By Felix Imonti
With twenty percent of the world’s population, China has only seven percent of the fresh water. Yet the country controls crucial fresh water sources needed by three billion people in Asia. And it will not share it.
As Chinese troops swept into Korea in 1950, Mao Zedong was seizing control of Xinjiang and Tibet, regions that encompass the headwaters of six rivers flowing from the mountains of Tibet, and are collectively depended on by nearly fifty percent of the world’s population.
Two of the rivers, the Yangtze and the Yellow, are critical to China, with 580 million Chinese dependent upon the Yangtze alone. The Yellow River has in the past 70 years lost nearly 90% of its flow, a rate of decline that is symptomatic a brewing national crisis.
Over the past quarter century, rapid industrialization and urbanization in the People’s Republic of China has resulted in 28,000 bodies of surface water disappearing. Around 70% of these water resources have been directed to agriculture, and 15% to resource extraction and industrial processes. If new sources cannot be found, resource industries, such as rare earth processing that uses a great deal of water and manufacturing, will suffer.
Mao Zedong was well aware in 1952 of his country’s water distribution issues, with 80% of the PRC’s water resources in the south and two thirds of its agricultural production in the north. To redistribute the water, he advocated what has now become a $70 billion canal system. The South-to-North Water Diversion project is transferring water through a 1,200 kilometer canal system to the Beijing region; but additional water is simply serving as a stopgap until other sources can be secured. Late in the game, the Chinese government has come to realize that they have been squandering scarce resources by allowing extensive pollution from agricultural run-off and industrial waste. Half of the population does not have access to safe water, with 90% of cities depending on polluted underground water. Fifty cities, including Beijing, are experiencing land subsidence due to the exhaustion of these underground water sources.
Former premier Wen Jiabao, said that “the very survival of the Chinese nation is threatened by lack of a water supply.” Already, China is seeking a solution by tapping the flow of four major rivers that supply nine bordering countries: the Mekong, the Brahmaputra, the Indus, and the Ganges. Eleven dams have been constructed on the Mekong. Seventy million people in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam rely upon the river. China controls the headwaters and shows little interest in its policy impacts downstream. By the time the river reaches Vietnam, it is scarcely more than a trickle.
Next on the agenda is the Brahmaputra. In August, Jiacha Dam, the second hydroelectric facility, was completed. Future dams are expected to begin directing water through alternate channels to replenish the Yellow River.