Caught in Chinese Currents: Dealing with China’s Water Hegemony
Updated: Mar 3
A photograph of one of the rivers in Tibet.
Tibet: the Gateway to Ten Rivers
The Tibetan Plateau is not merely the roof of the world, but also a water tower for the regions it overlooks. Nestled amidst its frozen and undulating terrain, massive glaciers give birth to many of the world’s vital rivers. These rivers flow through the territories, psyches and the histories of South, Southeast and East Asia’s peoples. South Asia sees the Indus, its tributary Sutlej, the Brahmaputra, its tributary Manas, and various important tributaries of the mighty Ganges emerge from Tibet’s frigid expanses. Meanwhile, Southeast Asia’s lifelines- the Mekong, Irrawaddy, and Salween, all follow from Tibet. China’s own major rivers, the Yangtse and the Yellow River come into being from here as well. Overall, ten major rivers call Tibet their source. It should thus come as no surprise that China has jealously guarded its sovereignty over the waters of Tibet, as much as it stamps the same on Tibet’s lands. It has avoided signing any legal obligations over water sharing with any of its lower riparian states, and has proceeded to construct an ever expanding constellation of dams, sending alarm bells ringing across its neighbours. China is in no mood to cease its activities; If anything, it will not shy away from using its hold over waters as a Damocles’ sword upon those depending on it. Worryingly, this potent weapon may be too good not to burnish. Water Use
China’s pattern of water usage in Tibet has been motivated by three principal objectives apart from using it as a pressure point against neighbours: Generation of cheap hydroelectricity on a massive scale, securing water supplies for its densely populated and rapidly urbanising heartland, and irrigation for vegetating desert lands. China’s constant and relentless expansion has catapulted it into becoming the single largest producer of hydroelectricity in the world. Without resting on this laurel, China continues to build more dams and projects to fuel its engine of economic growth through affordable energy. In the same vein, China has heavily dammed the rivers draining on Chinese shores, in a bid to ensure food and water security of its citizens. While these factors alone threaten to significantly impede flows for downstream nations, China has been conducting another Babelian exercise upon its water. Around a quarter of China’s land is barren, stretching from Tibet to its Northwest. It has been aggressively diverting water to naturally deserted land in an attempt to bring it under settlement and cultivation. 95% of TIbet’s water being used is dedicated to agriculture, and 40% of Tibet is now irrigated for the same purpose.
These trends may only worsen as China’s growth sputters and it chooses to use lower electricity and water rates as a booster. More importantly, China is undergoing a long term food crisis, with double digit food inflation in 2020 and emergency purchases from its arch nemesis, the US. With this in mind, it may divert greater amounts of water towards agricultural expansion and intensification. Demographics and Incomes - the Thirst for More
While the Chinese population would peak in 2023, South Asia and Southeast Asia would continue to grow for decades to come. Already densely populated and largely living along river basins, these two regions are simultaneously projected to see rapid increases in income as well as living standards. These two effects will balloon their per capita water consumption levels, further intensifying their extraction of water from their rivers. The situation is already grim for two countries- Pakistan and Bangladesh, which are seeing saline intrusions due to low water flow in their rivers. This is turning their lands barren, forcing migration, and leading to social tensions elsewhere. This demographic stressor is all but certain to cause upheavals in all regions- the lower you are down a river, the worse it would get. Climate Change
Chinese dams also seem to be an attempt to hedge against the impending effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had warned that Himalayan glaciers are ones receding at the fastest rate in any part of the world, which places around 750 million people vulnerable in India and China alone. Water flows would overall decrease, but increase in volatility- leading to erratic cycles of floods and droughts. Rising sea levels, population pressures and rivers transmitting less flows is a continental disaster waiting to happen. China knows this, and is using its position as an upper riparian state to prepare. It hopes to build an infrastructure which is sizable and resilient enough to ensure all year round water access. In this process, however, it has thrown everyone downstream to the wolves. Unrestricted Warfare
