The Tibet Issue


To many in the West, China’s continued rule in Tibet is often considered to be a foreign occupation, though few inside China accept this point of view. Tibet is of great psychological importance to China and to Chinese people in terms of national identity and the maintenance of Chinese national unity, as well as of enormous strategic importance with regard to China’s traditional national security and its access to water and other vital natural resources.


The Tibetan Plateau is the highest region on the planet, sometimes referred to as “the roof of the world”. With an average elevation of more than 4500 meters, it is an

inhospitable place to plant and animal life alike and frequently leaves unaccustomed visitors gasping for air. It is home to one half of the world’s highest mountains, including Mount Everest or Qomolangma as the Tibetans call it, with the peak forming the border with Nepal. Tibet is also the source of many of Asia’s major rivers, including China’s two biggest, the Yangtze and the Yellow River, as well as the Brahmaputra, the Salween, the Mekong, the Irrawaddi, the Arun, the Karnali, the Sutlej and the Indus. About 90% flows downstream to China, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The sources of these rivers are the huge glaciers that exist in the Tibetan mountains, effectively forming enormous frozen reservoirs that are gradually released to flow down river. The constant flow of these rivers creates a stable source of water in regions which are otherwise dominated by monsoon rain falls. The Tibetan rivers are thus extremely important to sustaining life throughout South and Southeast Asia.

The territory of Tibet is large, with the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) spanning more than 1.2 million square kilometers. Historically, though, Tibet has often included the whole of Qinghai province, as well as the western sections of Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan, making it geographically almost the size of modern day India. These areas outside of the autonomous region maintain a strong Tibetan identity today and continue to be populated by mainly ethnic Tibetans. Indeed, many of the protests that have made the news in recent years have occurred outside of the autonomous region, predominantly in Sichuan. When the Dalai Lama speaks about Tibet, he’s referring to those parts of the plateau that were historically Tibetan and are primarily populated by Tibetans. When China refers to Tibet, it is normally referring solely to the TAR.


Despite covering such a vast area Tibet’s population is relatively small. The harsh climate has dictated sparse population throughout its history and, even with advances of modern technology, this continues to be the case. The TAR has a population of just 3 million people, though the total Tibetan population of areas that have historically been within Tibet numbers around 6 million. Such small numbers in such huge areas make Tibet one of the most sparsely populated places on the planet, a striking contrast to the thronging cities of eastern China.

Sam DCruz / Shutterstock.comUnlike the other autonomous regions in China, Tibet has maintained its ethnic identity throughout the history of the PRC; whereas the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the Hui in Ningxia, the Mongols in Inner Mongolia, and the Zhuang in Guangxi all now account for less than half of the population in their respective areas, Tibetans still represent 92% of the population in their own autonomous region. This is, however, changing rapidly. The opening of the world’s highest railway connecting Qinghai to Lhasa – an impressive engineering feat that takes trains across mountain passes over 5200 meters high – has enabled a much greater flow of people into, and out of, the TAR. Han Chinese currently make up around 6% of the population, but that number is beginning to rise as the Chinese government encourages Han migration into the areas by providing incentives such as housing, business, and pension benefits. Indeed, It is estimated that Han Chinese now make up 50% of the population of the capital city, Lhasa, and the Chinese government is heavily investing in the city’s infrastructure to raise the city to modern Chinese standards. Beijing says that the Han economic migrants have temporarily come to Tibet in order to help modernize the area. Some Tibetans fear that China will use demographics as a way to more thoroughly integrate the region into China. Visitors to Lhasa are keenly aware of the division with the city almost literally split into two areas, one almost entirely Tibetan and the other almost entirely Han.

Tibet remains overwhelmingly Buddhist, though the influence of Tibet’s native religion, Bon, can still be seen in some of the practices. Although the much of Tibetan monastic heritage was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, Tibet still remains home to many large and small Buddhist monasteries and temples, with Tibetans making pilgrimages at various times of the year to sites of importance. The Jokhang Temple in Lhasa is the centerpiece of Tibetan Buddhism. It attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims yearly, particularly during the winter months when some Tibetans from rural areas may walk hundreds of miles to pay homage by prostrating themselves around the perimeter.

The Tibetan Economy

China currently invests about $2.5 billion annually in the region, primarily in the form of shutterstock_77066617infrastructure projects. Farming, forestry, animal husbandry and fishery accounted for approximately 70% of the total gross output value in 2000. Because of its high altitude and mountainous conditions, the Tibetan growing season is short, and the main crops grown are barley, wheat, buckwheat, rye, potatoes and some fruits and vegetables. Sheep, cattle, goats, camels, yaks and horses are also raised within Tibet, with the yak being particularly well suited to Tibet’s harsh winter conditions. Most of the farming, animal husbandry and forestry is still done by hand or with animal labor. Increasingly, electric and hydro-power, mining, light industry and handicrafts also generating earnings for the region. Tibetan hats, jewellery, wooden items, clothing, quilts, fabrics and carpets are all important money earners, as is tourism, with most tourists staying in Lhasa, Shigatse, and the Mount Everest base camp, though the number of foreign tourists permitted to visit Tibet has been scaled back in recent years. Tibet also has large deposits of gold, copper, salt and radioactive ores, although its lack of infrastructure to date has meant that it has been difficult to extract these minerals. China’s huge investment in infrastructure should mean that mining will be a growing sector for Tibet in the future. Overall, China’s significant investment in the region has meant that many Tibetans have seen a rise in living standards. Annual per capita income, for instance, quadrupled to $1076 between 1986 and 2006, though there are claims that this benefit is felt primarily by Han Chinese migrants and not by the indigenous population. Unemployment remains high at approximately 10.3%, more than double the national urban rate.

The Historical Argument

The Tibetan empire reached its zenith around the 8th century CE with an empire that encompassed parts of Southeast Asia, Central Asia, northern India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and also parts of what are now the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Yunnan, Gansu and Sichuan in China. During the Tang dynasty in around 640 CE the Chinese princess Wencheng was sent to Lhasa to marry the then Tibetan emperor Songtsan Gampo. Many Chinese academics credit this as the first sign of China’s suzerainty over Tibet, though many Tibetans claim the opposite: that this was a sign of Tibet’s power and independence since the Emperor only acquiesced in sending the princess under threat of force from Tibet (a claim which is not accepted by modern Chinese historians and was not recorded in the Chinese written Tang annals). Contemporaneously, an informal treaty was signed between the two countries in which the Tibetans claim that the Chinese recognized Tibet as equal to China. By 821 a formal peace treaty was agreed and signed between Tibet and China, known as the Tang-Tibetan Alliance, and the details of this were inscribed on a stone pillar outside of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa in both Tibetan and Chinese. This pillar remains in place today.

360b / Shutterstock.comThe 13th century Mongol subjugation of Eurasia brought Tibet and China under one rule for the first time when both countries became subject nations under the Mongol empire. Having conquered China, Kublai Khan consolidated his rule by proclaiming himself the Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. Despite the Yuan Dynasty being formed as a result of an invasion from an external force, Kublai Khan is considered in China to have been Chinese as he perpetuated China’s cultural heritage. That he was Mongolian is no barrier to this interpretation, as Mongolians are recognized as one of China’s official 56 ethnic groups. As a result, modern Chinese historians argue that it was during the Yuan Dynasty that Tibet formally became part of Chinese territory and has remained so ever since. In contrast, the opponents of this view maintain that China and Tibet were two independent countries subjugated by an outside force; in emphasis, they point out the Mongols ruled the two territories separately much in the same way that the British ruled its colonies independently, and that Tibetan life remained centered on monastic Buddhism rather than Chinese cultural norms. Tibet continued to move in and out of the Chinese sphere of influence throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties that followed the Yuan, leading up to the end of the 19th century.

The 13th Dalai Lama entered a rapidly changing international order when he assumed power from his regent in 1895, by which time both Tibet and the Qing were under pressure from predatory Japanese and European colonial powers. By 1890 the British were negotiating a treaty with the Qing to establish the border between Tibet and Sikkim, which the British sought to include within its Indian colony. Historically, the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim had been viewed as a vassal tributary state by Tibet, yet the Tibetans were not consulted during the treaty negotiations. Mainly as a result of fear that Russia was making incursions into Tibet in order to establish a sphere of influence, Britain invaded Tibet in 1904 and the 13th Dalai Lama fled into exile. The British invasion of Tibet refocused Qing attention on the region, which had been distracted by challenges closer to home. By December 1904, Tibetan officials left in charge by the 13th Dalai Lama, capitulated to British terms in order to secure withdrawal of troops from Lhasa. In the resulting convention between Great Britain and Tibet, Tibet accepted London’s annexation of Sikkim and agreed not to conduct for relations with foreign states, including China. Tibet also had to pay war reparations.

During this time, the thirteenth Dalai Lama was trying to get Russia to engage on Tibet’s shutterstock_94573753 resizedbehalf, yet Russian help was not forthcoming. Ultimately it suited both the British and Russians that Tibet was neither an independent state nor a vassal of an enemy. London and Moscow concluded that it was in both their interests to recognize a purposely vague Chinese claim over Tibet, especially as the British realized that it would be too expensive to turn Tibet into a true British protectorate as it had done to Sikkim. As a result, some clauses of the 1904 Convention were rejected by the Foreign Office in London, and it negotiated two new treaties with the Qing and with Russia. In a 1906 treaty with the Qing, the government of Great Britain engaged not to annex Tibetan territory or to interfere in the administration of Tibet. The Qing undertook to prevent other foreign states from interfering with the territory or internal administration of Tibet. The British then signed a second 1907 accord with Russia in which the two states agreed to recognize the principle of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, thus effectively denying that Tibet was an independent nation. Moreover, English legal and historical documents were beginning to equate China with all the territory of the Qing empire. At the same time, as those Han Chinese that sought to end imperial rule began to think what a Chinese nation would be once the Manchus were overthrown, they too began to define their borders by those drawn by the Manchus when they took power. The Chinese became fixated on the humiliation that they were experiencing at the hands of foreign powers so the defense of Chinese borders became a matter of national pride for the Chinese people. By 1912, a year after the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the formation of the Republic of China, San Yatsen declared China to be a multi-ethnic state composed of Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, Han and Uyghurs among others. Promoting this diverse population was one of the ways that the young republic articulated that its aim was to consolidate its country upon the larger Qing borders.

Taking advantage of the chaos during the early days of the Republic of China, in 1912 the 13th Dalai Lama proclaimed Tibet’s complete independence, and a voluntary Tibetan army drove the remaining Chinese out of the Tibet. In 1913, the Dalai Lama returned from exile after an absence of eight years. Importantly, the Tibetan government also negotiated with British India over shared borders and an agreement was signed between British India and Tibet in 1912 which ceded Tibetan territory to colonial India. This is often cited as proof that Tibet acted with genuine independence as a nation state at this time, but it is the only example of Tibet ever acting as such in the modern international system. It is worth noting that Chinese authorities were included in these negotiations and the Chinese representative even initialed the final treaty. Though this is now downplayed by Beijing due to the complications of continued disputes with India over the modern border, it does raise a serious question over the ability of Tibet to act as a genuinely sovereign nation even during this sole example of it apparently doing so. Furthermore, Britain was in breach of its own Anglo-Russian Entente, signed in 1907, in which it had agreed that all matters surrounding Tibet would be dealt with through the authorities in Peking (Beijing) and that no negotiations would be conducted with Tibetan authorities. The chaos and confusion in China after the fall of the Qing left Tibet’s status relatively unaddressed. During this period, the 13th Dalai Lama passed away. Tibet’s 14th and current Dalai Lama was born on July 6, 1935, 18 months after the death of his predecessor.

Tibet under the PRC

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During the struggle against Japanese occupation and the civil war between the communists and the nationalists, it is reported that Mao Zedong pledged that the periphery regions of China, such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Outer Mongolia, would be free to decide their own future. However, upon the establishment of the PRC in 1949, this policy was repudiated (with the exception of Mongolia, whose independence was accepted by the communists probably as a favor to their allies in the Soviet Union). By 1949, the Chinese were using its radio infrastructure to broadcast into Tibet its need to peacefully liberate the country. By October 1950, the PLA had entered Tibet’s eastern regions. After initially rejecting the idea of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, the Dalai Lama signed the “17 point agreement” in 1951 after recognizing that it was not in Tibet’s interests to make an enemy of its giant neighbour against which it stood little chance of military success. The Chinese army had already inflicted defeats against Tibetan resistance and it was clear that the battle could not be won. The agreement accorded the Tibetans autonomy over their own affairs, recognized the position of the Dalai Lama and guaranteed freedom of religion in Tibet. It needs to be acknowledged that this both demonstrates that the PRC government recognized the ability of the Tibetan authorities to act on behalf of Tibet (otherwise they would not have conducted negotiations and signed an agreement with them) and also that several of the points in the agreement have been broken by the PRC authorities, in particular the promise not to interfere with the position of the Dalai Lama and the guarantee that local religion would be respected.

