Recently, China’s property woes and food crisis have become hot topics in the media, but another devastating crisis is silently approaching, which could place an endpoint to China’s story… 

Water is China’s Achilles Heel

In early December 2021, the Chinese government announced that Guangzhou and Shenzhen, both located in the relatively water-rich Pearl River Delta, will face severe drought this year (2022).

About 3 weeks later, Bloomberg published a report, emphasizing that thousands of rivers in China have disappeared, while industrialization and pollution have spoiled much of the remaining water. 80% to 90% of China’s groundwater and half of its river water is too dirty to drink; more than half of its groundwater and one-quarter of its river water is unusable even for industry or farming, according to some estimates. 

China’s water resources are running out!

This is not only the warning of Western media, as an article in early 2021 on The Hill put it: “China is drastically short of the water it needs to maintain its economy.” It is indeed what Chinese authority is well aware and struggling to cope with. 

In 2005, Premier Wen Jiabao claimed that water scarcity threatened the “very survival of the Chinese nation.” A minister of water resources announced that China must “fight for every drop of water or die.”

Water is an indispensable input for all economic activity. Beyond agriculture, water is crucial for power generation, mining, industry and the consumer products needed for everyday life. The fabrication of a typical smartphone requires approximately 3000 gallons of water, for example. 

Reuters reported that in early 2008, the State Council of China issued a directive warning that China’s water resources would be basically exhausted by 2030. “Taking into full account water-saving, by 2030 our country’s water use will reach or approach the total volume of exploitable water resources, and the drought-fighting situation will be increasingly serious,” states the directive.

China was once almost self-sufficient in land, water and many raw materials, and cheap labor also allowed this populated country to exploit these resources as much as possible, becoming the world’s factory. However, China’s rich natural resources are a thing of the past, according to Bloomberg.

An upcoming book, “The Danger Zone,” warns that China has run out of resources. A decade ago, China became the world’s largest importer of agricultural products. Its arable land area has been dwindled due to land degradation and overuse. Rapid growth has also made China the world’s largest energy importer: when the United States was a net energy exporter, China bought three-quarters of its oil from abroad.

China’s water resource situation is particularly dire. China represents 20% of the world’s population, but only 7% of its fresh water. The global per capita water resource is 12,900 cubic meters. China’s per capita water resources are only 2,300 cubic meters, which is less than a quarter of the world’s, one-fifth of the United States, one-seventh of Russia, and Canada. China is listed as one of the 13 water-poor countries by the United Nations. Entire regions suffer from more severe water shortages than the arid Middle East.

The unequal water geographical distribution makes the problem even worse. 80% of China’s water supply comes from the region south of the Yangtze River, but only half of the country’s population resides there. The North China Plain accounts for more than 40% of the country’s population, but has less than 15% of the country’s water resources. And the limited water resources are seriously contaminated. 

According to a water quality report by Greenpeace East Asia, based on 145 datasets from provincial authorities, water pollution levels in China’s major cities are extremely high. In Beijing, about 40% of water was so polluted that it has essentially no functional use. Shanghai fares worse, with 85% of the water undrinkable, and over 56% unfit for any purpose. In Tianjin, northern China’s principal port city and home to 15 million people, a mere 5% of water can be used as a drinking water source. 

A recent study by researchers from Tsinghua University showed that levels of per and polyfluoroalkyls (PFAS) in the drinking water of over 20% of studied cities exceeded contamination limits used in the US. PFAS are man-made chemicals used in everything from fabrics to pesticides, which are found linked to multiple health problems including kidney and liver cancer. The researchers estimated that nearly 100 million Chinese people are supplied drinking water with ‘unsafe’ levels of toxic chemicals.

Although the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources has made public statements indicating its belief that China’s deep aquifers are safe drinking water sources, separated from surface pollution effects due to natural geological barriers (called ‘aquitards’ by hydrogeologists), various studies have questioned this assumption. A geochemical survey by scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences on tap water from various sites around Beijing, which is pumped from deep groundwater wells around the city, found that a significant number of samples contained nitrate and other pollutants. This finding is consistent with that of Matthew Currell from RMIT University, Australia, that contamination is reaching deep aquifers through short-cut pathways.

