The National Security Implications of China’s Emerging Water Crisis

Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 17

While many traditional security analysts remain fixated on the destabilizing effects of the China-Taiwan relationship and growing animosity between Beijing and Tokyo, other less visible challenges are rapidly emerging which could portend political instability for the Communist Party and the country as a whole. At the forefront is China’s emerging water crisis. Though top leaders like Hu Jintao and Wang Shucheng, the seemingly outspoken Minister of Water Resources, describe the situation as “an unavoidable issue threatening national security,” the CCP has so far been unable to enact meaningful policies to address the issue. [1] All the while the problem continues to intensify. If solutions and long-term fixes are not identified and implemented soon, the CCP could soon face intense domestic and international criticism that cannot and will not be silenced.


Though possessing the fourth largest fresh water reserves in the world, China, by virtue of its population, has the second lowest per capita water holdings of any nation. According to official numbers from the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources, water shortages are now present in at least 60% of China’s 660 cities, with 110 facing extreme shortages. [2] As a result, residents in key cities such as Beijing have access to less than one-third the amount of water in comparison to the world average. Moreover, a recent report by a deputy minister suggests that as many as 90% of Chinese cities suffer from water pollution. [3]

In the rural heartland, life is no better. Some 500 million rural Chinese still do not have access to safe drinking water and the problem is only worsening. Illegal and rampant polluting, a massive shortage of sewage treatment facilities and pollutants from other sources continue to denigrate existing waterways. A look at the latest official state numbers reveals just how shocking the problem is. Measured by national standards, 53% of major waterways, half of all lakes and more than one third of all ground water is unfit for human consumption. [4] Meanwhile, the limited quantities of clean water still available are being directed towards thirsty cities, hidden behind dams, vanishing in the face of decade-long droughts, or extracted at ever-increasing rates: close to a million wells have been drilled over the past decade decreasing water tables in some parts by more than a meter per year.

Though obviously troubling, at present there is no easy way to correct the imbalance between supply and demand. Statements on the severity of water shortages and importance of obeying state laws on polluting have been included in Five Year Plans, edicts have been issued by the National People’s Congress, and major Party speeches have address the topic, all to little avail. Concurrently, $2.2 billion in spending on hundreds of thousands of projects has helped only a fraction of China’s population, some 58 million at latest count, and large amounts of this money have been “misused”, according to a 2005 government audit. [5] Further increases in water pricing are failing to stem consumption as urbanites grow richer.

And the far-reaching effects described above only hint at the scale of the problem facing the CCP. Beyond supply and demand concerns are other less controllable trends that promise to magnify the scale and scope of China’s water crisis. Factors such as persistent drought in northern and southern China, the movement of millions of rural resident to urban environments, decrepit and leaking water delivery systems, spreading desertification, and the steady evolution of technology that is ballooning the numbers of new wells drilled, promise to further complicate an already precarious situation.

Concerns for the Party

While the affects of China’s water crisis on human health and quality of life are key considerations for Beijing, the CCP’s primary concern is the impact that water shortages have on the economy. Over the past 20 years, much of the Party’s domestic and international legitimacy has been predicated squarely upon the astonishing economic progress witnessed throughout the nation. Averaging close to 10% annual growth, China has become the model for other developing nations in the region. Its once agriculturally rooted economy has transformed into a world factory, supplying products internationally, while simultaneously importing resources at levels that have driven world commodity prices to new highs over the past 24 months. The result has been steadily increasing average incomes and major improvements to average individuals’ standard living that have helped ensure the Party’s continued rule.

However, water shortages threaten to undue much of these gains. At the state level, the Party is quickly coming to grips with the economic costs associated with the crisis. Billions have been spent on projects aimed at increasing water supplies. From local community projects all the way to the North-South Water Diversion Scheme, the cost of accessing or redirecting water resources will cost tens if not hundreds of billions over the coming decades: estimates of the North-South Water Diversion alone predict a final price tag of at least $25 billion. Water shortages are also limiting the productive capacity of industry and farmers alike, resulting in less tax revenue and billions in forgone economic activity. As an example, experts estimate that pollution of the Yellow River costs the Chinese economy between $1.39 and $1.89 billion annually. [6]

And even more vexing and economically devastating are the billions required to clean polluted rivers and lakes throughout the country not only to make them fit for human use but also to create a national environment that can be compared with other developed nations. Meanwhile, more money will have to be invested in fixing ageing and decrepit infrastructure that is blamed for the loss of hundreds of millions of cubic meters of water. Finally, the health costs for tens of millions of citizens who have been exposed to toxic drinking water will severely impact the state and its limited health resources in the years to come, possibly helping to finally undo the already disintegrating concept of universal health care.