The Dalai Lama remained in Tibet after this agreement was signed and, according to his own account of the story, met with Mao Zedong in Beijing on more than one occasion. In March 1959, following three years of sporadic battles at the edges of Tibet between local paramilitaries and the PLA, the Dalai Lama officially repudiated the agreement citing breaches from the Chinese. What followed was an uprising from Tibetans against the increasing Chinese presence in Tibet, followed by a large military response from the Chinese and a bloody wave of repression. The Dalai Lama fled, on horseback, across the Himalaya into India where he later claimed asylum and established the ‘Tibetan government in exile’ in Dharamsala. It took a further three years to fully establish Chinese control over Tibet. The number of Tibetans killed has never been independently verified but the Tibetan government in exile claims the figure to be in excess of 86,000. It is also believed that the US was involved in inspiring the uprising by engaging in training some of the Tibetan paramilitaries, a practice that continued for several years after the uprising was crushed.

Prior to China’s ‘liberation’ or ‘occupation’ (what it is called depends on one’s own viewpoint) there is no doubt that life in Tibet was a long way from the idealistic vision of a harmonious, peace-loving, and free society that some in the West tend to paint it as. Life expectancy was just 36 and the overwhelming majority of the population was illiterate. A majority of Tibetans were hereditary serfs of varying statuses, allowing the elite – including the religious leaders – to live a luxurious life on the backs of a poor, uneducated society that was structurally condemned to remain in poverty through the following generations. In essence, this was precisely what the international communist movement sought to bring to an end. Tibet had no roads, poor sanitation, and no monetary system. Until the 1960s, there were virtually no vehicles of any kind, motorized or otherwise. Punishment for various crimes was barbaric, including amputation of limbs and eye-gouging.

Hung Chung Chih / Shutterstock.comHowever, whatever the rights and wrongs of the legal or moral claim that China may have over Tibet, there is no question that many Tibetans suffered both during the ‘liberation’ and after, particularly through forced collectivization and during the Cultural Revolution. In this latter period many temples were destroyed and monks forced to tend pigs, sometimes within the walls of their own religious institutions, a grievous insult. While it is important to keep such acts in context – the Cultural Revolution was a chaotic and unpleasant time for most people in China, regardless of ethnicity – it does not excuse such acts in the minds of Tibetans, and many continue to harbor ill feelings over this. Despite the orgy of destruction that ensued in the late 1960s, it is thought that the Potala Palace, the former winter home of the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s most famous symbol, was preserved at the behest of Zhou Enlai who recognized its significance.

The Dalai Lama has remained in exile since 1959 and has spearheaded a very public campaign for Tibetan autonomy, gaining much sympathy and support in Western countries and elsewhere, including in Japan. In 1989 another attempted uprising, marking the fortieth anniversary of Dalai’s flight from Tibet, was crushed on the orders of the then-Party Secretary of Tibet, Hu Jintao, who would later go on to become China’s president and supreme leader. During the incident around 400 Tibetans are believed to have been killed. This occurred just months before the Tiananmen Square incident but did not receive a similar level of coverage due to a lack of media presence on the plateau at the time. Later that year, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “consistent resistance to the use of violence in his people’s struggle to regain their liberty”. The award, and the celebrity endorsements that have continued to flow (the Hollywood actor Richard Gere is the most notable), have helped to keep the Dalai’s drive for “genuine autonomy” within the PRC in the headlines, at least in the West. He abandoned hopes of Tibetan statehood in 1979, though the PRC government continues to paint him as a “splittist” seeking to create a separate country, and maintains that Tibet can exist within the PRC to the chagrin of some of his followers who would prefer a cleaner separation.

The Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second most important spiritual leader who has the responsibility of identifying the reincarnated Dalai Lama after his death, was arrested shortly after being confirmed as the current Dalai’s accepted choice in 1995. Aged just six years old at the time, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was considered to be the world’s youngest political prisoner by many in the Tibetan movement. Beijing subsequently appointed their own choice of Panchen Lama, Gyancain Norbu, a somewhat difficult position for the CCP to explain given its strictly atheist constitution. Beijing’s Panchen Lama has never been accepted by the Dalai Lama and the campaign for the release of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima continues. He is reported to still be alive and living in Beijing under virtual house arrest and with an assumed identity. This complicates any future succession the Dalai Lama. Under the system in place in Tibet for more than five centuries, the Panchen Lama has the responsibility to identify the reincarnated Dalai, something he clearly will not be able to do whilst under house arrest in Beijing. Any reincarnation identified by Beijing’s hand-picked Panchen is unlikely to garner support from grassroots Tibetans and will be probably be seen as simply a puppet of the Chinese. With this in mind, the current Dalai Lama – who, while in good health, is already in his late seventies – has suggested that his reincarnation might be found outside of Tibet.

In recent times, particularly since the death of Mao and the launch of the reform era in China, there has been a drive towards economic development in Tibet. This has included some of the aspects of Chinese rule that provoke controversy among Tibetans and pro-independence groups such as increased migration of Han Chinese. Most controversial has probably been the development of a railway line that now connects the Tibetan heartland to the rest of China, making it possible to take a train from Beijing all the way to Lhasa (an extension to Shigatse will open in 2014). While this railway represents a notable engineering feat – with passes as high as 5200 meters it is the highest railway in the world – concerns over damage to Tibet’s delicate ecosystem have not been allayed. Furthermore, the massive increase in internal tourism that has accompanied the launch of the train service threatens to erode Tibet’s unique culture even further, turning important historical and religious sites into Disneyland-esque tourist stops. While it is undeniable that this has brought economic benefits to the area, with an increase in GDP per capita of around 400% during the first decade of the 21st century, an astonishing growth rate even by China’s standards, accusations that this increase does not benefit the local population abound. The truth is difficult to ascertain as the Chinese government does not release relevant statistics and may not even keep them itself.

Over the last few years there has been an upsurge in political activity and protest in the TAR and the surrounding Tibetan areas. The most high profile of these was a series of protests in Lhasa in March 2008, marking the anniversary of the 1959 uprising but also timed to gain maximum international attention in the run up to the Beijing Olympics. Riots across Lhasa left hundreds wounded and a reported 18 dead, mostly Han Chinese. The response from the Chinese authorities was initially relatively low key, though Tibetan groups in exile later reported that upwards of 1500 people were arrested, with many allegations of torture being used to extract confessions. Since 2008 security in the TAR and surrounding areas has increased, making it substantially more difficult for foreigners to visit for tourism and almost impossible for journalists or academics to investigate some of the claims being made. In 2012, a series of self-immolations made the headlines both in China and abroad, leading to the Dalai Lama to appeal for Tibetans not to resort to such measures, though Beijing is resolute in its insistence that such acts are committed at his behest.

China’s Traditional and non-Traditional Strategic Considerations

Tibet provides a buffer region between the Chinese heartland and both India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers. While neither of these two countries poses an apparent and immediate threat to China (they are normally more focused on each other) this is a consideration that any strategist would make. In particular China’s relationship with India has been problematic and the two fought a border war in 1962, and have a continued dispute over territory. A sparsely populated region such as Tibet is an ideal way to keep tensions at a minimum between two such nations. Allowing any form of independence to Tibet risks creating a kind of power vacuum that might be filled with Indian influence. From the point of view of national self-defense, no government in the world would countenance this if it did not have to.

Access to water resources will be crucial to China in the coming decades as it seeks to continue its rapid economic growth and improvement in living standards. China has less than half the per capita average of available water resources and large areas of the country suffer from serious drought on an almost annual basis. For this reason, the large rivers that flow through China are essential to the survival and prosperity of its people. Several of China’s largest and most important rivers have their sources in Tibet, including both the Yangtse and the Yellow River which, combined, provide water supplies for more than 500 million people. The Tibetan Plateau is the greatest store of fresh water outside of the North and South Poles. Although not explicitly acknowledged by the Chinese government in any discussion of the question of sovereignty over Tibet, it is clear that this remains a significant consideration for policy-makers when addressing the issue. The control of these river sources is an important advantage that no country would give up willingly, particularly one that is in such a precarious position with regard to its water supplies.

The Psychological Importance of Tibet

Knowing China’s modern history is crucial for understanding its perspective on many contemporary issues. Moreover, comprehending the Chinese interpretation of that history is the key to unlocking much of the Chinese view of the so-called “Tibet issue”. China’s view of itself as a victim of various powerful nations that took advantage of it while it was fragile, and sought to keep it weak by breaking it up, is a powerful lesson both for those in government and for the citizens of modern China. This “century of humiliation” was (in the Chinese narrative) brought to an end by the Communist victory in the civil war in 1949 but the scars remained in the form of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. What is viewed in China as the rightful “return to the motherland” of the first two went some way towards redressing this and the continued desire to “reunify” with Taiwan demonstrates its continued role. Given that nearly all Chinese start from the view that Tibet is part of China, efforts to remove it from the unity of the PRC are viewed through this lens, and foreigners who involve themselves in the issue are ordinarily seen as trying, once more, to “split” China. This is a particularly potent storyline during a period of time in which China’s power is clearly rising and fears from outside are evident.

The View from the West

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Tibet is frequently presented as an almost-mythical “land of snows”, populated by peace-loving religious people who live a simple (indeed, backward) life. The mythical Shangri-La is widely believed to be in Tibet (it has officially been designated as Zhongdian in northwest Yunnan but this is purely for tourism purposes). Tibetan people are portrayed as being deeply religious and almost entirely homogenous in their devout commitment to their religion and its leading figure, the Dalai Lama, as well as to the path of peace that he passionately advocates. In many ways Western depictions of Tibet and its people are simplistic, romantic, and occasionally patronizing.

When Tibet comes into the consciousness of Westerners it is often through the activities of high profile groups such as the International Campaign for TibetTibet House and Free Tibet, all of which are based in major Western cities such as New York, Brussels and Berlin. Richard Gere’s role in several of these groups has raised the profile further and reached audiences that do not ordinarily pay a great deal of attention to international political issues. The involvement of celebrities has sometimes been frivolous; the British rock band, Oasis, was denied visas to play concerts in Beijing and Shanghai in 2009 because of the involvement of Noel Gallagher, the band’s guitarist and lyricist, in a ‘Free Tibet’ concert twelve years previously despite Gallagher’s own confession that he had no recollection of the event and no interest in the movement. Condemnation of human rights abuses in Tibet frequently comes from senior figures in the US political scene as well as from independent NGOs across the Western world, lending such reports an air of credibility despite the difficulty in corroborating many of the individual stories that constitute the reports. The explanations offered by these groups for China’s continued presence and interest in Tibet focus entirely on the economic benefit that China can gain from the region. Free Tibet, for example, cites only the vast reserves of minerals and the sources of much of China’s water supply as its motivation, making China’s motives appear entirely selfish and materially-based.

The most visible manifestation of this feeling in the West came in 2008 with the protests Sam DCruz / surrounding the Olympic torch relay, particularly in European cities such as Paris and London. Large crowds of people displayed banners and waved Tibetan flags while some attempted to extinguish the Olympic flame. This was in direct response to the reports of riots in and around the Tibetan Autonomous Region in March of that year. The riots were misreported by some parts of the media in the West (this was not helped by the Chinese authorities preventing many outlets from entering the territory) and so it is not fully understood that many of those that died were Han Chinese, killed or burned alive by Tibetan rioters. These acts, if carried out in a US domestic context, would have been labelled as terrorism. This reporting caused anger among many Chinese who cannot understand where the Western bias comes from and consider it to be simply “anti-Chinese”.

No country in the international system recognizes Tibet as an independent nation and all who have diplomatic relations with Beijing acknowledge Chinese sovereignty over the region (indeed, even those few countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei instead consider it to be part of the Republic of China). The last country to fall into line and recognize Tibet formally as part of the PRC was the UK, which did so in 2008, blaming a bureaucratic oversight for not having done so previously. Even the Dalai Lama himself no longer calls for independence, but for “genuine autonomy” within the People’s Republic.