Mechanism by which faulty wells can allow shallow contaminants to bypass into deep aquifers, compromising water supply safety. China has millions of unregistered wells that may act in this way, and depends on deep aquifers for much of its drinking water. (Source: Matthew Currell)

Severe water pollution has aggravated the water scarcity issue. The Chinese government has ended up with a mega project to divert water from relatively humid regions to the drought-plagued north, and doing so has been quite costly. Experts estimate that China loses more than $100 billion a year due to water scarcity. Moreover, China’s South–North Water Transfer Project has caused considerable environmental and social impacts, which can be seen through people like Zhao Keqian, who was obliged to abandon his home due to the diversion scheme. Zhao represents the adversity of southern province residents while telling The Economist that “The government doesn’t care about us.” 

To make water scarcity even worse, China’s energy generation continues to depend on coal. Reuters reported on December 28 that in order to ensure energy security, China’s State Grid Corporation said the country is likely to construct 150 gigawatts of new coal-fired power capacity over the 2021-2025 period.

Unfortunately, coal-fired power generation is water-intensive, and large amounts of water are consumed throughout the process from coal mining and processing to cooling power plants. According to the Ministry of Water Resources of China, China’s coal-fired power generation consumed 114 trillion litres of water in 2010, accounting for 20% of China’s total water consumption, and this proportion is expected to reach 40% in the next 10 years. 

The economic and political consequences of water shortage are distressing. According to Bloomberg, by making growth more costly, China’s resource problems have added to a bunch of other challenges—demographic decline, an increasingly airless political climate, the suspension or cancellation of many key economic reforms—to create a downturn that was having evident effects even before being hit by Covid. “China’s social compact will be tested as dwindling resources intensify distributional fights”, Bloomberg added.

Jim Rogers, an internationally renowned investor and professor of finance, who founded the Quantum Fund with George Soros and created the Rogers International Commodity Index (RICI), had been to China in 1984. In an interview with BBC’s HardTalk in 2011, when asked about the biggest crisis in China’s economy, Rogers’ answer was “water”. 

“I don’t mind if China has civil war, epidemics, panics, depressions, all of that. You can recover from that. The only thing you cannot recover from is water,” says Rogers. “If China doesn’t solve its water problems, then there’s no China story.” 

Water is also China’s Greatest Weapon

Water is not only China’s Achilles heel but also its greatest weapon, using the terminology of Jack Silvers on Harvard Political Review. China might have an advantageous position: It lies on the source of 10 major rivers, which aggregately flow through 11 countries and provide water to 1.6 billion people. Tibet and the Tibetan Plateau, referred to as the world’s “Third Pole” because its glaciers give birth to a majority of Asia’s rivers, are also under China’s control. Consequently, China’s upstream actions such as its dam-building have numerous impacts on downstream countries. Dechen Palmo, a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute, was rational while writing in The Diplomat that “the future of Asia’s water lies in China’s hands.” 

The Mekong originates high up in the Tibetan plateau and ends at the South China Sea, filling the huge Tonle Sap lake on the way. The Tonle Sap works “like a heartbeat that pushes the blood of the Mekong through the system,” said Brian Eyler, a Mekong expert at the Stimson Center in an interview with the Harvard Political Review. Swelling to five times its normal area during the wet season then contracting during the dry season, together with the Mekong river, the lake supports the food supply of Cambodia and Vietnam, the fishing industry of Thailand, and the hydropower trade of Laos. A steady and predictable upstream flow is a must for these essential economic activities, but in recent years the former has no longer been assured. 

In the past decade, China’s government has pushed dam development, with the Mekong, or Lancang in China, being the site of dam construction in China’s Yunnan province since the 1990s. The retaining wall of Xiaowan dam, which was finished in 2011, has a comparable height to the Eiffel Tower. Alongside the equivalently massive Nuozhadu, the two dams could submerge the entire London beneath 24 meters of water. They are just two among 11 Chinese dams on the upper Mekong, regarded as a formula for disaster. New research suggests that Chinese hydropower plays a critical role in the appearance of drought. 

Harvard Political Review also highlighted that upstream dam construction leads to reduced flows of water downstream. The devastating 2019 drought in Lower Mekong countries gives a strong warning of how droughts can be exacerbated by Chinese dams. Fish catches along the Tonle Sap in Cambodia dropped 80% compared to the previous years. This loss accounts more than an economic blow: Cambodians use fish to make prahok, a staple protein in Cambodian diet. In other regions, such as Vietnamese cities along the Mekong Delta, the repressing of water in Chinese reservoirs means the entire loss of freshwater access. In Eyler’s words, “The entire heartbeat process of the river is just weakened and undermined by what man is doing to the river system by building dams.” 

Similar to what China’s dam building has done harm to Mekong-dependent Southeast Asian countries, the diversion of rivers in Xinjiang has had a disastrous impact on the lower reaches of Central Asia.

