Internal and geopolitical strife are in the cards as China rapidly runs out of water, says a global policy expert.
“Of all Beijing’s problems—demographic decline, a stifling political climate, the stalling or reversal of economic reforms—dwindling natural resources may be the most urgent,” writes Hal Brands, a global policy professor at Johns Hopkins University, in a recent op-ed for Bloomberg.
“Nature and geopolitics can interact in nasty ways,” he adds, citing both historical and current precedents. And China’s growing thirst for water could prove particularly unpleasant, especially for its neighbours.
Laying out an increasingly dire situation, Brands says China has 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its fresh water. “Entire regions, especially in the north, suffer from water scarcity worse than that found in a parched Middle East.”
And too much of the water that remains is shockingly polluted. “By some estimates, 80 to 90% of China’s groundwater and half of its river water is too dirty to drink,” he writes. “More than half of its groundwater and one-quarter of its river water cannot even be used for industry or farming.”
With water scarcity leading to “well over US$100 billion” in annual losses, “this is an expensive problem” that rationing, as well as expensive efforts to transport water, have done little to mitigate.
Running out of water will pose a significant threat to China’s domestic stability, writes Brands. Citing recent announcements that the major cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen “will face severe drought well into next year,” even though they are located on the “relatively water-rich Pearl River Delta,” Brands writes that “China’s social compact will be tested as dwindling resources intensify distributional fights.”
He adds that Beijing’s thirst will bode increasing ill for those beyond its border, to the extent that it tries to “solve its resource challenges by coercing and impoverishing its neighbours.”
Brands cites China’s decision to build mammoth dams on the Mekong River, projects that have “triggered recurring droughts and devastating floods in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Laos that depend on that waterway.”
Intent on securing its own water supply, China now plans “to dam key waters before they reach India, leaving that country (and Bangladesh) the losers.”