The Future of Tibet

The Tibet question is one that has shown no sign of simply going away. The Dalai Lama’s successful internationalization of the issue has made it infinitely more complex for the Chinese leadership to handle but their legitimate and rational security concerns, combined with the crucial issue of maintaining territorial integrity of the Chinese nation, mean that the Dalai’s wish for genuine autonomy is unlikely to be granted. The Chinese government, despite its intermittent negotiations with representatives of the Dalai (the last of which took place in 2008 prior to the riots), shows no intention of shifting position and appears to be playing a waiting game, apparently believing that Tibetan resistance will subside after the death of the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Having captured the Panchen Lama and appointed their own, they consider themselves to be in charge of the future of that particular institution. However, the Dalai himself has raised the possibility that a future reincarnation of himself may be born outside of Tibet (previously believed impossible) which might allow for a continuance of a government in exile that maintains some level of loyalty from the Tibetan people. Furthermore, he has already announced that he intends the position to be one only of religious leader and that the head of the Tibetan government should be democratically elected. Even without this, there is no guarantee that the Chinese waiting game will pay off in the long run; there is some evidence, particularly in the wake of the 2008 protests and the recent spate of self-immolations, that Tibetan youth is becoming radicalized in the face of an apparently immovable Chinese position, and without the calming influence of their spiritual leader it is possible that further violence might erupt.

China continues to focus on the economic development of Tibet, hoping that continued economic prosperity will help Tibetans feel more integrated into China. China has invested heavily in Tibetan roads, housing, schools and electrical grids so that it may feel the benefits of being part of China. Yet proposals that carry with them the prospect of greater prosperity, such as the proposal to extend the railway from Lhasa further into Tibet, are also viewed with suspicion by some Tibetans who fear that they are just another tool for the Chinese military to ensure control over the region is maintained. To assuage these fears, China needs to pay more attention to the legitimate complaints of Tibetans who feel that their culture and history is being destroyed. This loss cannot be compensated with the kind of economic progress that has, so far, satiated other parts of Chinese society.



Hydro-Power and Hydro-Hegemony: China’s Prolific Dam-Building

The History of Hydro-Power in China

Before 1949, only 22 large dams existed in China. A dam study by Oregon State University concluded that since that time, the People’s Republic of China has undergone four waves of dam construction. Socialist agricultural policy between 1949 and 1960 encouraged the construction of many small and medium-sized irrigation dams. In particular, the 1958-1960 Great Leap Forward policy advocated that each of China’s 1,465 counties build at least one water conservation dam. As a result, tens of thousands of dams were built in China, mainly by peasant-led teams with limited equipment, materials, and training. During the period from 1968 to 1980, the pace of dam construction increased. Water projects grew in size and complexity and were progressively constructed for hydropower and flood control. While fewer dams were built between 1980 and 2000, those that were constructed were larger in scale and more technically difficult. The 1978 market reforms allowed China to import foreign technology, know-how and funding, enabling the building of dams that previously had been too difficult and expensive to undertake.

Government measures since 2003 have led to a decentralization of hydropower production. The State Power Corporation was disbanded, its assets were distributed and development rights on China’s main rivers were shared out. While the central government has a majority of stock in each of the companies into which the State Power Corporation was split, in general, the enterprises act quite independently. The “corporatization” of China’s hydropower sector has created a significant increase in domestic and overseas dam building as companies compete to secure existing assets and to develop new hydro-projects.

Today, China runs about half the world’s approximately 45,000 dams that are larger than 15 m in height. In total, the number of dams in China is estimated to exceed 85,000. In 2009, China’s installed hydropower was calculated to be approximately 200,000 MW, representing about 17% of China’s total electricity power. According to recent reports, of the 37 GW hydro-power capacity added worldwide in 2014, a full 22 GW, nearly 60%, was added in China alone, dwarfing developments in other nations (the five largest contributors behind China added a combined 8.7 GW). This has brought China’s hydropower capacity up to 27% of the world total. China continues to set high goals for itself, with China’s National Energy Agency planning to increase China’s hydropower capacity to approximately 380,000 MW by 2020. Huge hydropower cascades have been proposed and are being constructed on some of China’s remaining pristine river basin systems including the Lancang, (upper Mekong), the Nu (Salween) and upstream of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze. It is estimated that China has relocated a total of almost 23 million citizens since 1949 to make way for its water projects.

The Three Gorges Dam

Large dams are enormous interventions into highly complex ecosystems. Their impact can be felt thousands of kilometers away and often occur many years after construction has been completed. It is impossible to anticipate and mitigate all the social and environmental impacts that such projects can cause. The Three Gorges Dam provides a good indication of the challenges that such large dams pose.

Originally conceived by Chairman Mao and supported by Zhou Enlai, the Three Gorges Dam, and its related infrastructure, is the largest water project in the world. It stretches approximately 2km across the Yangtze River, which flows 6,418 km eastward from the Tibetan glaciers through China’s southwest, central, and eastern regions before eventually emptying in the East China Sea at Shanghai. The Three Gorges Dam reaches nearly 200m in height and has created a reservoir 600km long with a storage capacity approaching 40 billion m³. Three Gorges generates approximately 22,000 MW of electricity, equivalent to the burning of 50 million tons of coal annually, compared with Hoover Dam, for instance, that has an installed capacity of only 2080 MW. It was built at an estimated cost of $27 billion, although if hidden costs are taken into account, some appraise the dam’s actual cost to be in excess of $60 billion. Hidden costs include losses incurred as a result of the reduction in commercial fishery production, the cost of landslides caused by frequent fluctuations in water levels and the further population resettlement that these landslides are likely to require, the costs of water pollution as raw sewage and fertilizer run-off collect in the Three Gorges Reservoir instead of being flushed downstream, the shrinking of the Yangtze river estuary, and the weakening of downstream dikes caused by the dam’s faster than anticipated water discharge. Besides generating emission-free energy, the Three Gorges Dam was built to control flooding, to improve water resource utilization and river navigation. Access to the major port of Chongqing, for instance, which receives 90% of its goods by water, has improved markedly even though it is located more than 600 km upstream of the dam. The Three Gorges’ lock system is one of the world’s largest and has also helped to increase the amount of cargo able to move into the river’s upper reaches.

Despite these real benefits, the Three Gorges Dam has also generated significant problems. Most important of these has been the disruption of the Yangtze’s ecosystem. When the river flowed naturally, it helped to cleanse industrial pollution. It also traditionally transported large sediment loads from the river’s upper reaches to the East China Sea. The Three Gorges Dam has significantly decreased downstream sediment transport, changing the river’s chemical balance, temperature, and flow. This in turn is impacting fish habitats. In addition to changing the river’s ecological characteristics, the dam is also blocking fish migration, impacting access to spawning grounds; it also may have contributed to the extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin. Between 2003 and 2005, annual fish harvests from below the dam were 50% to 70% below previous baselines; larva and eggs levels have dropped off even more sharply. Although pollution and other factors were already causing a reduction in fish stocks before the dam was constructed, the Three Gorges accelerated the trend.

The river’s reduced silt load has also deprived downstream agricultural land and fisheries of nutrients. Additionally, because less silt is reaching the river’s mouth, approximately 980 acres of coastal wetlands are disappearing each year. This has allowed sea water to intrude further upriver, affecting coastal agricultural and drinking water. Silt buildup within the reservoir is also impacting its overall storage capacity, causing higher volumes of water to be released from the dam, stressing downstream levees.

Landslides around the Three Gorges Reservoir have also been a greater problem than was first expected. The fluctuating water levels of reservoir have weakened hundreds of miles of its slopes, triggering massive mudslides. Controlling this erosion is projected to require a further investment of $10 billion or more. In some cases, landslides have produced massive waves as high as 50 meters, causing even more damage to the reservoir’s edges.

Every large dam built in China has led to the resettlement of local people because of China’s high population density along its major rivers. Over 1.2 million people have already been resettled as a result of the Three Gorge’s construction. Originally, residents were to be shifted to higher ground nearby, given new homes and new jobs. Yet, greater than anticipated erosion and landslides made large uphill areas unsuitable for building, so the displaced were eventually resettled to 11 different provinces. In late 2007, it was announced that another 4 million people – a number equivalent to the entire population of Scotland are likely to be relocated from the Three Gorges Reservoir area in the next 10 to 15 years. Officials dispute that these are related to the reservoir’s landslides and ecological degradation, arguing instead that they are part of the national experiment to ease regional overpopulation and to provide greater opportunities for industrial development.

Many scholars are now finding that people displaced due to construction projects face the long-term risk of continued food insecurity, lack of access to good arable land, joblessness, and social marginalization. Displaced women are often more severely affected than men. Taking farmland from the host population to give to the resettled groups has also often caused tensions and conflict between the two groups. Studies indicate that early resettlement efforts at the Three Gorges have indeed led to diminished living standards for many of the displaced. Local government corruption has aggravated resettlement challenges as 12% of the resettlement funds were estimated to be embezzled; hundreds of local officials have now been imprisoned.

In addition to the social costs, many now believe that large dam reservoirs can also cause seismic events as their weight can place unsustainable pressure on local faults. The Three Gorges Dam sits on two major fault lines, and scientists have acknowledged that seismic activity has increased slightly since the reservoir first started impounding water. Earthquakes can also damage a dam’s structure. Many of the new hydro-projects outlined in 12th Five-Year Plan are to be constructed in China’s mountainous southwestern region, which is crossed by numerous active fault lines. The tectonic movement in the three parallel Rivers area of the Nu, Upper Mekong and Upper Yangtze is one of the strongest in the world, for instance, yet China is planning to erect a cascade of dams in these areas. Research in the Chinese Journal of Geology and Seismology has recommended that further study be undertaken to determine the role that dam reservoirs play in triggering quake activity.

Environmental Movement Impacts Hydro-Power in China

The Chinese government has tried to address some of the problems associated with dams by improving the legislation which regulates the industry. While not always enforced, recent legislation has required more stringent procedures for environmental and social impacts assessment. A September 2003 law, for example, obliges companies planning projects with significant environmental impacts to conduct environmental impact assessments, and to have the assessments approved by the appropriate Environmental Bureau or the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Additionally, public participation in environmental impact assessment is increasingly encouraged. 2008 legislation has laid-out basic instructions on methods for public disclosure of environmental impact assessments, when to involve the public in the environmental impact assessment process, and who should be included in public participation. Indeed, in 2004 for instance, criticism from environmentalists, the public and the international media at least temporarily halted the development of a 13-dam cascade planned for the Nu River in Yunnan province, one of China’s last free flowing rivers. Laws passed in 2006 made efforts to better protect those displaced by dam construction by setting out appropriate land compensation, requiring that displaced people be provided with a level of livelihood similar to or greater than that which they had prior to the dam being built, and that resettlement plans must include economic development strategies as opposed to simply providing one-off monetary compensation.

Damming of Trans-boundary Rivers – Hydro-Hegemony

Many of China’s new planned hydro-engineering projects are on trans-boundary rivers, including the Mekong, Salween or Nu, Brahmaputra, and Amur. On the Brahmaputra River, for instance, a series of five dams is planned to be built close to disputed territory between China and India which will impact India and Bangladesh downstream, causing concern that China may divert the Brahmaputra’s water for its own needs. Many of the planned dams on trans-boundary rivers are being designed as cascades – one dam after another – or as mega-dams – with walls of 100 meters or higher-both of which have a greater impact on a river’s ecology. One of the new dams approved for the Brahmaputra, for instance, is to be twice the size of the Three Gorges Dam and situated almost on the contested border with India. Overall, about a third of China’s geography is within an international river basin, and China shares 18 rivers with its neighbors, many of which originate in China. Indeed, the Autonomous Province of Tibet provides China with access to some of the best untapped hydropower in the world as does its Yunnan province, often termed China’s hydro-power storehouse. China is acting as “hydro-hegemon” regarding its shared rivers as it is damming without the support and partnership of its neighbors, and at times in outright opposition to their wishes. But it is not just the unilateralism of its damming on international headwaters that upsets downstream countries; it is also the opacity around which it builds and runs its dams. China does not readily share environmental or technical information with its neighbors when building the dams nor, many feel, does it give real weight in its decision making as to how its dams will impact river ecology downstream. Indeed, many of China’s international river dams will provide it with the physical ability to change the hydrogeology of the rivers it is damming, thus creating new hydro-strategic and hydro-political realities, and thus allowing it to dictate the status quo of water allocation. By controlling large parts of Asia’s water tap, in an area where per capita freshwater availability is less than half the global average, China is acquiring tremendous leverage over its neighbors.

