China’s Water Ambitions May Leave Neighbors Dry

China’s Water Ambitions May Leave Neighbors Dry
Photo Credit: Reuters /TPG Images
Will Peyton 13 March 2020

Will Peyton has recently completed a PhD in Chinese studies at the Australian National University and has been based in Taipei as a visiting scholar at the Center for Chinese Studies in the National Central Library. Subscribe Add to FavoriteTry out the new features!

What you need to know

China’s extensive dam projects are drying up rivers, often leaving neighboring countries in the dust with little to bargain.

Water resource management has always been a problem for China, which has the fifth highest water reserves of any country. Its dense population, however, puts its water resources per capita ranking at 105th worldwide, a troubling spot. As extensive dam projects are drying up rivers, neighboring countries may be left in the dust with little room to bargain. 

China’s State Council issued a “Water Ten Plan” in 2015 to promote the protection of water supplies and to improve water quality by 2019. But there were still increasing concerns about the availability and pollution of fresh water supplies, with netizens voicing their concerns on Weibo about underground water contamination. 

Some observers have cited sustainable water conservation agriculture as a way of combating this problem. Others have placed blame on Beijing for its failure to implement policies that encourage the efficient use of water. 

China’s water security is a geographical problem, where for centuries successive central governments have been attempting to channel water to the dry northern provinces from the Yangtze river system, which originates in the Himalayas. Most recently, in 2018, Beijing began operating the North-South Water Diversion Project, channeling water into the undernourished and densely populated hinterlands of Henan province. In order to combat land subsidence from groundwater over-extraction, Beijing has itself received water through new pipelines diverting from Hubei province’s reservoirs. 

Water security at the expense of Southeast Asian countries  

The North-South Water Diversion Project is not only insufficient in resolving China’s domestic water supply shortage, but it could also lead to other problems downstream, particularly where water flows extend across political borders. 


The Mekong Delta flowing through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam is the most problematic for China’s neighbors. The Upper Mekong, bordering with China’s Yunnan province, has seen the construction of 10 major dams to date, which control and disrupt the water flow downstream. 

In March 2016, the Chinese government released water from the Jinghong station to alleviate El Nino-caused droughts in the Mekong area, which was lauded as a benevolent move. Critics later pointed out that China’s Mekong dams were partly responsible for worsening the drought by reducing rainy-season flooding.

Last year was the driest in a century for the Mekong Delta, contributing to low water levels and increased salinity, as well as the failure of spawning. China’s refusal to release water from the Jinghong dam has kept water levels low throughout the entire river system.

In Laos, Chinese labor and know-how facilitate the construction of these dams to expand its hydropower exports, which is why Laos has been dubbed the “battery of Southeast Asia.” The river beds of Mekong tributaries in Laos laid exposed last year due to the over-damming of its river systems. Cambodia’s business of exporting hydropower, while a helpful form of energy for a developing country that lacks crucial infrastructure, presents similar problems. These concerns are as commercial in nature as they are environmental, with critics voicing worries about the decline of certain fish species while others have pointed out the potential damage to fishery operations across the country.

Vietnam has seen increases in riverside erosion, leading to the collapse of housing and the declaration of public emergencies by the government. While blame has been laid at the feet of climate change, Laotian and Chinese damming upriver was noted as an accomplice. Lastly, Thailand has seen sharp changes in mineral content of its water streams, which experts warn increases the likelihood of erosion as it moves downstream

Efforts to regain water control

The Mekong River Commission, established in 1995, is a multilateral body set up to deal with water issues. It includes the four Mekong countries, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, with China on board as an observing dialogue partner. Its treaty determines a common basis on which to assess the ownership, navigation, and usage of such waters. 

The United Nations Convention on the Non-navigable Uses of International Watercourses, ratified in 1997, also attempted to set some standard for the use of waterways and freshwater resources that pass across national boundaries. Crucially, the UN convention does not stipulate in detail how such an arrangement might be handled. China, moreover, did not sign the UN’s convention. 

The absence of a consistent international treaty regarding shared water resources in the Mekong region remains a problem. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has argued that the Mekong Agreement, in conjunction with the UN’s wider convention on water resources, might provide a stronger platform on which to negotiate water usage with China. But a collective and transparent discussion on the issue has yet to take place. 

While water management is crucial for China’s development, it is a graver concern for the Mekong countries who are now dependent on China for management of an essential natural resource. For the Mekong nations in the next decade, and with increasingly unstable weather patterns from climate change, bargaining with China for water resources may, politically speaking, be swimming upstream.  

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TNL Editor: Jeremy Van der Haegen (@thenewslensintl)