Is water scarce China turning into a Water-Hegemon?

A man checks an almost dried-out reservoir in Kunming, southwest China. Millions of people face drinking water shortages in the region due to once-a-century drought that has dried up rivers and threatens vast farmlands (Photo: Reuters)

Are Water Wars Next? If this happens, what are the Implications for India?

Part I – China is facing a monumental Water Crisis: How is China ensuring water security

China’s Water Crisis worsened by Climate Change
China is currently facing a two months heatwave of the century, a major water crisis, apart from being hit by a sluggish economy, continuing Covid crisis, and a global geo-political-economic pushback. A multiyear drought could push the country into an outright water crisis, which would not only have a significant effect on China’s grain and electricity production; it could also induce global food and industrial materials shortages on a far greater scale than those wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. An economic powerhouse, adverse impact on her food, energy and materials supply chain management would resonate through markets around the world and create economic and political turbulence for years to come. There is no alternative for water. It sustains life and is essential for growing food and generating energy.

China consumes ten billion barrels of water per day—about 700 times its daily oil consumption. Half century of astronomical exponential economic growth, coupled with robust food security policies that aim at national self-sufficiency, have unfortunately pushed China’s water system (especially North China) beyond a sustainable level. As of 2020, the per capita available water supply around the North China Plain was 253 cubic meters or nearly 50 percent below the UN definition of acute water scarcity. Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and other major cities are at similar or lower levels. Hong Kong has for decades used seawater to flush toilets. Water stressed Egypt for instance has per capita freshwater resources of 570 cubic meters per capita. To make matters worse, a significant portion of China’s water supply is not fit for human consumption.

A 2018 analysis of surface water by China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment found that although the quality had improved from previous years, 19 percent was still classified as unfit for human consumption and roughly seven percent was unfit for any use at all. The quality of groundwater, which is critical for ensuring water supplies during drought was worse, with approximately 30 percent being deemed unfit for human consumption and 16 percent deemed unfit for any use. Concurrently, farm and industrial chemicals continue to contaminate the country’s groundwater, setting the stage for potentially decades of additional water supply impairments. Data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization indicate that China uses nearly two and a half times as much fertilizer and four times as much pesticide as the United States does despite having 25 percent less arable land[i]. The over exploitation of aquifers under the Northern China Plain is a core driver of China’s looming water crisis. The most populous portion of China, lives North of the Yangtze River; an area from eastern Sichuan to southern Jilin that is home to more than a billion people, which has seen steady declines in the amount of water in the region’s lakes, rivers, and aquifers since the last decade. As is her want, the CCP (China’s Communist Party) has chosen to conceal the full extent of China’s environmental problems to limit potential public backlash. This lack of transparency suggests that an escalation to acute water distress could be far closer than most outside observers realize; the world must be ready for this hydrographic disaster.

Water scarcity level in India

Global Water Statistical Data
Water covers about 71% of the earth’s surface; 326 million cubic miles of water on the planet; 97% of the earth’s water is found in the oceans (too salty for drinking, growing crops, and most industrial uses except cooling); 320 million cubic miles of water in the oceans. Only 3% of the earth’s water is fresh, of which 2.5% of the earth’s fresh water is unavailable: locked up in glaciers, polar ice caps, atmosphere, and soil, highly polluted, or lies too far under the earth’s surface to be extracted at an affordable cost. About half of the planet’s population (3.6 billion) lives in water-scarce regions. The consequent food and water crisis could be poised to drive up social unrest and massive migration. Such extended droughts also fuel the risk of wildfires.

Water crisis management, especially in North China
The irony is that China recognizes the gravity of the crisis but internal politics and fear of public retribution often delays remedial measures. China launched the $60 billion South-to-North Water Transfer Project in 2003 which draws water from tributaries of the River Yangtze to replenish the dry north. To boost rainfall (and sometimes engineer better weather, for example, for Olympics ceremonies and party anniversary events, and now to fight intense heat and drought conditions in summer of 2022), China has also deployed aircraft and rockets to lace clouds with silver iodide or liquid nitrogen, a process known as cloud seeding. It has also relocated heavy industry away from the most water-stressed regions and is investing massively in water management infrastructure, with vice minister of Water Resources Wei Shanzhong estimating in April 2022 that annual investment in water-related projects could hit $100 billion annually. Experts opine that these efforts may be insufficient to forestall a crisis.

Adverse impact on Food Production (Famines precipitated by drought helped topple at least five of China’s 17 dynasties)
For the past 20 years, Chinese government policy has offered incentives to farmers to maximize production of corn, rice, and wheat to achieve “self-sufficiency” levels that generally exceed 90 percent. Groundwater extraction played an outsize role in this achievement and transformed the dry North China Plain into the country’s breadbasket. In parts of North China, groundwater levels have declined by a meter per year, causing naturally occurring underground water storage aquifers to collapse, which has triggered land subsidence and compromised the aquifers’ potential for future recharge. Farms on the North China Plain produce approximately 60 percent of China’s wheat, 45 percent of its corn, 35 percent of its cotton, and 64 percent of its peanuts. But to sustain these harvests, farms and cities are pumping water far faster than nature can replenish it. Satellite data suggest that each year between 2003 and 2010, North China lost an amount of groundwater equal to more than twice what Beijing consumes annually. As groundwater levels fall, many farmers are struggling to find new sources. Some are digging larger, deeper wells, often at great cost; but continual overdraws may render water physically inaccessible regardless of pumpers’ willingness to spend on deeper wells and new pumping technology. Drop in North China food production by 33 percent crop loss because of water insufficiency, China would potentially need to compensate by importing approximately 20 percent of the world’s internationally traded corn and 13 percent of its traded wheat. Further, if a drought were to curtail rice yields in southern China or Heilongjiang (in China’s fertile Northeast), that could create even larger market shocks given China’s disproportionate share of rice consumption. All three major staple grains are critical for hundreds of millions of lower-income consumers worldwide, with corn as a staple in Latin America, wheat vital in the Middle East and North Africa, and rice essential across Asia.