Yet, China considers developing large-scale hydropower to be critical to meeting its future energy needs and thus its national security. The Chinese government has thus worked to keep these resources under its control, and has been unwilling to sign any comprehensive water sharing agreement with downstream riparian nations or to join any river basin associations such as the Mekong River Commission, which was established in 1995 “to promote and coordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the countries’ mutual benefit and the people’s well-being.” It is also one of only three countries that voted against the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Watercourses which lays down rules on the shared resources of international watercourses. Additionally, China has been reticent to share information on water levels and flows with its downstream neighbors once its dams are operational. China is now impounding water for the large reservoir behind the Xiaowan dam on the upper Mekong, for instance, which some believe exacerbated 2010 drought conditions downstream. Only after the drought became severe, and China came under significant pressure from the Mekong River Commission, did it start to provide information on daily water flows from its dam cascade.

China has tried to offset complaints and the potential creation of anti-Chinese alliances by its downstream neighbors by using trade and development incentives – developing the Southeast Asian electricity grid and building sewage and road infrastructure in Cambodia as examples – to weaken their ability to challenge China’s dam-building activities, it also engages in a public discourse that not only advocates the importance of hydropower to its national security but emphasizes exclusively the benefits of the dams without considering how they will disrupt downstream ecosystems and water access. Specifically, it talks about flood control, reduction of Chinese CO2 emissions, and the benefits of improved navigation and water flow during the dry season. In many cases, it is also helping to fund and construct dams downriver in places such as Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Their own independent construction of dams with Chinese financing has weakened downstream riparian neighbors’ ability to protest the ecological destruction that China’s upstream dams are causing.

The Lancang Cascade

The Lancang Cascade is an example of China’s dam building on trans-boundary water. In total, China has built eleven dams on Upper Mekong (called Lancang in China). The Mekong River flows 4,800 km from the Tibetan plateau, across China’s Yunnan province, through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, before pouring into the South China Sea. The Lancang comprises only 16% of the Mekong’s total discharge as measured in the delta, yet it accounts for 100% of the flow at the Laos border, 45% of Cambodia’s average flow in the dry season, and originates 50% of the river’s total sediment. The upper basin is characterized by deep gorges, with more than 80% of the drop in elevation occurring in Yunnan province. Indeed, Yunnan and Laos have the greatest hydropower potential in the basin. The lower basin is characterized by plains and deltas which support large-scale irrigation, fishing, and transportation. The Mekong is vital to the food, water supplies and transportation of over 70 million inhabitants in the region. An estimated 8 out of 10 people within the basin depend on the Mekong River for subsistence, either in terms of fish catch or agriculture, with at least 50% of Cambodia’s animal protein consumption coming from Mekong fish and the Mekong Delta supplying waters for more than 50% of the agricultural component of Vietnam’s GDP.

The Lancang cascade is part of China’s “Develop the West” program. Initial plans for the Lancang cascade were developed in the 1980s, before Yunnan opened to foreign trade, and when China’s political relations with its lower Mekong neighbors were not as robust as they are today. China espouses that the Lancang cascade will benefit its lower riparian neighbors by providing flood control in the wet season, increasing water supply in the dry season, improving irrigation and navigation, and reducing overall carbon emissions.

Yet, as seen with the Three Gorges Dam, large hydro-power projects change the hydrology of a river. Of key concern for the Mekong is whether the dams will negatively impact the hydrological dynamics of the Mekong’s “flood pulse” resulting from the river’s seasonal flooding triggered by the annual monsoons. Diminishing the flood pulse could result in declines in biodiversity and volumes of fisheries by altering spawning and migration cues could affect its transfer of nutrients and could limit the drift of eggs larvae and juveniles to the floodplain habitats. It could also impact rice harvests as 80% of rice production in the lower basin depends on water, silt, and nutrients from Mekong flooding. It might also cause increased salinization as seasonal flooding flushes delta areas, constraining sea water intrusion. The countries downstream are also concerned that the effective powering of their own dams will be dependent on China to discharge enough water. Impacts to water levels and fisheries have already been recorded in the lower Mekong basin which is one of the world’s biggest sources of fish. Indeed, as water levels reached 50-year lows in 2010 in the Mekong River Basin, China’s dam building along the upper Mekong was blamed as a significant contributor to the drought.

More recently, a 2020 study conducted by Eyes on Earth Inc. with funding by the US State Department’s Lower Mekong Initiative reported that the 11 Chinese dams on the upper portion of the Mekong River captured almost all the river’s flow in 2019, blocking it from reaching communities and ecoystems downstream in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. The study gathered its data both through physical river gauges, and by analyzing 28 years of satellite data. This analysis illustrated that China’s portion of the Mekong saw above average snow melt and rainfall in 2019. Over the same timeframe, water levels downstream on the Mekong near the Thai-Lao border where often approximately 3 m below normal. It is estimated that 11 dams hold as much water as the Chesapeake Bay in the United States, and over the last 30 years, China’s Mekong dams have held back more water than they have released. The study argued that this water compounding has contributed to a record-breaking drought that still plagues the region and puts in jeopardy the food supplies and livelihoods of the 70 million people who rely in the river. It is hoped that this study will provide Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand with data with which it can more effectively negotiate with the Chinese regarding their dam and water management.

By compounding water at such levels, and concurrently causing drought in downstream countries, China is demonstrating that it views the water originating on Chinese soil as a sovereign resource rather than a shared resource. Some Chinese stakeholders have expressed the opinion that water originating in China should be for Chinese use first before any is released downstream. There is also fear that China’s compounded water may be transferred for domestic uses instead of eventually being released downstream. Although they have not been executed, China does have long standing plans to redirect approximately 200,000,000,000 m³ of water annually from the upstream sections of six rivers in southwestern China including the Lancang/Mekong, the Yarlung Zangbo/Brahmaputra, the Salween/Nu to the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. These plans may become more enticing as Himalayan glaciers rapidly melt. It may be China’s point of view that it wants to capture this water runoff for future domestic use before it leaves Chinese territory.

Building Dams Abroad

In addition to damming trans-boundary rivers, China has also stepped up its dam building internationally. As China has absorbed and copied complex hydro-engineering technology initially supplied by the West during the 1980s and 1990s, it is now able to export its own domestically produced turbines, generators and other hydro-equipment to countries abroad, along with its dam building expertise. These exports are supported by a set of schemes known as the “Going Out” strategy introduced in 2001. This strategy encourages investments, exports and subcontracting in overseas engineering projects. Specifically, the government has aided China’s hydro-engineering companies with country-specific research, financial subsidies, and cheap credit. These advantages have helped Chinese companies to position themselves as low-cost competitors. This cost advantage has also been aided by the fact that Chinese construction companies often import cheap, highly productive labor from home to staff all or at least part of their workforce. Their extensive hydro-engineering experience has also allowed them to gain real efficiencies not shared by their competitors. As a result, in 2012, it was estimated that China was involved in more than 300 dam projects in 66 different countries, including the construction of 19 of the world’s 24 largest hydropower stations.

It is not uncommon for these international hydro-engineering projects to help support Chinese strategic interests. Because of its relative isolation from international markets until the early 1980s, China has been late to develop international sources of raw materials, particularly oil, timber and mineral resources. Yet, its position as “the world’s factory” has meant that its demand for natural resources has significantly increased over recent decades. As a result, China has implemented a strategy of retrieving resource deposits which had not heretofore been developed because they have been deemed insignificant in size, geographically remote or politically risky. In many cases, accessing these raw materials has obliged China to invest in secondary infrastructure such as pipelines, roads, railways, dams, power plants and transmission lines. For instance, the Belinga Dam in Gabon is being constructed by China to power a Chinese-built and financed iron ore mine whose output is destined almost exclusively for China’s construction industry. The dam is located in the Invindo National Park  and was planned by China with no public environmental impact statement. Myanmar recently decided to halt the massive China-backed the Myitsone Dam project, which has been opposed by green groups and opposition parties because of its significant environmental and social impacts. The dam was to generate some 6000 MW of power, most of which was to be exported to China, while creating a reservoir the size of Singapore with the depth of nearly a 70-story building, displacing tens of thousands of people.

China’s flurry of rapid international dam building has been driven in large part by its ability to self-finance its projects. This has allowed it to fast-track projects that the World Bank and the European Investment Bank, for instance, have been less quick to consider because of their environmental and social risks. China’s Exim Bank, the official export credit agency of the Chinese government, has delivered vital funding for many controversial large dams, including the Merowe Dam in Sudan, which resulted in a ruinous deterioration of living conditions among displaced people. The state-owned China Export and Credit Insurance Corporation, the China Development Bank, and the China-Africa Development Fund are all also increasingly involved in financing energy projects overseas. In some cases, hydro-engineering companies provide their own financing to their international customers. Sino Hydro, for example, a large state-owned company involved in at least 42 major dam projects, often invests in many of the projects it builds as does China’s International Water and Electric Corporation, China’s National Heavy Machinery Corporation and China Southern Power Grid. For the period 2010 to 2012, Sino Hydro directed over $1 billion towards dam-building and related projects in Zambia. In 2014, the total value of contracted projects in Africa was estimated at $70.8 billion. This self-financing has put increased pressure on Western financial institutions and construction companies to also circumvent internationally recognized – but unenforced – social and environmental standards when designing and building infrastructure abroad, so that they can compete with Chinese banks and construction companies.

China remains wary of Western-dominated environmental norms circumscribing its investment and construction activities abroad. China does not accept any country imposing on it their values, social systems or ideology, nor, as stated in its ‘principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country’, does it feel that it should impose its value systems on other countries. China has also defended its approach to overseas investments by insisting that developing countries should not operate at the same standards as developed nations; developed countries also polluted first and then cleaned up after as its economy and technology developed. China has argued that it is unwilling to impose environmental policies on foreign countries which might slow their growth.

Yet, recently there is some evidence that China’s leaders have started to reassess the long-term costs that can come with a no-strings-attached approached to construction overseas; reckless practices, in some cases, have prevented Chinese companies from growing business internationally. The ecological destruction that some of China’s dams have wrought have aggravated anti-Chinese sentiment at several sites in Asia, Africa and Latin America. For instance, in 2006 violent protests broke out at the $2 billion dollar Merowe Dam in Sudan resulting in three dead and dozens injured. Ultimately 15,000 people were displaced, often forcibly, by the reservoir. Protests renewed in 2011 when 1000 people staged a sit-in to protests the government’s failure to compensate them as promised.

China’s frequent policy of employing a Chinese workforce to build dams and other projects abroad reinforces the perception that it is engaged in exploitative practices. To counter this criticism, in 2006, the China’s State Council issued nine principles which should guide the work of firms working abroad. These principles included safeguarding environmental protection, protecting the livelihoods of local communities and peoples, obeying host laws and regulations, and employing local workers in a friendly and fair manner. The principles, while lacking specificity as to who should regulate overseas construction companies, and as to what domestic regulatory tools should be applied to Chinese companies operating overseas, do indicate the Chinese leadership’s desire to avoid future high-profile disasters such as those occurring around the Merowe dam in Sudan. However, without specific regulatory control or penalties for breach of standards, these principles remain mostly theoretical. Some Chinese companies have begun to establish their own environmental policies; China’s Exim Bank and China’s Development Bank, for example, both have environmental policies which are to guide their lending practices, but again these policies lack detail, and do not appear to be well enforced.


At present, 3,700 dams with greater than 1 MW capacity are currently planned (83%) or under construction (17%). These projects are spread across several continents, but focused mainly in Brazil, Argentina, Central Africa, and China. Even if all these dams were constructed and realized their anticipated electric output, China would remain the world’s hydropower hegemon with an annual potential of nearly 1.8 million GWh (gigawatt-hours). While China’s position in the hydroelectric field may not be challenged in the coming years, its share within that sector is expected to diminish from 31% of world hydropower produced to around 25%.

China prioritizes the continued development of China’s hydro-power capacity to maintain its lead in production. Indeed, China’s National Energy Agency plans to increase China’s installed hydropower from approximately 200,000 MW to 380,000 MW by 2020. While greater efforts will certainly be made to better resettle those displaced by dams in the coming decades, environmental concerns regarding the impacts of China’s large hydro-engineering projects are unlikely to stop their future construction, particularly given the corporatization and increasing power of China’s hydro-power industry.

 China’s construction on trans-boundary rivers is also likely to continue even in the face of growing international concern. China will continue to follow a “carrot” strategy to blunt the criticism of these dams, providing downstream countries with infrastructure and other needs where possible in order to get them on-side with China’s actions. China has the construction ability and the finance to proceed with the construction of many of these dams quickly. There is some argument that China plans to get the dams in place before the international community can rally effective support to pressure China to reconsider its actions.