As water shortages impact and restrict continued economic growth and the quality of life of Chinese citizens, they may mutate into a potential catalyst for domestic dissent. Throughout 2005, increasing reports of public protests, riots, and demonstrations against the CCP circulated through the national and international press. But unlike issues of employment, local cadre corruption, and land use, which have sparked much of this year’s unrest, water shortages and other environmental issues present far more pressing concerns for the Party.

Environmental grievances and especially water shortage concerns already receive regular media attention from the state media organs like Xinhau, China Daily and the People’s Daily. This fact has ensured that water issues are already known and have been the subject of debate and low-level criticism for many years. As shortages become more prevalent and far reaching, they present a unifying focal point for dissent that crosses geographic, cultural, socio-economic, and political lines.

As decisions are made from the center over the future of water resources, there will no doubt be winners and losers. The problem for the Party will be how to prevent and control the ensuing unrest that will result as some citizens’ water needs are sacrificed for the good of the nation. Will rural peasants outside Beijing who have for years suffered disproportionately from unfair agricultural taxing, corruption, and poor social services willingly give up their access to clean potable water to ensure that urbanites and Olympic spectators have water? Or will they instead fight tooth and nail like unemployed factory workers in other northern cities to keep and defend their economic livelihood. Already the answer appears to be emerging as several disputes over water issues in 2004 resulted in violent protests that left several injured and hospitalized. [7]

A Potential Threat to Party Control

Water issues in China are evolving into a political challenge for the CCP. Whether the Party will direct greater funding and resources towards solving the nation’s water crisis, and more importantly whether any investments can truly reverse the damage already done will be key factors to watch. Equally important is how Beijing will address and react to the political environment created by the problem.

Without question the Party’s options will be limited. Planners will be hard-pressed to justify picking winners and losers as they allocate resources that will no doubt alienate elements within the Party and throughout Chinese society. Whether these decisions create factions within the CCP or evolve into a key platform for independent political candidates as land issues did in municipal elections in Shanghai is a very real possibility.

In a worst-case scenario water shortages could be the catalyst for united demonstrations throughout the country that reveal the Party’s soft underbelly. Any move by the Party to quell or put down dissent will result in huge amounts of domestic pressure potentially equal to levels seen during Tiananmen, but without the convenient central location that allowed the Party to crush pro-democracy forces and justify it to the rest of the nation. Internationally, crackdowns will also force key trading nations like Japan, the US, Australia, and South Korea to reduce trade and investment and revaluate relations if significant domestic pressure is brought to bear. Moreover, such pressure in European Union nations could forestall Chinese efforts to have the arms embargo removed, a key to furthering international legitimacy.

Thus as many China watchers continue to monitor the traditional security threats to the nation they may be wise to look at the impact that water issues foreshadow for the Communist Party. Whether the issue is strong enough to truly impact the Party’s control remains uncertain, but it may be as threatening to domestic stability as any traditional security threat. Moreover, if other nations are able or willing to exploit the issue, the Communist Party could witness its first true political challenge in more than 15 years.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Canada’s Department of National Defense.


1. “Save the Nation from Drought”, China, Originally published in the China Daily on 23 March 2004, as translated from a speech made at the 12th World Water Day in Beijing, 22 March 2004,

2. “Effective measures urged to save water”, People’s Daily, 09 June 2004,

3. “China says water pollution so severe that cities could lack safe supplies“, China Daily, 06 July 2005

4. “China Faces Severe Water Shortages”, Associated Press, 23 March 2005.

5. “4.9 bln yuan for water conservancy misused in 2004, audit report says”, People’s Daily, 28 June 2005

6. “Four-fifths of Yellow River polluted”, Xinhua, 24 May 2005

7. “High tension in Sichuan dam standoff” Kelly Haggart, Probe International, 08 November 2004