Although China has stockpiled the world’s largest grain reserves, the country is not immune to a multiyear yield shortfall. This would likely force China’s food traders, including large state-owned enterprises such as COFCO and Sinograin, into global markets on an emergency basis to secure additional supplies. This in turn could trigger food price spikes in high-income countries, while rendering key food items economically inaccessible to hundreds of millions of people in poorer countries. The impacts of this water-driven food shortage could be far worse than the food-related unrest that swept across lower-and-middle-income countries in 2007 and 2008 and would drive migration and exacerbate political polarization already present both within nations and globally.

Water, the umbilical cord for power generation
Despite major investments in renewable energy, nearly 90 percent of China’s electricity supply still requires extensive water resources, particularly hydro, coal, and even nuclear generation, which needs large and steady water supplies for steam condensers and to cool reactor cores and used fuel rods. Managing the cascading effects of a shortfall from any given power source is daunting. If China lost 15 percent of its hydropower production in a year because of low water levels behind dams, a plausible scenario based on real-world experiences in Brazil, it would have to increase electricity output by an amount equal to what Egypt generates in a year. In China’s energy system, only coal-fired plants could potentially boost output by hundreds of terawatt-hours on short notice. Unfortunately, the coal mining and preparation process is often highly water intensive, and if China were compelled to ramp up coal production, it would further strain local groundwater supplies. Seawater can be used for cooling, however, most of China’s coal-fired plants are located inland and rely on rivers, lakes, or groundwater. Analysis by Foreign Affairs magazine of approximately 2,000 utility-scale (300 megawatts or larger capacity) Chinese coal-fired power generation units and their known or likely modes of cooling suggests that about 500 gigawatts of capacity; more than the combined coal power capacity of India and the United States; face elevated risks from a prolonged drought [ii].

Vitally, China’s power shortfalls would directly affect global supply chains, as industrial facilities account for over 65 percent of electricity use in China. To minimize the immediate human impact of broad, uncontrolled blackouts, party officials have shut down industrial facilities to ease the grid load. China is also the world’s largest producer of aluminum, ferro-silicon, lead, manganese, magnesium, zinc, most rare earth metals, and many other specialty metals and materials. Power outages can impact global markets; to illustrate – curtailed magnesium smelter operations in Shaanxi Province, resulted in prices spiking to seven times their level internationally at the beginning of 2022 and European industrial consumers called for government action to ensure supplies. Resultantly, the Chinese and global transition to clean energy will certainly be impaired, once production of rare earth metals and cells reduces due to water and power shortages (polysilicon used for solar cells and the rare earth metals used in wind turbines around the world, and raw materials for cell production for electric vehicle batteries).

Desperate measures for desperate times: Control of water in Tibet, the ‘Third Pole’
The Tibetan Plateau is widely known as the ‘Third Pole’ because its ice fields contain the largest reserve of freshwater outside the polar regions and has accorded China unfettered access to perennial water sources. Asia’s ten great river systems emanate from the Tibetan Plateau and traverse eleven countries, supporting over 2 billion people. The ones of importance to China’s southern and south-eastern neighbours are the Indus (China, India, Pakistan), Brahmaputra (China, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan), Salween (China, Myanmar, Thailand), Mekong (China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam) and Sutlej (China, India, Pakistan). Over 45,000 glaciers seasonally drain into these rivers. Water alone elevates TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region) to geo-strategic importance to the entire region. For India, Tibet holds the tap to three major rivers, the Indus, Sutlej, and Brahmaputra. China’s increasing activities on all of these rivers in recent past has been a matter of immense concern to India[iii].

Chinese actions on rivers of TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region) specially Yarlung Tsangpo

Image: A line map of the Yarlung Tsangpo Great Bend, showing previous Chinese dams constructions (in bold) and the proposed site of the newest 60-gigawatt hydropower project at Metog (Source: South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People)

The damming of the River Brahmaputra started during November 2010, with the 7.9 billion RMB 3260-meter Zangmu Hydropower Station 510 MW, which became fully operational on October 13, 2015. China has undertaken a huge project to construct five dams in Shannan Prefecture in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). The precise locations of the project are reportedly in Gyatsa, Jieuxu, Langzhen, Zangmu, and Zhongda in the TAR. The dams are slated to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra  River (Yarlung-Tsangpo in Tibet) to China’s water-scare North-western and Northern provinces. China adopted its 14th Five-Year Plan, which included a blueprint amounting to billions of dollars’ worth of projects, including controversial hydropower projects on the Brahmaputra in the TAR. China is embarking upon ambitious “dam-constructing exercises” on all its important rivers. The familiar Three Gorges Project across the Yangtze River is one such project[iv].

In Part II, we will similarly analyse the water crisis facing India, and how India is pro-actively (though slowly) addressing it. What India can do to resolve the Chinese manoeuvres to divert essential water resources to lower riparian nations especially India would also be examined.

[i] A Chinese Drought Would Be a Global Catastrophe’, by Gabriel Collins and Gopal Reddy, August 23, 2022, Foreign Affairs

[ii] ibid

[iii] Aspects gleaned from Wikipedia and Paper titled ‘Impact of Chinese Activities on Brahmaputra River’ by Brig Vimal Mongia, March 2022, USI Paper, March 2022

[iv] The Chinese Threat to Lower Brahmaputra Riparians India and Bangladesh’, by Jaideep Saikia, February 19, 2022, The Diplomat

(This article was first published in CENJOWS)

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