Likewise, the Chinese government’s plans to build dams in critical waters along the China-India border, costing India and Bangladesh, has fueled tensions in the Himalayas. As Indian strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney puts it, “China’s territorial aggrandizement in the South China Sea and the Himalayas … has been accompanied by stealthier efforts to appropriate water resources in transnational river basins.”

In short, Bloomberg said some observers worry that if Chinese authorities are disturbed by its domestic environment, they could launch attacks on international rivals, and water issues are still fueling geopolitical conflicts.

Chinese regime’s attempts to out-engineer nature: A historical perspective 

According to Harvard Political Review, a radical change in Chinese actions towards the Mekong or other shared rivers is something unrealistic given the country’s modern history. 

“The trauma of past flooding informs China’s attempts to out-engineer nature, while its longtime struggle with water scarcity leads its leader to view water as a sovereign resource rather than a shared one. Perhaps, Xi’s leadership cadre will choose to engage with international dialogue on water issues — a prospect that many countries, including the U.S., would be wise to welcome. Until then, it’s up to Xi to either embrace Emperor Yu’s legacy of cooperation or continue to independently struggle against a tidal wave of challenges.”

The legend of Emperor Yu’s taming the water is one among many stories in China’s traditional culture, which places nature at a holy position. Laozi, a famous Chinese philosopher, has said: “Man follows the earth, the earth follows heaven, heaven follows the Tao, and the Tao follows what is natural.” Ancient Chinese  believed in the compliance of man with heaven, and the harmony, co-existence and mutual dependence of humankind, heaven and earth. 

By contrast, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promotes a philosophy of struggle in defiance of heaven, the earth, and nature, which places humans above and against nature. Mao Zedong said, “Battling with heaven is endless joy, fighting with the earth is endless joy, and struggling with humanity is endless joy.” 

According to Engels, a father of communism, freedom is the recognition of inevitability. Mao added, “And the reformation of the world.” These shed light on the CCP’s view of nature, i.e., as something to be changed. As pointed out in “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party“, in the communist ideology, the “inevitability” is a matter outside their vision spectrum and its origin remains non-understandable to them. They believe that by mobilizing subjective human consciousness to understand objective laws, nature and humanity can be conquered. This arrogance can be seen through the folk songs during the Great Leap Forward:

“Let the mountains bow and let the rivers step aside.” 

“There’s no Jade Emperor in the heaven, and there’s no Dragon King on the earth. I am the Jade Emperor, and I am the Dragon King. I order the three mountains and five gorges to step aside — here I come!” 

Led by this struggle philosophy, the CCP throughout its history has exercised countless policies which destroy the balance in nature and the originally harmonious world. This is what can be partly seen through the water crisis in China and the way the Chinese regime fights for it. 

As revealed by “Nine commentaries on the communist party“:

“There have been a multitude of large-scale reservoirs built in the city of Zhumadian in Henan Province. In 1975, the dams of these reservoirs collapsed one after another. Within only two hours, sixty thousand people drowned. The total death toll reached as high as two hundred thousand. The CCP continues its wanton acts of destruction of the land of China. Projects like the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River and the South-to-North Water Transfer Project are all attempts by the CCP to change the natural ecosystem with investments amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars, not to mention those small and medium-size projects to “fight with the earth.” It was once even suggested within the CCP that an atomic bomb be used to blast open a passage on the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau to change the natural environment in western China”. 

Both dreadful underlying ideology, degrading morality and poor planning and management contribute to the pollution and exhaustion of water resources in China. Arthur Barbeau, Professor Emeritus of History and Anthropology at West Liberty State University in West Virginia, who has made fifteen trips to China and taught there for more than two years, has recalled his unforgettable memory about the way factories polluted water, and water poisoned everyone in China.

“I saw something similar in both Sichuan and Gansu. A number of villagers never used river water for drinking. Even when their crops were planted next to a river, they didn’t use that water for irrigation. An item in China Daily and on television made mention that almost half of tested rice samples in Guangzhou had toxic pollution levels that made them unacceptable. All had come from Hunan and Hubei, where industrialization was underway.”

“In one small restaurant, I mentioned the story about polluted rice results from Guangzhou. Two peasants at a nearby table said that was because a factory manufacturing batteries had been constructed there and its waste had contaminated the irrigation water. When I asked if the locals were concerned, they said the peasants had found a way to cope. Rice using water from the irrigation ponds was delivered to the government as its quota to the state. The farmers ate rice and vegetables from other plots that they watered from cleaner streams or from wells! They didn’t seem to worry that even the aquifers might also be contaminated. Of course, they did boil their tea water…”

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