Water is a very potent way of mobilizing people.
That’s a quote from Scott Moore of University of Pennsylvania in an interview with China Power. The interview is an excellent primer on the state of water resources management in China. Highly recommended listing!
Here’s the rundown of learning points I noted:
- The sheer quantities of fertilizer and pesticides entering Chinese rivers are on a different level compared to the rest of the world.
In general terms you can break China into North and South. Water is scarce in the North, less so in the South.
- Mao was a big proponent of the South-North water transfer project back in the 1950s. He’s quoted as saying:
The south has plenty of water and the north lacks it, so if possible why not borrow some?
- China is in many respects a world leader in water demand management. It has instituted one of the largest water rights trading systems in the world. China’s water trading system is likely to become a model for other countries.
Relations with neighboring countries
This was the most illuminating part of the interview. Moore argues that China gets a bad rap and isn’t the dominating bully we hear about in mainstream press.
There are a lot of flash points with other nations, but generally the hydrology doesn’t really fit with the politics. For example, many Indian politicians and journalists believe that China’s dam construction on the upper Brahmaputra is an attempt to control and dominate India. But the reality is that only a very small fraction of the Brahmaputra’s water is generated in China. China has no real ability to influence the river.
In the more famous case of thee Mekong, China is blamed for ruining river ecology by constructing large dams. But we tend not to hear about the fact that the downstream nations (e.g., Laos) often jointly finance these projects. The elites of countries are just as culpable as China.
Belt and Road
Two main takeaways here.
First is that China is funding a lot of small-scale water supply projects elsewhere in the world. These projects are about soft power. They’re used to generate goodwill and offset the reputation damage incurred when China builds, say, the Kenya rail project or the major new port in Sri Lanka.
Second is that China is considering scaling back the number of new Belt and Road projects. There have been major investments in hydropower (e.g., Nepal, Angola) which generate a lot of ill feeling due to local impacts. China is now aiming for fewer, high-quality projects that have more safeguards and reduced backlash from locals.