JACK MORGANJONES analyzes a ticking time bomb in China: water scarcity.

The consensus among foreign policy experts is that the threat of water wars should not be overstated.  Historically, there have been remarkably few examples of violent conflicts over water. In the 20th century, those which did occur were mostly between Israel and its immediate neighbors, suggesting that the root causes cannot simply be attributed to water. Moreover, a study from 2003 found 157 examples of international water treaties, suggesting that water scarcity actually fosters multilateral solutions rather than lead to conflict. But however unlikely the water wars of an apocalyptic future seem, such things cannot be so easily dismissed when it comes to China. In China, a dry and violent future is a serious possibility.

China is a country where 70% of the surface water is unsuitable to drink. The situation is so dire that in the countryside there is an ongoing phenomenon of “Cancer Villages” – villages which cluster around polluted rivers and where the risk of gastric cancer can be up to nine times that of the normal rate. But China’s water problems far exceed the simple drinkability of water. They are increasingly diverse, increasingly complex, and seem to be increasingly insoluble.

In the north, high speed winds drive the sands of the Gobi Desert into China. Beijing is blasted by the advancing desert sands, which can cause air traffic to stop and even obscure skyscrapers from view. Further north, in the province of Inner Mongolia, average rainfall has decreased by 10% since the turn of the century, and the northern deserts are now spreading at an astonishing rate of over 1,000 square miles annually. American geologist Frederick G. Clapp once said while walking the Great Wall in 1920, “one foe alone has not been stopped by the Great Wall. This was the sand of the Desert of Gobi.” Almost one-hundred years later, China still faces the same foe.

In the west, the drying up of glacial-fed watersheds has caused the gap between the Taklamakan and the Kumtag desert to grow smaller and smaller each year. But in Xinjiang province, water allocation is an even greater source of conflict than water scarcity. There are regular disputes over the quota system which provides access to the Tarim basin. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that local authorities cannot enforce water allocation quotas between upstream and downstream water users because the Chinese military oversee cotton growing in the region and have considerable political influence there.

In the east, water quality is a major issue. Massive demonstrations occurred in Zhejiang province back in 2003, which successfully pressured the municipal government into constructing wetlands, water treatment plants, and a bio-gas system. However, this action was only a minuscule step forward. Academic studies from 2018 show that water quality remains a major problem: The Grand Canal, an important source of drinking water for Hangzhou, contains organic pollutants which present health risks to both drinking and bathing. Hidden threats to public health in the future also exist. For example, a study into E. coli revealed that in the Qiantang River and Dongtiao Stream, the two main rivers providing water to the Zhejiang provincial capital of Hangzhou, 49.50% of E. coli were resistant to at least one of the tested antibiotics, and a worrying 24% exhibited multiple resistances.

In the south, water is especially concerning when one looks at regional problems in a nationwide context. Cities such as Guangzhou have experienced what geoscientists call “rocky desertification”, referring to large-scale human activity which transforms vegetation and soil into rock and concrete. As moss and algae can absorb 3 to 15 times more water than carbonate rocks to support vegetation growth, it is alarming that large areas lack moss and algae growth, exacerbating the desertification problem. This problem has been long in the making– ever since the Great Leap Forward when trees were stripped to make charcoal for iron production–but it also foreshadows a latent threat when one considers the government’s South-North Water Transfer Project which intends to rely on the captured waters of the south to support the drying-up north.

Frederick G. Clapp proposed a solution to the advance of the Gobi Desert in 1912, “A new Great Wall should be constructed, not of brick or stone or guarded by soldiers, but a forest barrier guarded by expert foresters.” Interestingly, this is now being done. In 2007, the Chinese government approved the Million Tree Project, which has now planted over 1 million trees in forest areas covering over 2000 thousand acres. The project will surely do environmental good in a general sense, but China’s desertification problem is far too complex to be solved by such a generic solution. Indeed, the project coordinator for Inner Mongolia, Wang Kai, admitted that planting trees could in fact be depleting groundwater, which would mean that the project is inadvertently worsening desertification.

The water problems China faces cannot be solved by simply throwing money around. The South-North Water Transfer Project is a project worth $81 billion and yet it has only marginal payoffs – it is estimated by Professor Dabo Guan that it will only supply Beijing with 5% of city’s overall water needs by 2020. In the past, water problems have been solved most successfully when they have been tackled internationally – the Indus Waters Treaty even managed to bring Pakistan and India together and the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, although not ratified by many, nevertheless is used by many nation-states to collaborate. But China’s problems are internal, and so cooperation will have to come from within… but from where and by whom…?