The speed of China’s dam-building has helped many of its projects, both domestic and national, bypass international environmental standards and impact studies. Though hydropower is not an exceptionally high-emission source of energy in the long run, it has been shown to be rather carbon-intensive during initial phases. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that short-term emissions from damming and dam-related activity might be ten times the emissions that could have been saved if governments reduced fossil fuel usage via other means. The short run emissions are largely a result of the large reservoirs that form behind newly constructed dams. As these young bodies of water undergo various hydrological changes, they often emit larger quantities of greenhouse gases.

Over many years, however, total hydropower-associated emissions are nearly 30 times lower than coal, which is currently China’s most dominant energy source. In 2013, coal accounted for 73.8% of China’s total 5,396 TWh generated, while hydropower ranked second with a 16.9% energy share. Despite the prevalence of coal as an energy source, coal usage decreased 1.2% through October 2014, and this trend is likely to continue as northern China feels the strain of dwindling local water sources. Coal mining and processing requires an extraordinary amount of water that China can no longer afford to divert, given the drinking water demand of its citizens in northern urban centers like Beijing and Tianjin. If anything, the decline of coal will lead to an increase in the dominance of hydropower, which is already well-established in China. Dams may well supplant coal entirely and become the primary source of Chinese energy.

In July 2014, China reaffirmed its commitment to pursue further hydroelectric projects on the Jinsha River (the upper Yangtze), Yalong River, Dadu River, and the Lancang Cascade. It will also continue to aggressively pursue the international dam market, both to meet its own energy needs abroad and to create renewable, clean energy infrastructure for other countries. China’s commitment to Africa remains steadfast, with water conservancy and electric power as two of four key focus areas (the other two being communications and construction of ports, bridges, and railways). With these developments and even more plans in place, China is quickly becoming the largest, most experienced and most competitive dam builder in the world.



Water in China: A Thirsty Country


paul prescott /

China faces severe water shortages. Its current water per capita is one quarter of the world average, yet its overall per capita usage is still low by international standards, but this will increase over the coming decades. The water that China does have is often badly polluted and is inefficiently used. Moreover, China’s water is unequally distributed with the Yangtze River basin and areas to the south enjoying 84% of China’s naturally available water compared with just 16% in China’s north.

China’s water scarcity will challenge its future economic expansion. Already, agriculture, industry and China’s growing cities all compete for scarce water resources, as do China’s different regions. Decades-old economic priorities such as food self-sufficiency will be increasingly difficult to maintain because water used in industrial output creates more economic value than it does in agriculture. Water scarcity also creates domestic unrest. Increasing illness caused by polluted water is driving up healthcare costs and generating more internal dissent. In 2009, the Chinese government acknowledged that 90,000 “mass incidents” (a euphemism for protests) occurred, many of which were sparked by environmental and water degradation.

Population and its Impact on the Hydrological Cycle

Right from China’s earliest dynasties great attention was paid to agricultural productivity. The Chinese bureaucracy mobilized the Chinese masses to construct irrigation systems and to clear land. This created an agriculture-population feedback loop. Increased agricultural productivity led to a rise in population, requiring further hydro-engineering and agricultural innovation to maintain China’s swelling numbers. In an agrarian society, large families of many sons offered rural parents security both in terms of providing labor for farming and care in old age. In this way, China has remained the world’s most populous country for thousands of years. China is still the world’s most populous country today. In 2019, China’s population was approximately 1.434 billion people. By 2035, China’s population is expected to peak at 1.461 billion people. By 2050 and 2100, China’s population will reduce to 1.402 billion and 1.064 billion, respectively.


China’s large population today has risen in part because of a significant population surge between 1950 and 1980. During the period, China’s population grew from 554 million to just over 1 billion people. In order to feed its enormous and rapidly growing population, Mao mobilized its masses to create new agricultural and grazing land through the clearing of forests, the filling of lakes, the draining of swamps and wetlands, and the creation of large irrigation projects. While placing more agricultural land under plow and significantly expanding its irrigation networks, this significant transformation of China’s natural environment into an agricultural environment has impacted China’s hydrological cycle. When land is cleared of plant life through unsustainable farming and grazing methods, the local hydrological cycle is disrupted, and desiccation – the drying out of the environment – occurs. Instead of catching precipitation in the region and allowing rain to repeatedly return to the area hrough the process of evapotranspiration, deforestation, over-grazing and over-farming causes surface water to run immediately into streams instead of permeating the soil. In the north and northwest of China, it has been estimated that the average annual precipitation has decreased by one third between the 1950s and the 1980s; overall China has 350 billion m³ less water than it had at the start of the century equivalent to the amount of water that flows through the mouth of the Mississippi River in nine months.

China’s Significant Desertification

Approximately 28%, around 2.5 million km², of China’s land is desert or suffering desertification. China’s deserts have expanded significantly over the last six decades. China’s Environmental Protection Agency reported, for instance, that the Gobi Desert grew by 52,400 square kilometers (20,240 square miles) from 1994 to 1999. Overall, China’s semi-arid regions have increased 33% during 1994–2008 compared to 1948–62, and its deserts continue to expand at an estimated rate of 1,300 square miles a year. In addition to topographical and geographical conditions, factors driving China’s desertification include over-cultivation, overgrazing, pollution, wind erosion, water erosion, salinization of soils through over-irrigation, over-cutting firewood, water misuse, and industry and mining-related land destruction.

The cost of desertification is real. It is estimated that China loses approximately $6.8 billion annually from its growing deserts and arid lands. Desertification leads to depreciated land values, food insecurity resulting from reduced crop yields, heightened healthcare issues, and increased costs resulting from land protection efforts. Desertification and deforestation have also caused sediment levels to significantly increase in all of China’s river systems due to severe soil erosion. Greater soil levels in river water can impact the functioning of China’s many hydropower systems.

To fight China’s desertification, China unveiled the Great Green Wall program.  Launched in 1978 and targeted to continue until 2050, the program’s objective is to plant a shelterbelt of trees across the northwest rim of China skirting the Gobi Desert. The Great Green Wall is expected to be 4,480 km long and 560-1460 km wide. To date, an estimated 66 billion trees have been planted.

However, this massive reforestation program has been controversial. Much of the shelterbelt area, except for areas to the east, is not highly suitable to forest growth. Trying to plant trees in ecosystems not suited to forest can diminish biodiversity, reduce water recharge, and cause a loss of soil quality and moisture. Additionally, China has tended toward the planting of a single species of trees over large areas. In Ningxia, for example, 70% of the trees planted were poplar and willow. Monocultures tend to be more vulnerable to disease.  In 2000, for instance, one billion poplar trees were lost to disease, wiping out 20 years of planting effort. Additionally, monocultures do not increase biodiversity as they are not appropriate either for plants and animals normally found in the native, dry-land ecosystems or for the animals and plants that might want to migrate to newly forested ecosystems.

Another disadvantage of planting trees on grasslands is that they tend to absorb large amounts of groundwater. In Minqin, an area in north-western China, studies have shown that groundwater levels dropped by 12–19 metres since the advent of the project. As these trees absorb water levels, shallower-rooting native shrubs and grasses can die off. When this occurs, the soil on the forest floor is susceptible to wind erosion, the very challenge that the trees were planted to thwart.  As evidence of this risk, sand storms from wind erosion have become more frequent despite China’s herculean tree-planting efforts. Fifty years ago, dust storms plagued China about once every seven or eight years; now they occur annually.

Given the challenges of the Great Green Wall, there is growing realization shrubs and grasses native to the region may be much more effective in restoring degraded dry lands and holding sand in place. As a result, there has been some movement toward replacing the planting of trees with the sowing of native flora.

Water Scarcity

Overall, China is an extremely arid country.  As China’s population has swelled over the millennia, its per capita water has decreased. China now has an estimated 2,029 m3 of water per capita per annum, one quarter the world’s average. This per capita water figure is projected to decrease to 1,875 m³ by 2033. This water scarcity is exacerbated by China’s uneven water distribution. China’s precipitation patterns are heavily affected by the East Asian monsoonal climate. Its mountainous geography impedes and drains the monsoonal rains as they move from the southeast into the northwest of the continent. On average, southern China – including the Yangtze River basin and areas to its south – has approximately 80% of China’s water, yet the area supports 54% of its population, 35% of its arable land, and 55% of its GDP Conversely, northern China collected only 20% of China’s water to maintain 46% of the population, 65% of the arable land and 45% of its GDP. In some northern areas, strains on water resources are even worse. Beijing’s and Tianjin’s Hai River basin, for instance, receives approximately 1.5% of China’s water to support 10% of its population and 11% of its arable land. Moreover, 47% of total industrial output is fabricated in China driest 11 provinces including: Beijing, Gansu, Hebei, Henan, Jiangsu, Liaoning, Ningxia and Shandong. These 11 water-parched provinces account for just 7% of China’s total water resources but produce 36% of China’s agricultural production and 43% of total GDP while supporting 38% of the population.

Approximately 400 of China’s cities currently face water shortages, and over 300 million people drink water contaminated with pollutants including arsenic, excessive fluoride, toxins from untreated factory wastewater, agricultural chemicals, leaching landfill waste and human sewage. Moreover, China’s per capita water footprint is growing. China will not only have more people competing for its finite water resources in the coming decades, but each person will individually demand more water. Today, China’s overall water footprint per capita is still about half that of the US but is expected to grow by between 40% and 50% by 2030. Factors such as higher living standards, increasing urbanization and further industrialization are driving water demand. China’s rising wealth has meant, for instance, that its citizens are eating substantially more meat. The production of one kilogram of beef requires 600 liters of water compared with the 100 liters required for a kilogram of wheat. This shift in diet can be seen in China’s food footprint numbers. In 1961, China used 260 m³ of water per capita to grow food; by 2003 this figure had more than trebled to 860 m³.

Agricultural, Urbanization, Industrialization, Water Wastage

Currently, 62% of China’s water is used for agriculture, a sector which is responsible for approximately 13% of the country’s GDP. About 50% of China’s farmland requires irrigation, more than double the world average. Nearly 75% of total grain production and over 90% of China’s cash crops are sown on irrigated farms. According to China Water Risk, irrigation water usage was approximately 340 billion m3 in 2013, equal to the average annual flow from China’s Pearl River, China’s third longest river.  Yet agriculture water usage remains extremely inefficient, with an estimated 45% of agricultural water lost before it even reaches crops.  By contrast, water used for industrial output is 70 times more productive in terms of financial value than that used in wheat production.

That said, the water productivity of Chinese industry is also low by international standards. The industrial added value per 10,000 yuan of water consumption is about 50 m³ compared to 7-9 m³ in developed countries. Additionally, the industrial water recycling rate is less than 50% compared to 85% in developed countries. Overall, China’s overall water productivity – calculated by dividing GDP by annual total water withdrawal – remains low: $15 in 2015 compared with $318 for the UK, $115 for Singapore, $103 for Germany, $67 for Japan, and $36 for the United States.

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China’s growing urbanization is also requiring more water per capita. 70% of Chinese citizens are projected to be living in cities by 2030, up from 59% today. This is significant because urban dwellers consume three times as much water and energy as rural residents. Between 2000 and 2020, for instance, the World Bank estimated that China’s urban water consumption increased by 60% as its urbanization rate rose from 36% in 2000 to 57% in 2020. Moreover, more urban dwellers will require more electricity. Currently, it is estimated that 59% of China’s primary energy consumed was powered by coal.  Coal requires more water to produce them all other energy sources. Moreover, over half of China’s coal deposits are found in its north, the Chinese region which suffers from the most water scarcity.  Coal mining, processing, combustion, and coal-to-chemical industries are the country’s second largest water consumer after agriculture. Therefore, consuming more coal to produce more electricity will put additional stress China’s limited water resources. Finally, China’s urban water distribution networks are particularly leaky. In 2002, an investigation of 408 cities conducted by the Ministry of Construction found that urban water supplies lost an average of 22% of their total water flow.

Water Pollution

Despite China’s efforts over the last three decades, water pollution has spread from the coastal to inland areas and from the surface to underground water resources. An estimated 70% of China’s rivers and lakes are now polluted. In 2009, 57% of the 7 monitored river basins had pollution levels of I-III, suitable for drinking, swimming, household use, and able to support aquatic life. 24% of China’s rivers had levels of IV-V, water unfit for swimming, but suitable for industrial purpose. 19% had V+, meaning that the water is considered useless, unfit for industry or agriculture and unsafe for human contact even after treatment. 23% of China’s key lakes and reservoirs had water grades of I-III, 42% IV-V and 35% V+. 2.3% of groundwater in 8 regions was rated I-II, 23.9% was graded III, and 73.8% ranked IV-V.

