China’s Ecological Woes: Drought and Water Wars?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 7

Are there policy and administrative failures behind the unprecedentedly severe drought that is devastating China’s southwestern provinces? The same question is being asked about the unusually ferocious sandstorm that blanketed northern and eastern China last week. The country’s ecological degradation has had dire global consequences. Dry conditions in Yunnan—a province through which the upper reaches of the Mekong river flow—have been blamed for the depletion of the once-mighty waterway that serves as a lifeline for 65 million residents in the downstream nations of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. And as sand and dust particles from northern China spray across Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, unless the Chinese government can reassure its neighbors that it is taking effective measures to improve the environment, the “China threat” theory could assume a chilling new dimension.  

Drought in the five southwestern regions of Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, Sichuan and Chongqing has affected the livelihood of more than 50 million farmers. Crop and livestock losses have exceeded 24 billion yuan ($3.51 billion). Twenty-three million people are reportedly running out of drinking water. In the worst hit regions of Yunnan and Guizhou, each resident is rationed a mere 7.5 kg of water a day. There are also signs the arid conditions are spreading to Hunan, Guangdong and other central and eastern provinces (Xinhua News Agency, March 26; Guangzhou Daily, March 23). So far, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration has sought to reassure the public on several fronts.

Firstly, meteorological officials have insisted that the drought is solely caused by unusual weather patterns including global warming and the El Nino effect. Last week, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) joined water-conservancy and disaster relief departments in providing aid to the victims. Moreover, while the drought has affected some 111 million mu (7.4 million hectares) of land, this represents only 6 percent of China’s total arable acreage. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) reiterated that food shortages would be limited—and unlikely to raise the inflation rate significantly (Xinhua News Service, March 25; People’s Daily, March 24).

Independent experts as well as commentators in relatively outspoken media, however, have zeroed in on so-called “man-made disasters” behind this natural catastrophe. A series of policy errors has, for the past two decades, upset the delicate ecological balance in southwest China, which until the 1980s boasted some of China’s lushest forests and richest bio-diversity. Well-known water researcher Ma Jun believes that “man-made factors have contributed to the drought…for example, deforestation has caused serious soil erosion and pollution has destroyed limited clean water resources” [1]. Environmentalists have decried how, in response to rising energy prices, politically well-connected state-run corporations have scrambled to build dams in Yunnan and neighboring provinces to exploit hydro-electric power. These massive projects have exacerbated deforestation and brought about changes in the microclimate of nearby areas. Ecology and conservancy expert Wang Weiluo argues that the more water that is stored in reservoirs dedicated mainly for hydropower purposes, the less water will be lodged under the fields of farmers. This is one reason why the water table in the southwestern regions has sunk to alarming levels. In different parts of Yunnan and Guizhou, well-diggers have to bore through more than 70 meters of parched subsoil before hitting water (, February 22; Beijing Youth Daily, March 26).

Secondly, Yunnan provincial authorities have, since the late 1990s, been urging farmers to cut down trees to make way for more lucrative rubber and eucalyptus plantations. Rubber, eucalyptus and associated crops, however, use much more water than rice or wheat. Writing in the official New Beijing Post, environmental activist Wang Yongchen describes rubber and eucalyptus plantations as super-efficient dehumidifiers and “water-sucking machines.” These cash crops, together with rapid industrialization, have “upset man’s relationship with nature in southwest China,” Wang noted. A recent report in Shanghai’s mass-circulation Xinmin Evening Post quoted officials in Yunnan’s Water Conservancy Department as saying that “for a long period, no maintenance work has been done to small-scale reservoirs and water-storage facilities.” Similar to counterparts in the rest of China, officials in the southwest regions often use funds earmarked for water projects to invest in manufacturing, real estate and even stocks and shares (China News Service, March 23; Xinmin Evening Post, March 22; New Beijing Post, March 23).