As an authoritarian one-party state, the government owns all of the water resources in the country and manages them with the help of the military. The Ministry of Water Resources implements water resource allocation as they see fit; other voices for change are rarely engaged with seriously, so there are no alternative ideas being heard, leading to unproductive initiatives and stalling progress on China’s dire water issues. As China is not exempt from history, its best hope to solving its water problems involve a critical mass of multilateral thinking. Given that the water crises in China is not a dispute with an adversarial state, this multilateral thinking would, therefore, need to come through non-state actors, such as activists, journalists, and academics.

Although the municipal government did respond to the aforementioned 2003 water quality crisis in Hangzhou, the conversation was not allowed to continue. Environmental activist Tan Kai, who argued for further reform, was put in prison in 2005 by a Hangzhou court for “illegal access to state secrets.” Journalists have slightly more leeway than activists. In July earlier this year, the publication Sixth Tone ran a feature revealing how the average daily water flow from wells in Si County, Anhui province has decreased from 80,000 liters per well in 2005 to 10,000 liters per well in 2018. The difference is only slight, however, as the ability of Chinese journalists to combine such a story with challenging opinions, and from this create meaningful public discussion, is markedly limited. The record of press freedom in China, ranked by Reporters without Borders as the 176th country in the world, is well documented. Given the risks of arbitrary imprisonment, journalists cannot play a constructive oppositional role to the state. As Hu Shuli, the founder of the relatively confrontational paper Caixin, said: “We go up to the line — and we might even push it. But we never cross it.” Even Chinese academics, who are perhaps the group which has the most freedom to speak their mind due to a lack of public outreach, still talk about their subjects on tenterhooks and avoid pejorative language. Their papers offset findings with provisos which preemptively clarify that water is, of course, a global issue which effects multiple countries besides China. The water problem is a bigger problem than China, but not just because it’s a global issue. It is bigger than China because the Chinese water problem does not seem solvable by the Chinese government alone. Further, if the government continues to not engage with and involve other actors in confronting the problem, this may lead to fatal errors.

The evidence suggests that the CCP does not have the wherewithal to manage this water crisis on their own. So far, their response has been large scale and old school. While China’s water problems are such that they certainly do require large scale solutions, for these solutions to work they need to be consistently applied and sustainable. The CCP’s record does not lend itself to either of these qualities. Wang Canfa, an environmental lawyer, has estimated that only 10% of environmental laws and regulations are enforced properly. But even if the CCP were to become reliable, this would not mean much if their blueprint for managing the water crisis was flawed from the outset. Specifically, the government still has a tendency to fund old school solutions. A report from the Nature Conservancy recommended conservation strategies in China that use natural solutions to target small to medium sized catchment areas. Such a data-specific plan seems in stark contrast to the South-North Water Transition project, the premise of which is to move rivers – an idea that originated back to Chairman Mao Zedong in 1952.

In 2013, the Harvard International Review ran a feature arguing that the old Malthusian tropes of resource scarcity were being recycled – only this time they were being used to imply the strong likelihood of water wars. Like before, the piece went on to argue, economics and technology would ultimately undo this Malthusian fate. “No Water Wars, Water Deals”  as one subheading read, before pointing to various good examples of how water conflict had acted as an emollient between peoples and progress had been made. The one example not mentioned was that of China.

Water wars are traditionally thought of as occurring between nation-states. This might be too legalistic a definition. Historically, internal conflicts can be just as bloody – China’s Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century is reported as having the highest death toll in world history. Whether the CCP fails or succeeds, its short-term balancing act approach to China’s water crisis clearly has the potential to stoke regional animosities. It’s been a whole two decades since the Three Gorges Dam project forcibly relocated 1.2 million people, and the lack of compensation still provokes hundreds of petitions from the victims. Yet the Chinese government is intransigent and repeats the same mistakes – ploughing on with their plans to increase the production of coal in Inner Mongolia despite the highly water-consuming venture being in an area much in need of water for irrigation. And Xinjiang, a repressed province where Muslim Uighurs have launched armed insurgencies and where the government is suspected of interning up to 1 million people in counter-extremism camps, is a province beset by water troubles. Today’s simmering could well be the beginning of tomorrow’s explosion.

Jack Morganjones can be contacted at jackmorganjonesjack@gmail.com.