation over shared resources like water requires inclusive institutions that bring interested parties together — the exact opposite of the vertical hierarchy that currently shapes the governance of water and almost everything else in China.

The importance of building good institutions is even greater at the international level, where outside actors can play an important role in fostering cooperation between countries that otherwise might not see eye-to-eye over contentious issues like water. Mistrust over shared rivers remains high between China and its neighbours, especially India and Vietnam, which for different reasons fear the downstream impacts of dam-building and water diversions being planned or undertaken by China.

Outside observers have noted these projects with alarm for some time, especially with respect to China’s transboundary rivers. Indian strategist Brahma Chellaney attracted widespread attention for his contention in 2014 that these rivers are destined to become ‘Asia’s new battleground’.

It is true that China has often been dismissive of its neighbours’ concerns that construction of large dams may negatively impact downstream fisheries, flood risk and other matters. But in some cases China has been a constructive neighbour, for instance in helping to establish the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism as an alternative to the ineffectual Mekong River Commission.

If China’s reputation as a ‘hydro-hegemon’ that seeks to control Asia’s water resources by exploiting its dominion over the headwaters of many of the continent’s major rivers is indeed a misrepresentation of its intentions, China’s internal divisions over water are at least partly to blame for this perception.

China’s peculiar blend of political centralisation and fiscal decentralisation gives sub-national officials an incentive to pursue grand infrastructure projects, regardless of their implications for China’s neighbours. The dam-building projects in particular — which are the source of many international transboundary water conflicts between China and its neighbours — appear to largely reflect the economic self-interest of individual jurisdictions rather than grand geopolitical objectives.

According to one analysis, jurisdictions that build dams experience a 16 per cent increase in revenue. Fieldwork evidence has also concluded that local officials are often motivated to support dam construction projects because of their contribution to local economic growth.

While there’s no question that China isn’t always the ideal riparian neighbour, parochial rather than hegemonic interests appear to better explain China’s behaviour on Asia’s transboundary waterways.

Scott Moore is a Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflict, Cooperation, and Institution-Building in Shared River Basins (Oxford University Press, forthcoming) on which this article is based.

This article was co-published with the China Policy Institute.

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