Beijing Water

Source of potential conflict

South China Morning Post
August 2, 2002

‘China’s growth-driven pollution of the environment, and its enormous demand for natural resources and energy, are also injecting a new and potentially disruptive element into Beijing’s relations with neighbouring states – water politics.’

Russia went on alert this week as the first part of a feared toxic chemical spill crossed from China into its far eastern territory, via one of several major rivers that connect the two countries.

The water pollution crisis started on November 13 when a Chinese state-owned chemical plant in Jilin city exploded. That leaked an estimated 100 metric tonnes of cancer-causing benzene into the adjacent Songhua River, which flows northwards into Russia’s Amur River. The accident has renewed questions about the costs of China’s breakneck economic boom and the culture of official secrecy that allowed some Chinese officials to withhold information from the public about the danger of the spill.

But mainland China’s growth-driven pollution of the environment, and its enormous demand for natural resources and energy, are also injecting a new and potentially disruptive element into Beijing’s relations with neighbouring states – water politics. China is not just a rising economic and military force: it is Asia’s dominant headwater power. This is an aspect of the growing Chinese influence on its neighbours, for both better and worse, that is seldom recognised.

Geography has dictated that many of the big rivers that sustain people, agriculture and industry in the Russian Far East, Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia start in Chinese territory. These transboundary flows include the Songhua, Heilong, Ili and Irtysh rivers. They also include long stretches of the headwaters of the Brahmaputra River before it reaches India’s Ganges River and Bangladesh.

Many of Southeast Asia’s largest rivers come from deep inside China, too. Among them are the Salween, Mekong and Red. What China does to this vital supply of freshwater (by building dams, diverting flows for its own use or polluting the upstream sections of the rivers) affects its downstream neighbours – a point graphically illustrated by the 100km chemical slick now heading down the Amur towards the Russian city of Khabarovsk.

The Chinese government formally apologised to Russia last weekend after the two countries said they had agreed to set up a hotline so that Beijing could keep Moscow informed about the spill.

Facing growing public pressure at home to provide more clean water and electric power to its 1.3 billion people, China is intensifying the use of its freshwater resources and harnessing previously untapped rivers.

Hydropower dams on rivers in China currently provide about 100 million kW of electricity, about 23 per cent of total capacity. The government said recently it plans to triple the hydropower supply by 2020.

The programme includes a series of huge dams on Chinese sections of the Mekong and Salween rivers that downstream countries in Southeast Asia fear will affect the amount and quality of water they receive.

China’s increasing withdrawals of water from the Ili River are contributing to the drying up of Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash, the second-largest body of water in Central Asia. Meanwhile, its construction of a 300km canal to divert water from the Irtysh River is causing concern in both Kazakhstan and Russia, because the river flows from China into both countries.

To head off protests, Beijing has held talks with affected neighbours. It has offered some of them compensating deals in energy supply, trade, aid, concessional loans and investment.

Some critics say that what’s really needed is binding transboundary agreements on river water allocations. But China is unlikely to sign such accords at a time when demand for water has never been greater and will increase even more in the future.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. This is a personal comment.

 

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