Causes of water pollution include the disposal of industrial chemicals and waste, agricultural waste, and residential wastewater. Of these pollution sources, approximately 70% of the water pollution nationwide comes from agriculture, particularly runoff from fertilizers, pesticides, and animal waste. For millennia, China’s farmers produced agriculture through “organic” farming methods. Farmers collected every bit of organic waste to ferment for fertilizer. Nothing was wasted, and even human waste, or “night soil”, went into “honey buckets” to transport to the fields. Every winter and spring farmers dredged nearby rivers and canals to add sediment to the fertilizer. Particularly in the south, dense grass at the water’s edge was added to pig fodder, which, after being digested by the pigs, produced manure, and helped keep the rivers and lakes clear from vegetation. The entire process of recycling was labor-intensive but efficient. The rivers and lakes remained relatively clean despite thousands of years of intensive farming.

Yet, since 1978, fertilizer applications in China have increased fivefold. In general, animal and human feces are no longer collected for fertilizer, and instead are discharged untreated into rivers.

In addition to causing pollution, fertilizer runoff is also raising the instances of eutrophication. Although blooms of aquatic biomass are spurred by a variety of factors including nutrients, light, temperature, water flow, turbidity, zooplankton grazing and toxic substances, the main factor contributing to the growth of algae is the supply of nutrients.  Chemical fertilizer runoff has significantly accelerated eutrophication of many of China’s lakes such as Dian Chi in Yunnan Province, Chao Hu in Anhui Province and Tai Hu in Hubei Province where algae blooms absorb a significant portion of the lake’s oxygen, choking off fish and other aquatic life. Large algae blooms also broke out right before the 2008 Olympics, forcing Beijing to launch a massive emergency clean-up to ensure the sailing events could go ahead as scheduled in Qingdao, in Shandong.

In addition to pollution caused from fertilizer and pesticide runoff, rural areas also contribute to contamination by poor wastewater management. According to the 2017 China Statistical Yearbook, for instance, while nearly 95% of municipal wastewater generated by urban residents was treated, this number dropped to 25% for rural residents. Additionally, small-scale rural enterprises have less rigorous environmental monitoring, but frequently engage in all manner of heavily polluting production, such as the operation of paper mills, tanneries, and breweries. Pollution from the small-scale rural enterprises is aggravated by the fact that they are more likely to use outdated equipment and have less resources to spend on pollution abatement.

About 80% of China’s 7500 most polluting factories are located on rivers, lakes, or in heavily populated areas. While occurring less frequently than in the past, these factories have been known to release untreated waste and chemicals into China’s waters either intentionally or by accident. Example of this is the 2012 cadmium spill in Guangxi which polluted an approximately 100 km stretch of the Longjiang River at a level of more than five times the official limit, contaminating water supplies for Liuzhou, a city of 3.2 million people. Cadmium is poisonous and can cause cancer. Another example is the 2020 Heilongjiang province spillage of 2.53 million cubic meters of water containing molybdenum ore waste into the local river system. The spill contaminated water for 110 km southwest of the mining site, where the chemical oxygen demand reading (DOC) – a measure of water quality – was 5.7 times higher than standard levels.

China’s factories also release dangerous airborne pollutants that are absorbed into groundwater or contaminate rivers by way of urban runoff. Some of the most harmful are categorized as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and an estimated 90% of water located in sources near Chinese cities is now dangerously polluted because of their presence.

Economic and Health Cost of Water Pollution

pcruciatti / The World Bank estimated that China’s water crisis is reducing China’s GDP by approximately 2.3% annually, with 1.3% attributable to water scarcity, and the other 1% caused by the cost of water pollution  estimates do not include the costs of ecological deterioration caused from the eutrophication of lakes and rivers. Nor do they reflect the economic cost of disease caused by water pollution, conservatively estimated at an additional 0.5% of GDP. In China’s most polluted areas, water has also been blamed for the recent high rates of various health abnormalities including liver and stomach cancer, stunted growth, miscarriages, and birth defects. This pollution can also be absorbed through China’s food supply. In 2011, it was estimated that up to 10% of China’s rice crop might contain unsafe or nearly unsafe levels of cadmium because of widespread irrigation with cadmium-poisoned water. A more targeted 2014 Greenpeace study testing rice harvested in Hunan province near a smelting site found that the rice contained dangerously high levels of cadmium, lead and arsenic.

China has also seen a rise in cancer rates. Contemporaneously with the rise in pollution levels in China’s lakes and rivers, digestive tract cancers including stomach, liver and esophagus have also risen and are now responsible for approximately 36.4% of cancer-related deaths in China compared to less than 5% of total cancer deaths in either the US or the UK. Additionally, there have also been incidents of contaminated river water from industrial activities leading to outbreaks of cancer concentrated in some villages. These villages have become colloquially known as Aizheng Cun, which literally translates as “Cancer Village.”

Flooding – Yellow River and Yangtze River

Not only are desertification and deforestation exacerbating China’s water scarcity, they are also aggravating China’s flooding challenges. The Chinese Minister of Water Resources, Chen Lei estimated in 2007 that China has lost 2% of national GDP annually to flooding since 1990 and a recent study placed the total costs of floods from 2000 to 2012 at 105 billion RMB annually (US $17 billion). Flooding has challenged Chinese rulers for millennia. From 602 BCE to 1938 AD it is estimated that major collapses of Yellow River dikes occurred once every two or three years. Then, every hundred years or so, the river would change its course. Many of the resulting floods were some of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded. For millennia, the Chinese constructed dikes along the lower reaches of the Yellow River trying to contain its torrents, yet constant ecological destruction along the upper reaches increased erosion which intensified river silting. The silting raised the riverbed above the countryside. This “suspended” river greatly increased flood damage when the river inevitably breached its dikes. After 1949, the CCP built almost 3000 dams on the Yellow River, and heavily reinforced its levees and embankments. These hydro-engineering projects involved the equivalent of 500 million workdays and 1.4 billion m³ of reinforced concrete – enough to build 13 Great Walls. Yet many of the Yellow River’s dams have fallen short of physical and economic targets, and have resulted in huge losses of forest lands, wildlife habitat and aquatic biodiversity. Global warming has also increased evaporation at many of the dam sites.

Similarly, parts of the Yangtze River have flooded continually for millennia. Yet, as deforestation and reclamation of land has increased, floods have become more frequent and more destructive. The CCP attempted to solve the flooding by increasing the height of 3,600 km of embankments and more than 30,000 km of levies. The work required more than 4 billion m³ of dirt and stone, or enough material to put a wall around the globe three times. Yet these raised structures could not offset the loss of water absorption capacity caused by the rapid deforestation and agricultural land reclamation that occurred during the same period. As a result, the Yangtze experienced a series of significant floods in 1980, 1981, 1983, 1991 and 1996. Then in June 1998, China suffered one of its worst floods in 40 years, leaving 3,700 people dead, 15 million homeless and causing $26 billion of economic damages. The reinforced embankments and levees proved largely ineffective, with approximately 9,000 of them collapsing. As well as providing hydropower and improved navigation, the controversial Three Gorges Dam was built in large part to control the Yangtze’s flooding, although many scientists believe that the Yangtze is still vulnerable. Additionally, after the 1998 flood, China began to place greater importance on the role of ecology in flood prevention and has begun an extensive campaign of reforestation and forest preservation.


Because of the variability of the monsoonal rains and other factors, like flooding, drought has plagued the country for millennia. Yet desiccation, reduced precipitation and rising temperatures in many areas have made China’s droughts more frequent with longer durations extending over greater areas than at any previous time. For instance, research has shown that since 1980, severe droughts in China’s northeast have increased in frequency, severity, and duration. Between 1960 and 1980, acute droughts struck approximately once a decade. From 1980 onwards, droughts have occurred with greater frequency: in 1981, 1986, 1992, 1994, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2005-2007, 2010, 2017-2018, 2019, 2020. China’s southwest to northeast belt was the area most affected by drought. Regions most impacted include Inner Mongolia, Hunan, Yunnan, Hubei, Jilin, Anhui, Sichuan, Liaoning, Guizhou, and Shandong.

Although difficult to pinpoint specifically, it is estimated that China lost $7 billion annually due to the economic cost of drought between 1984 in 2017. If global warming continues apace, these economic losses could increase to between $47 billion annually if temperatures rise an additional 1.5°C to $84 billion if global warming drives temperatures above 2°C.  China has been essentially self-sufficient in grain for decades. This self-sufficiency camouflages the fact that China produces one-sixth of the world’s wheat output and one-fifth of global corn. China is thus enormously important to the world’s food supply. If drought significantly disrupted China’s food production on a large-scale, it could significantly impact world food prices. The risk is real. In every year since 2005, drought has challenged China’s grain crops, and the government has been forced to spend billions of dollars digging wells and cloud seeding to encourage rain. In 2010-201, northern China suffered its worst drought in 60 years, impacting most of China’s wheat producing regions. At its peak, it is estimated that 36% of China’s northern wheat fields were affected, and that 2.57 million people and 2.79 million livestock suffered from a lack of water. The water shortages also affected around 161 million people, with an economic cost estimated at $2.8 billion. In 2017, China’s Inner Mongolia region experienced a severe drought which affected 120,000 people and 500,000 livestock and 16 million acres of pastureland. It is estimated that the drought caused economic losses of approximately $780 million. In 2019, China’s Hebei province experienced a serious drought which impacted almost 800,000 ha of cropland and left 15,700 people and ,3000 domestic animals with diminished access to drinking water.

Drought has not been restricted to China’s drier north. In western Sichuan, for example, rapid deforestation caused Sichuan’s forest cover to fall from 3.6 million hectares in in 1985 to 2.34 million hectares in 1995 which has led to decreased precipitation. In the 1950s, serious droughts hit Sichuan about once every three years. In the 1960s, this became once every two years and by the 1980s, drought troubled Sichuan counties annually. In 2010, more than 20 million people in Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Chongqing were left without adequate drinking water and a 2011 Sichuan drought affected almost 8 million people. Looking at drought conditions in Guangxi province specifically, records show that from 1618 to 1943, major droughts hit the region once every 33 years. From 1946 to 1972, the interval fell to every six years, and in the 1980s, it fell to every two years. There were four major droughts in the three-year period from 1989 to 1991. Since 2000, drought has plagued Guangxi annually. In 2004, for instance, 1100 Guangxi reservoirs went dry, and hydropower generation was cut dramatically. In 2007, one million residents in Guangxi and 250,000 in neighboring Guangdong faced water shortages during the worst regional drought in more than 50 years. In 2009, Guangxi, which produces 60% of China’s sugar cane, had a 10% drop in its production due to drought conditions. In 2010, 12 of the 14 cities in Guangxi were affected by water shortages. As another example, in 2019, Anhui Province, was plagued by the worst drought it had experienced in 50 years. Rainfall was at only 40% of normal levels. The neighboring provinces of Hubei, Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Zhejian were also significantly impacted.

Climate Change

How climate change will impact China’s water scarcity is still being studied. A study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that drought related losses caused China approximately $7 billion annually between 1984 in 2017. If temperatures were to rise 1.5°C, these losses could grow to $47 billion annually. Above 2°C, drought losses could rise as high as $84 billion annually. Overall, however, a clear understanding of the impact of climate change on China’s water resources and agriculture is not definitive. Most scientists agree that more work is needed on regional climate simulations-especially simulations of precipitation-to better understand how a warming environment will impact everything from crops to diseases to future per capita water resources. (Piao, 2010)

What is definitive is that global warming is having an undeniable effect on the Tibetan Plateau. Like the Arctic and Antarctic, the Tibetan plateau is warming three times faster than the global average at .3°C per decade. In Tibet’s case, this accelerated warming is driven significantly by its Tibet’s high elevation which averages 4,500 meters. The plateau holds the largest amount of snow and ice after the Arctic and Antarctic, an estimated 14.5% of the global total including 46,000 glaciers. The plateau is also the source of 10 of the world’s largest rivers including the Yangtze, Yellow, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Mekong, and Indus Rivers which in turn provide water to over 1.6 billion people.  An estimated 80% of Tibet’s glaciers are now melting more quickly than originally thought. Many Chinese scientists believe that one-third of the glacial area in Tibet will disappear by 2050, and half will disappear by 2100.