China’s recent decision, where it yielded to global pressures, to uphold its promise of sharing data with the Mekong River Commission, serves to only further highlight its intractable hold on the region’s waters. The curse of being a lower riparian state is that one is essentially left to the mercy of your upstream neighbours when it comes to water. At the same time, states receiving water also have little in the form of tit for tat ripostes- one cannot yet make a river reverse its course. In this sense, a network of dams isn’t just a productive asset, but also a strategic one. It lets control the supply of an essential item which is as good as impossible to import, and is needed by all sectors of the economy to function. All of this, without the possibility of having to taste one’s own medicine, makes up for the perfect lever to place pressure on any irritant state downstream till they fall in line. The possibility of this act may be a deterrent enough in many cases. This is not ingenious in any way or form. Russia has long used its gas taps, which heat the hearths of many a European town, to force concessions. Turkey has used the migrant crisis to temper European responses to its aggression by threatening to let loose heavily destabilising migrant flows again, which were stemmed by paying the Turks off. The OPEC in the past used oil the same way. What makes water different is not just the sheer scale and magnitude we must consider, but also that its essentiality places incomparable weights on any government. Floods, droughts and shortages can trigger economic, social and political problems which may plunge entire countries into crises. The lack of any possibility of retaliating in the same coin makes this pressure path particularly attractive. China has a particular doctrinal predilection for employing such instruments of foreign policy, for it has no compunctions in waging what it calls “Unrestricted Warfare”. The new principle of warfare is to use all means, armed or otherwise, to compel the enemy to submit. China has weaponised its trade, its access to the free media environment of the west, and the internet already to undermine its opponents. At the pace China is erecting dams, water could very well be the next chapter for China’s subversion. Hic Manebimus Optime - Here We Shall Stay, and Excellently So
It is imperative for all lower riparian states to make sufficient provision for the days ahead. China or not, their water budgets would be under immense torsion from demographic, economic, and climatological aspects. With this in mind, states must begin taking water policy seriously, for it may become a constraint both domestically and internationally. Wide networks of storage, recharge, and river interlinkages would do well to reduce dependence on singular rivers alone. Water recycling must take precedence in the course of things, and water audits would become an important assessment tool. More than that, grids of locally viable micro, meso and macro systems of water storage and management would need to be worked out, where water is decentralised and democratised, so as to fulfill consumption needs without causing imbalances. The States’ agricultural makeups also need an overhaul- India’s heavily distortionary system of state support, for example, has caused water guzzling crops to prosper in arid regions since governmental subsidies and remunerations trump environmental viability and sustainability.
Viewing the economy through the lens of embodied water, where water required to make a product is taken account of, is the beginning in making conscious, informed decisions regarding water use and prices. This would require hard political choices, such as ending provisions of free water or heavily subsidised farm water as a sop. As far as possible, the idea of a circular water economy should become an ideal of sorts- a zero wastage, zero leakage water flow underlying our societies and economies. While this may sound extreme at the moment, one is wise to remember- man can either choose the time of a deed, or time will choose man for that deed. When the latter happens, it is far more painful for everyone involved.
On the international front, one cannot expect much out of China. It is a nation known to go back on its words at the earliest opportune moment, and has excelled at the Kautilyan art of dvaidabhava or doublespeak. While pressing China to disclose data and protesting its adverse moves is sine qua non, it is grasping at straws. While securing their water securities, States must speak in one voice and as one bloc, willing to put pressure through economic means if necessary. Imposing costs is much like fever, where discomfort leads to relief, and shying away from deploying the stick along with the carrot has led to China’s irascibility reaching where it has today. China has large trade interests with its neighbourhood, and it can be used effectively if only there is willingness to work as a bloc. This is easier said than done, for China is known to use its economic preponderance effectively against Individual countries which are rightly worried about their economic growth- the wisdom of purchasing silence is a leitmotif of the Chinese.
This silence, or willingness to concede, has disastrous consequences on water security and trade for not just the country doing so but all involved. Hence, a robust and indelible agreement must exist between China’s downstream states to work and act as one on the issue - a ‘water NATO’ which takes a collective response when one state is ‘attacked’, if one will. This would also involve setting up an alternative model of dispute resolution on water between these states, a system based on law, accommodation, and mutual concessions. This is not a far fetched prescription, for despite the daunting political and technical will required for this endeavour, for many of them do have agreements on the same- the Mekong River Commission, and India’s bilateral water arrangements with its neighbours, come to mind. Perhaps, this idea of a respectful, honourable, and united front on water management is the Mekong- Ganga cooperation we need so urgently.