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China’s Thirst for Water is Insatiable

Why China's search for more water destablises Asia.

A traditional Chinese painting of the Yellow River.


If one were to highlight the most vulnerable point where the Chinese feel insecure, the most likely answer has to be an overreliance on Western Technology for the production of semiconductors. However, that is not the only vulnerable point where the Chinese do not feel comfortable. It is the waters, which equally worries Chinese Establishment. After all, Mr Wen Jinbao, former premier of China, once remarked, ‘Water shortages threaten the very survival of the Chinese nation.’

From the Mekong to Kashmir: There runs a Common Thread

One thing that is common amongst the nations such as Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia is the flow of the Mekong River. However, China enjoys being the upper stream country whereas the rest of these nations are downstream. The situation in the areas of Thailand became worse to the extent that their national army had to be mobilised in order to irrigate the fields due to a lack of sufficient water. In fact, in research carried out by Stimson Centre, data shows that China had restricted “nearly all upper Mekong wet season flow.” As the research shows, “If China’s dams did not restrict flow, portions of the Mekong along the Thai Lao Border would have experienced significantly higher flows from July 2019 to the end of the year instead of suffering through severe drought conditions.” The Government of Thailand is also facing pressure from various groups in order to cancel out a contract in which power will be extracted from Sanakham Dam, which is being built by a Chinese owned company.

When it comes to India, the strategy of the Chinese, being the upper stream country has almost been the same except that they have not restricted the flow of waters till now. On the Brahmaputra River alone, China plans to build dams on the lower reaches of the river for the first time. The recent decision of building a mega-dam on the Brahmaputra River created a lot of furor in the Indian strategic community on its possible implications. Its repercussions for the local community residing in the lower parts of the region in India is also a matter of serious concern to the government of states such as Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.

However, the Brahmaputra River is not the only source of water that has attracted the attention of Chinese vis-a-vis India. The Indus River and its tributaries flowing in the parts of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir have been of utmost strategic significance to the Chinese. When Indo-China tensions at the border in Ladakh had peaked during June-July, many possible theories were being offered to give a plausible explanation to Chinese incursions in LAC. Iqbal Chanda Malhotra, the author of Red Fear: The Chinese Threat had written in a column for Open The Magazine that Beijing may be eyeing the waters of Indus flowing through Ladakh due to various reasons such as the construction of dams in Skardu and Gilgit and for utilising the increase in water due to glacier melt. A similar kind of reasoning was given by P Stoban, former Ambassador, where he postulated the possibility of China trying to ultimately “eyeing the waters of Shyok,Galwan and Chang Chenmo rivers, to divert them to the arid Akshai Chin and Ali Region.


China’s quest for water is not going to stop in all likelihood. One cannot be oblivious of the fact that the nation whose iconic river, the Yangtze, is falling short of reaching the seashore, will stop looking at other sources of water, even if it is in direct infringement of other nation’s sovereignty. In a way, this will be also a test of a nation’s resolve to counter China’s attempt to maintain water hegemony.

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