Greater melting rates will have several effects. Melting glaciers often create glacial lakes dammed by unstable moraines. These moraine dams can unexpectedly burst, causing catastrophic flooding. Greater glacial melt water in the short term will increase river runoff. In the long term, as glaciers diminish or disappear, the resulting depletion of meltwater runoff is likely to deplete the year-round viability of Tibetan originating rivers, threatening the lives and livelihoods of billions of people downstream.

Power Outages

China’s water scarcity has also resulted in lower water levels of many of China’s major river systems. For instance, Chinese researchers have discovered that the volume of water entering the Yangtze River at its source on the Tibetan plateau has dropped by 15% over the last four decades. Similarly, a study regarding Yellow River water found that runoff has runoff decreased significantly between 1956 and 2009. Moreover, a 2013 study conducted by China’s Ministry of Water not only corroborated that the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers are experiencing declining water levels, but also found that approximately 28,000 of China’s original 50,000 rivers have now disappeared.   Part of the reason  for the disappearing rivers has been attributed to improved mapping techniques; however, the fact that rivers are disappearing has been validated by other studies. Other rivers, especially in the north, have become seasonal rivers flowing most strongly during the spring melts.

Diminishing flow levels in China’s rivers mean that the country will be challenged by power outages due to inadequate flow through its hydropower dams. Hydropower accounts for approximately 22% of China’s total installed capacity. It is estimated that the lack of water to run hydropower dams has cut hydroelectric power production by 20% and China may be forced to burn 1 million more metric tons of coal a week to cover the shortfall.


Serious water scarcity looms in China’s future. This scarcity is likely to increase competition between Chinese regions, between sectors of the economy and between urban and rural residents. It will also raise tensions between the government and parts of society that lack access to adequate, clean water sources. Moreover, the Tibetan Plateau is a source of rivers that reach 16 downstream countries including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Bhutan, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. China’s damming, polluting, and use of international rivers is likely to increase tensions with these countries as populations in downstream riparian countries grow, and as  these economies continue to develop  and urbanize. Many of these countries, especially India, are already facing their own severe water crisis, which will only be exacerbated if China diverts river water that needs to be shared internationally.

Additionally, China’s water contamination risks exporting China’s pollution and water-borne disease to its neighbors downstream. This water pollution is exacerbated by rapid glacial melting. Glaciers capture atmospheric pollution; dangerous pesticides such as DDT and pollutants such as perfluoroalkyl acids are increasingly coursing downstream in meltwater and collecting in sediments and in the food chain.

Political relations could be further stressed if water shortages cause mass migrations of people. In fact, some analysts suggest that the so-called “oil wars” of the 20th century could be replaced by “water wars” in the 21st. Over the last 30 years, China’s Mekong dams, alone, have held back more water than they have released. There is some argument that, in anticipation of the fact that Tibet’s glaciers will likely be rapidly depleted in the next 80 years, China is compounding glacier melt for its future needs.

China’s immediate water solution is to use water more conservatively, and to improve pollution control. Historically, China has solved growing water demands through the construction of massive hydro-engineering projects such as the Three Gorges Dam and the South-North Water Diversion Project. In the future, China will increasingly need to solve its water deficit through ecological conservation, pollution management, more efficient water usage, and a redistribution of economic output by raising the price of water to reflect its scarcity and true economic value.


How China is Tackling its Water Challenge



China faces a severe water shortage. Its current water per capita is one quarter of the world average. This per capita water availability will decrease in the coming decades as China’s population peaks at between 1.4 and 1.5 billion people by 2030. China’s water usage per capita may be low by international standards, but it is expected to grow by between 40 and 50% by 2030. Factors such as higher living standards, increasing urbanization and further industrialization are driving water demand.

The water that China does have is often badly polluted. An estimated 70% of China’s rivers and lakes are currently contaminated and 300 million people drink water tainted with inorganic pollutants such as arsenic, excessive fluoride, untreated factory wastewater, agricultural chemicals, leaching landfill waste, and human sewage. China’s water is also inefficiently consumed, compounding its water challenges. 45% of water destined for agricultural use is lost before it even reaches crops. Only 40% of its industrially used water is recycled, compared with 75% to 85% in developed countries and water lost from urban plumbing leaks accounts for 18% of total urban water withdrawals.

Moreover, China’s water is unequally distributed throughout the country. The Yangtze River basin and areas to the south receive 80% of China’s naturally available water resources to support only 54% of its population, 35% of its arable land, and 55% of its GDP, while the north gets just 20% of China’s water. Deforestation, overgrazing and unsustainable agriculture have destroyed local ecology in many parts of China, affecting China’s overall rainfall, and exacerbating China’s age-old challenges of drought and flooding. To meet its growing water demands, especially in the north, China is depleting its underground aquifers, lakes and river systems at untenable rates. As water becomes scarcer, competition for water is increasing between agriculture and industry as well as among China’s growing cities and different regions of the country. This trend will only continue in the coming years; by 2009, surveys revealed that 58.3% of river water, 49.7% of lakes, 79.5% of reservoirs and 38.7% of wells were of quality necessary to be deemed adequate water sources. China remains particularly opaque and is reticent about releasing regular and up-to-date water statistics.

China has tried to solve its flooding, drought, and water scarcity problems through hydro-engineering projects such as the Three Gorges Dam and the South-North Water Diversion Project. Yet hydro-engineering alone will be unable to create sufficient water supplies to meet China’s future demand. China will need to improve the management of its water resources and the legislation governing its use. Perhaps most importantly, Beijing will need to increase the price of water to better reflect its scarcity value, allowing for the economic restructuring that this higher cost will cause. Repairing China’s ecology will also be essential. A healthy ecology will not only aid the prevention of desertification, with all the water loss that such environmental damage causes, but it will also help to maintain upstream eco-systems, which are essential for the long-term supply of good water sources. China will also need to upgrade the efficiency of its water delivery systems to agriculture and to its cities, and to improve the efficiency utilization rates in industry. Environmental protection will be essential in ensuring the water that China does have is potable. China must clarify its environmental protection laws, improve enforcement and increase fines. Without implementation of such measures, water scarcity risks limiting China’s future economic growth. Water scarcity could also challenge China’s political and social stability. Increasing illness caused by polluted water is driving up healthcare costs and generating more internal dissent. In 2005, the Chinese government acknowledged that 50,000 environmentally related “mass incidents” (a euphemism for protests) occurred, many of which were sparked by water degradation.

Interestingly, the Chinese Committee of Political and Legislative Affairs also acknowledged about the same amount of “mass incidents” (about 50,000) in 2013 as they did nearly a decade ago. The reality, however, is that environmental mass incidents have been steadily increasing: from 1996 to 2011, environmental protests increased at an average rate of 29% per year, spiking up nearly 120% in 2011 alone. The scale of the protests is also increasing, with around half of all “mass incidents” involving 10,000 or more people.

The South-North Water Diversion Project


Historically, China has sought to solve its water scarcity problems through reliance on large infrastructure projects. Indeed, many of China’s top leaders are trained engineers, including Hu Jintao, who is a trained hydraulic engineer. Mao Zedong is reputed to have said in 1952, “the south has a lot of water, the north little. If possible, it is okay to lend a little water”, apparently acting as the spur for building what is now called the the South-North Water Diversion Project. When completed in 2050, the $62 billion mega-aqueduct is projected to divert 44.8 billion m³ of water yearly from the Yangtze to the north. The project will follow three routes. The eastern route will transfer 14.8 billion cubic meters of water yearly from the lower Yangtze, via the ancient 1800 km Hangzhou to Beijing canal, to Jiangsu, Anhui, Shandong and Hebei provinces as well as to the city of Tianjin. It is now projected to be completed in 2013 or 2014. The central route, begun in December 2003, will divert 13 billion m³ of water from the Danjiangkou reservoir on the Han River (a Yangtze tributary) to Beijing, Tianjin and other cities. It is scheduled to be completed in 2014. The western route would transfer water from the upper reaches of the Yangtze tributaries across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau through the earthquake prone Kunlun Mountains via a network of tunnels into northwest China. Given its technical difficulty, the western route has not yet been given official approval and it is possible that it will be quietly shelved. It is expected that as many as 400,000 people might be displaced by the projects overall, though this would be fewer if the western route were scrapped.

Overall, the South-North Water Diversion Project faces many logistical challenges, the most important of which is ensuring that the water that does reach the north is sufficiently pollution-free to be usable. The eastern route, for instance, crosses 53 heavily polluted river sections. Clean-up efforts and water treatment facilities on this route alone will account for about 40% of the total aqueduct cost. If effectively implemented, it will be one of the most comprehensive water clean-up operations ever seen. 379 pollution control projects including wastewater treatment plants and wastewater recycling facilities are slated to be constructed, and major sources of industrial pollution such as paper mills are being shut down. Nevertheless, the clean-up process continues to be challenging.

Water Desalinization

China is also investing heavily in water desalinization in order to increase its water supplies. Research into water desalinization began in 1958 and more than 20 seawater desalination projects have been constructed which currently desalinate 600,000 m³ of water a day. China aims to produce as much as 3 million m³ of desalinated water daily by 2020, mainly for use in the north of the country. Desalination, however, is expensive and energy-intensive, and also requires water for its production. For these reasons, it cannot be considered to be a serious solution to China’s water shortages.

In 2012, the Chinese government outlined their policy goals for the next three years, ending at the conclusion of 2015. The government hopes to reach 2.2 to 2.6 million cubic meters or water per day, a far cry from the 660,000 cubic meters currently produced per day in China, but still possible given that plans exist to bring another 1.4 million cubic meters of water production online in large-scale desalination plants.

As of 2014, China had expanded its efforts in water desalinization with a total of 75 desalination plants, with nine more under construction. Though this technology may not be the most efficient at providing coastal cities with drinking water, these plants supply water that is used in coastal factories, sewage, and other wastewater management solutions, thereby allowing more drinking water from lakes, rivers, and reservoirs to be directed towards individual use. In the last decade alone, 60 desalination plants were built to run on seawater reverse-osmosis technology, producing 348,000 cubic meters of water per day, and an additional 11 plants were designed to utilize low temperature multi-effect distillation and produce a further 222,300 cubic meters per day.

Water Management

Ultimately, China will need to tackle its water scarcity issues not just by generating more supply, but by more efficiently managing and using its existing water resources. China’s water resource management system is highly fragmented. Multiple institutions have responsibility for China’s water resources, including data and information collection, hydro-infrastructure construction, environmental protection, and agricultural, urban and industrial development. There are frequent overlaps between these departments which raise administrative costs and exacerbate water’s “Tragedy of the Commons” problem. In other words, while China recognizes nationally the need for clean, well-managed water, it is in the interest of each user locally to consume water in whatever way will maximize their own short-term economic gain. This frequently gives China’s water management agencies conflicting priorities. Regional governments, for instance, often sacrifice water quality to protect local industries and jobs; they tend to focus on the water within their administrative areas, while failing to look at China’s water needs as a whole. Those considering water use in agriculture are often focused on accessing the water necessary to maintain agricultural yields. Those looking at the environmental protection of river basins try to limit the water drained from the river eco-systems. A failure to address the problem in a joined-up way persists.

This individualistic approach to the water supply in China, combined with local government corruption, has led to large-scale industrial dumping into lakes, rivers, and other aquifers. Often these waste products are, or are in large part, made up of heavy metals like cadmium or chromium that have been linked to increased risk of cancer. A recent scandal in 2011 involved the Lüliang Chemical Industry Company, which was found to be storing 288,400 tons of untreated chromium byproducts only a few feet from the Nanpan River, whose waters flow west and eventually join with those of the Pearl River. The company had been disposing of waste in this manner since 1989, and had gone as far as hiring divers to secretly dump metal into mountain reservoirs in order to reduce metal treatment and detoxification costs. Chromium levels in the river were 2,000 times China’s legally permissible standards. Effective progress in water management remains relatively slow due to ongoing and pervasive corruption that still sways local officials.

