Asia China Diplomacy & International Relations Editor's Picks Environment

China’s Ace in Asia

Chinese energy expansion into hydropower leaves billions with the threat of water scarcity and places the Chinese government on an undisputed path towards regional hegemony.

The early stages of China’s economic growth left the potential of the Tibetan Plateau untapped, aside from providing irrigation in the plains of Tibet. The country has been focused on raising wages, urbanization, and industrialization, causing energy demands to spike dramatically. By around 2035, China is expected to precede the European Union in per-capita energy consumption. Although coal is the major energy industry in China, increasing energy demands have forced its hand to diversify into hydropower. Notably, the growing hydropower industry has dammed up most of their internal waterways, displacing 23 million people.

Now, policy is aimed at expanding into the Tibetan Plateau, commonly known as the “Water Tower of Asia.” The Yangtze, Yellow, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, and Mekong Rivers all trace their origins from the glacial waters in Tibet, from which more than 3 billion people depend on. The damming has disturbed the water supply in some of the most densely populated countries in the world: India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Pakistan. In effect, China has the ace card in regional hegemony.

In 2013, China approved three dam projects along the Brahmaputra River, as part of its 12th Five-Year Plan. Downstream, India raised objections, but the Chinese government quickly swatted them aside as these dams were Run-of-River (ROR). In theory, ROR projects do not disrupt the water supply since water is being diverted into electricity-generating turbines and flowing back to join the river, therefore maintaining the water supply without the 

need for large reservoirs. In reality, electrical grids cannot store large amounts of electricity at one time without the risk of being overburdened. Thus, many of these ROR projects actually have large reservoirs of water stored during the day and released during peak energy demand, typically in the afternoon. These daily fluctuations have ecological consequences for downstream inhabitants, ranging from environmental degradation to natural disasters, such as flooding. India’s objections pointed to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between India and China, where governance of trans-border rivers encourages cooperation between the two countries. However, this agreement is legally non-binding. China’s control over the water supply of the Brahmaputra, along with all the other rivers tracing their origins to the Tibetan plateau, is unrivaled, giving them the ability to manipulate the water supply of any state downstream.

Chief Joseph Dam a major run-of-river station without a sizable reservoir 
via US Army Corps of Engineers

China’s actions, not only on the Brahmaputra but on the Mekong River as well, illustrate an unintimidated posture towards possible repercussions in the absence of binding agreements. China has already built 7 dams on this river and plans to build 21 more, notably, on a waterway which around 60 million people depend on. The closest China has ever been to signing any form of agreement was the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which established the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a governing body overseeing the allocation and utilization of the Mekong River water. The Mekong Agreement was meant to bring together all six countries on the Mekong River—Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, China, and Myanmar—in a legally non-binding agreement to promote cooperation when altering the water flow.

Unfortunately, China and Myanmar did not end up signing onto the agreement, however, both countries are official “dialogue partners,” therefore, retaining some level of influence within the commission. What’s more, the 1997 UN Watercourse Convention, sought to establish an international agreement on the governance of transboundary rivers, which China also voted against. Regulation of transboundary rivers has become a recent phenomenon through contemporary environmental treaties; however, a customary international practice is yet to arise. Thus, placing China in a grey area where their actions are unregulated. 

The consequences of China’s expansionary hydropower policy are at present problematic and in the future, catastrophic. Bangladesh, where both the Brahmaputra and Ganges Rivers merge into the Bay of Bengal, is being especially impacted. Along with climate change-driven droughts, the altered water flows in both of these rivers due to hydropower has allowed large amounts of saltwater to travel inland, destroying crops and forcing parts of the population to relocate. In 1973, soil salinization in Bangladesh affected 83.3 million hectares of land and by 2009, the amount had risen to 105.6 million hectares, according to the country’s Soil Resource Development Institute (SRDI). Another example includes the Ca Mau Peninsula, located at the southern tip of Vietnam’s Mekong River, which has experienced saltwater reaching 62 miles inland.

Water previously used for irrigation is now detrimental to their crops with greater salinization levels. These consequences are just the beginning; the UN World Water Development Report (WWDR) estimates that the global population potentially living in severely water-scarce areas will increase from 42% to 95% by 2050. Notably, parts of Asia will be hit especially hard, since their population growth is expected to steadily rise. In Southern Asia, the population is expected to grow from around 1.95 billion to 2.4 billion by 2050. In the case of Southeast Asia, the population is expected to grow from 668 million to 794 billion by 2050, while China’s population is expected to remain stable around 1.4 billion by 2050. Given the greater impact that water scarcity will have in the coming decades, alongside the growing populations of Southern and Southeast Asia, many countries find themselves in a catastrophic scenario with little means to resolve this situation.

A layer of salt covering a dried up riverbed located on the coast of Bangladesh-– a mark of salinity intrusion in the coastal belt.
via Arif Rahoman

At present, countries being affected by China’s hydropower policy have two options: work alongside the Chinese government or unify against them. Opposition against Chinese hydropower plants is not as universal as one would think. Thailand has an agreement with a Chinese company to purchase thousands of megawatts of electricity to meet their growing energy demands. Pakistan, a key ally in the Middle East, has not been affected by the expansionary hydropower policy of China, as no attempts to expand into the Indus River have been made. Finally, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam retain passive attitudes since they wish to maintain amicable economic relations with China. The different motives of the downstream nations creates a division, inhibiting them from unifying against China’s policy in any meaningful way.

China has complete control over the waterways throughout Asia, enabling them to cause droughts or flood villages at a flick of a switch for their own geopolitical ambitions. The downstream nations, in unison, must protest against the expansionary hydropower policy of China and attain the support of the rest of the international community. The only hope for halting any further development of China’s hydropower policy is to have the downstream nations, alongside the international community, placing economic and political consequences for further expansion. Thus, potentially establishing an international practice around the governance of transboundary waterways.

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Editor’s Picks

By Ryan Saffarian

Ryan Saffarian is a junior at UCLA currently pursuing a B.A. in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations. He is a Staff Writer at the Journal on World Affairs UCLA.

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