Drought conditions have exacerbated the scourge of desertification, which is claiming a million acres of land every year. One third of the entire country’s land mass suffers from some degree of desertification, up from 27 percent in 2004. The sandstorm last week, which hit 16 provinces and made life difficult for 20 percent of China’s population, has belied claims by officials that the rate of desertification slowed down markedly by the year 2000 (Time, Asia Edition, March 22; Al Jazeera News, November 6, 2009). According to Han Tonglin, a researcher in the Chinese Institute of Geological Sciences, the immediate cause of the sandstorm was gale-force wind whipping up sand and dust from several dried-up salt-water lakes in Inner Mongolia and neighboring areas. Han said the disaster had cast doubt about the efficacy of the 100 billion yuan ($14.64 billion) that the central government had spent over the past decade on schemes to impede the desert’s progress. Apart from planting saplings, such efforts have included using cash incentives to persuade farmers and livestock rearers to switch to conserving grasslands and growing trees. Han and other scientists have also blamed poor coordination among the Ministries of Agriculture, Forestry, Water Conservancy and Environment Protection for dearth of national leadership in the Herculean struggle against sandstorms (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], March 25; Cable TV News [Hong Kong], March 28).

There are indications that in this fast-shrinking globe, China’s ecological problems are straining its ties with neighbors. As water levels in the 4,350-kilometer Mekong fall to their lowest in 50 years, four riparian countries—Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia—have called on Beijing to take immediate steps to save the “Mother River.” Senior ministers from these four nations, all of which are members of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), are scheduled to meet on April 3 in the Thai coastal town of Hua Hin (Reuters, March 25; AFP, March 26). Ecologists in the MRC countries say the three mammoth hydropower dams in Yunnan have exacerbated the Mekong’s woes. They have urged the Chinese government to release more water from the dams—and to halt up to eight new hydroelectric projects. While Beijing has agreed to send a delegation to the Hua Hin conference, it has insisted that its dams have nothing to do with the lowering of the Mekong’s levels. Moreover, officials in Beijing and Yunnan have asserted that the Lancang (the Chinese name for the upper reaches of the Mekong) only contributes 13.5% to the Mekong’s volume. In an apparent effort to absolve their country of responsibilities, Chinese authorities recently agreed to provide the MRC with daily hydrological data from monitoring stations at two major Lancang dams (Al Jazeera News, March 8; Bangkok Post, March 25).

The intensifying confrontation over the Mekong river has thrown into sharp relief other “water wars” that could erupt between China and its neighbors. Glaciers from the Tibetan highlands form the fountainhead of 10 rivers that flow into 11 countries. In the past two years, Beijing and New Delhi have been at loggerheads over plans by the Chinese government to siphon off water from the Yarlung Tsangpo River to feed into canals designed to irrigate China’s central and Northern provinces. After crossing the China-India border, the 2,057-kilometer-long Yarlung Tsangpo becomes the Brahmaputra, the primary source of water for the North Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam as well as Bangladesh. The water diversion project, in addition to plans to build one of the world’s largest dams over the Yarlung Tsangpo, could deplete the Brahmaputra. Given Sino-Indian disputes over border delineations in Arunachal Pradesh, which is called South Tibet in China, a mutually agreeable settlement to their water disputes seems unlikely at least in the near term. Indeed, under China’s multi-billion dollar South-North Water Diversion Scheme, some 40 billion cubic meters of water will be redistributed annually from the Tibetan plateau to arid regions in northern China ( [Hong Kong], January 19; [India], November 5, 2009).

At least superficially, the international impact of the sandstorm, which hit most of Taiwan, Japan and South Korea on March 21, has been less pronounced. This is despite the fact that tens of thousands of residents in cities including Seoul and Tokyo had to wear surgical masks against the sudden invasion of grit and dust. Six domestic flights in the eastern Japanese city of Kobe were delayed. While neither Tokyo nor Seoul has publicly raised the issue with Beijing, popular Japanese and Korean websites were replete with remarks attacking the Chinese government’s mismanagement of its ecology. Critics have also fingered China-originated acid rain that has periodically fallen on the two neighboring countries (China News Service, March 22; Central News Agency [Taiwan] March 21; Apple Daily [Hong Kong] March 23). At a time when the CCP leadership under President Hu Jintao has pulled out all the stops to embellish China’s image and to project Chinese soft power worldwide, the quasi-superpower’s apparently irresponsible environmental policy could add a disturbing new dimension to the “China threat” theory.


1. Author’s interview with Ma Jun, March 25, 2010.