Water Legislation and Enforcement


Not only are water governing authorities fragmented, but laws governing the management of China’s water resources are still being developed. Historically, China’s water laws have been ambiguous and lacking in effective enforcement mechanisms. They have had a bias toward decentralization, with local government agencies often having a determinative voice in water issues within their region. This has resulted in widely varying levels of water-law enforcement, corruption and confusing standards for industries. Indeed, some water legislation reformers have been advocating greater centralized regulation. They point to the success of centralized management in helping to restore at least some perennial flow in the Yellow River delta. In the late 1990s, its downstream flow disappeared annually for over 200 days, because upstream provinces were drawing on the river too heavily. Beijing began limiting water allocations to each of the provinces, so downstream provinces had sufficient water. Today, the entire length of the Yellow River is monitored in real-time by data collection from dozens of monitoring stations along the length of the river. The system is designed to check and manage pollution, drought and flood control, while enforcing fair distribution of scarce water resources among the nine provinces that share the waterway. Engineers can regulate the river’s flow by opening or closing a network of automated sluice gates and monitoring devices. This system is currently undergoing an upgrade which will make it the most advanced water rationing system in the world by the time of completion which is expected to be around 2015.

Indeed, recent water legislation stresses a greater move toward a unified management of water resources. This legislation emphasizes the importance of a balance between water resources, the still-growing population, economic development and the environment. It also focuses on improved efficiency in water use and it strives to set a foundation for greater transparency, equity and efficiency in the access of and payment for water by all levels of the economic spectrum. It advocates that allocation, distribution and regulation of water resources should be increasingly made through water-drawing permit systems where users are allocated and charged for water according to sector quotas, taking into account annual water-availability conditions and the sustainability of river basins, lakes and groundwater. The legislation also attempts to make clear distinctions as to who is responsible for the quality of water in each of China’s regions and to ensure that each of those responsible works to minimize pollution and improve overall water quality. To achieve improved water quality, recent legislation also specifies the need for setting up data and information systems at all levels, and to make data gathered available to stakeholders. Indeed, in 2007, Beijing’s Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs launched its online water database, allowing public access to water quality and pollution data, including corporate regulatory breaches. Yet, this move toward better information access has been tempered by Beijing’s conflicting and simultaneous instinct to prevent the independent gathering of information on China’s water, especially regarding its trans-boundary rivers, ostensibly to safeguard China’s national security.

The 2008 Law of the People’s Republic of China on Prevention and Control of Water Pollution ties the performance evaluation of public officials, at least in part, to their meeting of water and environmental targets. It also increased monetary sanctions against enterprises discharging wastewater illegally and specified the amount of chemical oxygen depletion caused by agricultural run-off allowed in waterways. In a significant legal development, it also allowed, for the first time, class action suits to be brought against polluters.

Several decisions made at the Third Plenum also show a greater commitment in dealing with corruption in local and village governments. Officials in environmentally damaged areas will no longer be expected to meet the same GDP targets as those in other provinces, and local government actions will be monitored in an attempt to reduce the prevalence of companies bribing towns to look the other way as they pollute rivers and water sources that ultimately make their way into China’s largest rivers.

Water Pricing, Water Rights and Efficiency

Ultimately, the most important step in solving China’s water scarcity will be raising the price of water. Water is highly subsidized by the central government, often making it effectively almost free for users, creating no incentive to save water. In 2009, the average price of water per cubic meter was $3.01 in Germany, $2.37 in the UK, $1.02 in South Africa and Canada, $0.74 in the US and $0.31 in China. Of 19 major economies, only India had cheaper water tariffs. Five years later, the price of water per cubic meter rose to $3.18 in Germany, $2.41 in the UK, $2.05 in Canada, $1.46 in the US, and $0.38 in China. Prices do not seem to be ending their upward trend anytime soon.

Higher water prices are likely to generate a significant restructuring in China’s economy. Higher water prices will encourage farmers to plant crops that are less water-intensive and will encourage more efficient irrigation. Indeed, growing urban and industrial water demands may eventually lead to the elimination of winter wheat in northern China as the higher cost of water forces the shift to higher-valued uses that produce more jobs and income per water unit. Currently, 1000 tons of water produce 1 ton of wheat worth $200, whereas industry yields $14,000 of economic output for the same amount of water. Reducing China’s grain production would reflect a significant shift in the decades-old policy of 95% self-reliant grain production, and would have a real impact on global grain markets. It would also spur urbanization as farmers migrate to cities in search of new employment.

Higher water prices would also encourage factories to recycle more of their water. In the special case of the North China Plain, it is likely to check the overexpansion of some high water consuming industries. Currently the region produces 20% of China’s steel, 10% of its power, and 14% of its paper, all industries which use water heavily and cause severe pollution. This would also make the cost of water treatment more feasible as it would become more economical to process and recycle water than to dump it untreated into the rivers. Higher water costs would also make living in water-scarce cities more expensive, potentially discouraging immigration into these areas. It would foster improved efficiency of its water delivery systems to agriculture and to cities.

Such a move may also check pressure on Beijing to tap new coal supplies, particularly the enormous coal reserves in the dry north. Without further water transfer schemes, such as the controversial – and possibly unachievable – western route of the South-North Water Diversion Project, there will not be enough water to mine the northern coal reserves and still develop the modern cities and manufacturing centers that China envisages for the region. The fresh water needed for mining, processing, and consuming coal accounts for the largest share of China’s industrial water use, over a fifth of all the water consumed nationally.

Higher water prices will also help control the scale of the South-North Diversion Scheme, serving to minimize the impact on the Yangtze River. Having the cost of the scheme added into the price of water for end-users will encourage them to use the water more sparingly. Ma Jun has estimated that the cost of cleaning up the northern Huai River system and of running its industry sustainably was greater than the total annual value in production that the industry within the Huai River system generated. Economic progress has brought more people to the river valleys, so that the area now supports 1.5 times the national average. After 1949, mainly for flood control, 5100 large and small-scale reservoirs were constructed along the upper reaches of the Huai waterway and more than 10 major flood control retention reservoirs were built. Without the huge hydro-engineering in the Huai River Basin, the area would not have been able to sustain so many people. Rapid development, however, made previous hydro-engineering projects inadequate. Beijing responded by building new hydro-projects to expand water supplies further. In what has become a vicious cycle, Beijing now faces the need to divert water from the southern Yangtze to support the people and the economy in the area. Ultimately, China’s desire for development is infinite, but its water resources are finite. Unless water pricing reflects its true scarcity value sooner rather than later, China’s lack of water will put the brakes on its rapid economic development.

Enforceable water rights will also be important to reducing China’s overall water wastage. Currently, even with the recent legislation, it is still not clear who holds many water rights and what benefits these rights provide. Ideally, China needs to establish a nationwide water rights program, leaving enough clean water so its eco-systems and aquifers are sustainable. Permits should be issued to each water user, with pricing at a level which encourages increased water productivity. Creating a market to sell or lease these water rights will advance water productivity further. Those who do more to protect the river and other water basins should have greater rights. This includes those provinces and regions near the waters’ sources. The provinces could then profit by selling rights, instead of wasting water on parched land and inefficient industrial projects. Appropriate incentives for water saving technologies and behaviors also need to be developed. For instance, a tariff system could be implemented in which people pay higher bills when they consume more than a set quota.

Authorities have been slow to raise water prices because of their fears about how the higher costs will affect China’s poor. Recent research has shown, however, that lower income Chinese often get little benefit from subsidies as, ultimately, low water costs mean that they frequently receive water that is highly polluted. Nevertheless, the government remains concerned with inflation, always a hot issue in China, and this adds to the pressure to maintain low water prices despite the arguments in favor of raising them; it is unlikely that the poorest in society would welcome a price increase even if it were in their own long-term benefit in terms of improving the quality of their water supply.



Despite China’s efforts over the last three decades, water pollution has spread from the coastal to inland areas and from the surface to underground water resources. Essential to controlling China’s water pollution is the strengthening of law enforcement to improve compliance by industries and other polluters. Overall compliance with China’s environmental laws remains low. Yet, strengthening environmental protection is a multi-faceted process which not only requires raising water prices and establishing clearer water rights, but also necessitates the continued development of water protection legislation, the further advancement of China’s judicial system, greater financing and staffing of China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), and making public a more rigorous collection and analysis of water data. Economic incentives such as pollution levies and fines have to be rigorously enforced. Overall, pollution fines should be increased. Lawsuits should be initiated against polluters and those most hurt by damaged public goods such as river basin ecosystems should have greater rights to demand compensation. State subsidies could be given to small towns and villages to help them to construct adequate water treatment facilities. Those waste-water treatment facilities that are constructed need to be continually monitored to ensure they remain operational and in compliance. China’s Tenth Five-Year Plan (2001–2005) mandated, for instance, the construction of thousands of new waste water treatment plants, yet a 2006 survey by SEPA (the State Environmental Protection Agency, the forerunner of the MEP) revealed that half of the new plants actually built were either not operating or were operating improperly. Corruption will also need to be tackled. Lax environmental codes are often rarely enforced and easily avoided by bribing officials. Tackling corruption will likely be done most effectively by linking compensation and performance figures to environmental protection as well as economic achievement. This would make it in the personal interests of officials to perform in the environmental arena, mitigating the “Tragedy of the Commons” conundrum, though this would also represent a significant shift in government behavior.

Future Trends

China’s water challenges are becoming too big for Beijing to ignore. China’s Twelfth Five Year Plan (2011-2015) projects record levels of water use, rising to 620 billion m³ by 2015, up from 599 billion m³ in 2010. Its traditional response to growing water demand – building large hydro-engineering projects in order to increase supply – will no longer be sufficient to meet the water demands of China’s agriculture, industry and cities in the coming decades. As a result, China will begin to implement new policies in order to better manage its water resources and to reach its 2015 goals of cutting water consumption per unit of value added industrial output by 30%, reducing arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium and mercury levels by 15% from 2007 discharges, reducing ammonia nitrate fertilizer runoff by 10% and its corresponding chemical oxygen depletion by 8%. The plan also targets the construction of water conservation structures, improved irrigation, and commits to investing in the clean-up of rivers and lakes through the construction of wastewater treatment and recycling pipes.

At the heart of these new policies will be the gradual raising of the price of water throughout China. This trend is already in evidence in many cities across the country. Shanghai, for instance, increased residential water prices 25% in 2009, and another 22% in 2010. Beijing raised the price of commercially used water by 50% in 2010 and expects to raise its water charges to residential users by 24% in stages by 2013. China’s water users have not accepted the rises without discontent and some government officials fear that higher water prices could lead to social unrest, particularly as China is concurrently struggling with inflation. This unrest is due both to poor public education about the extent of China’s water challenges and to public skepticism that higher costs will translate into more effective water management.

Fixing the quality of China’s water will also be a growing priority for Beijing in the future. China needs to improve its water pollution record both by government investment and by encouraging private investment in the water treatment and management sectors. In 2011, for instance, China allocated $606 billion to clean up water and water infrastructure over the next decade. Larger, wealthier cities had already started investing in the water treatment sector, but without government support, smaller cities and rural areas have lacked the means and incentives to make much-needed investments.

Beijing is also explicitly encouraging foreign participation in China’s water markets. Foreign firms invested about $1.7 billion in China’s water sector between 2004 and 2009, with over $500 million being spent in 2009 alone. The investments were in waste-water treatment, municipal and industrial water supply sectors, and in direct investments in China’s water companies. This involvement will continue to expand in the near future.

China will also begin to move more aggressively against significant water polluters. In 2007, maximum fines to individuals or companies who discharge highly toxic pollutants into drinking water resources were raised fivefold to 500,000 RMB (approximately $80,000). Fines for companies who dump industrial residue urban waste into drinking water resources or who store solid waste or other pollutants below the water lines along rivers and reservoirs increased 20-fold to 200,000 RMB (around $32,000). While these are significant increases the fines remain relatively low and there is room for an expansion in this area. Increasingly, enterprises will also be responsible for bearing all costs to contain water pollution accidents and may face fines as high as 30% of the direct economic loss, according to the severity of the incident. Historically, pollution levies have been so low that it has been cheaper to pay penalties rather than to treat discharge. There is a growing realization that this cannot continue.

Litigation against water polluters will also increase, with rulings to progressively penalize those fouling China’s water systems. In 2009, for instance, an Asian Development Bank study determined the number of environmental lawsuits filed in China has increased an average of 25% annually since 1988. Since 2009, the Supreme People’s Court has been encouraging China’s maritime courts to adjudicate water pollution cases brought on behalf of a public interests. Additionally, three specialized environmental courts have been established in the provinces of Guizhou, Jiangsu and Yunnan.

China’s water challenges are daunting and urgent. The array of measures that are needed to more effectively manage its resources is huge. Still, China’s leadership is well aware of the importance of water to continued economic growth and to the health and well-being of its people. Poor water management has toppled many a Chinese government throughout the millennia, a risk to which the CCP is not immune. While progress toward solving China’s water challenges is likely to be uneven, overall it is expected that China’s water management will improve on most fronts over the next five to ten years.