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China: We Will "Fight for Every Drop of Water or Die"


Water disputes between China and its neighbors are not confined only to the sea. Disagreements over fair use of rivers can be just as problematic.

Take the Nu River. Barely a trickle at its origin in the glaciers of the high Himalayas, the Nu becomes a torrential river as it flows through China to Burma and out into the Andaman Sea. It is one of Asia’s last wild rivers. Unimpeded by dams, it runs through remote southeastern China and the jungles of Burma and carved out what is called the “Grand Canyon of the East” by travelers.

The Nu may not be “wild” much longer. Beijing has dusted off years-old plans to dam the river, and the countries downstream (not to mention environmentalists and other activists) are furious.

The New York Times story on the proposed dams goes into great detail about the environmental sensitivities involved in the project and the impact on locals, tens of thousands of whom will be displaced by flooding caused by the dams, but it only touches lightly on the important geopolitical angle of riparian disputes like this one.

Millions of Burmese and Thai farmers and fishermen downstream will be the biggest losers if China dams the Nu. “We’re talking about a cascade of dams that will fundamentally alter the ecosystems and resources for downstream communities that depend on the river,” Katy Yan, an environmental advocate, told the Times.

Burma and Thailand are not the only countries indignant about Chinese plans to dam cross-border rivers, and the Nu is not the only river at the center of an international dispute. In fact, ten major rivers flow out of China into eleven neighboring countries. India, for example, is embroiled in a disagreement with China over a proposal to build three new dams on the Brahmaputra River, which also flows through Bangladesh.

As in other international disagreements, China will continue to play the role of regional strongman when it comes to cross-border rivers, forcing neighbors to band together to balance Beijing. In the future, disputes like this will only get more intense as the pressure grows on China and neighboring countries alike to use river resources for agriculture, electricity, jobs, and much else. As Wen Jiabao once said, water scarcity threatens the “survival of the Chinese nation.” Almost any other head of state in Asia could say the same. Unfortunately, there may not always be enough rivers to go around.

[Nu river when it gets down between Burma and Thailand, courtesy Wikimedia]

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  • Anthony

    Riparian concerns are not restricted to China or far East. Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World highlights lack of probable access to stable supplies of water reaching critical proportions in many countries including U.S. Beijing as a result of its economic and technological gtowth over last 25 years may be more opportunistic than neighbors. China perhaps recognizes potential of future water scarcity problems and is responding – though her neighbors may also be aware of alarm bells and respond in their own manner (and there aren’t enough rivers to go around).

    • Andrew Allison

      Ah, but you forget that our very own, taxpayer-funded, global warming alarmist agencies (NASA & NOAA), apparently not having noticed that global temperature has not increased since 1996, are promising greatly increased rainfall in the tropics and subtropics due to climate change. LOL

      • Anthony

        What alarms, despite where you come down on climate change, is governmentally there has been no substantive policy respond – though water issue is real (and should not be ignored or kicked down road for another time).

        • Andrew Allison

          Agreed, but consider “The Population Bomb” and other bombs like “Peak Oil”, “Climategeddon”, etc. Water is being used very wastefully (witness, e.g., growing rice in the semi-desert of California’s Central Valley). If push comes to shove, there’s a LOT of water on the planet, and it recycles very well.

          • Anthony

            Engineering and technological inputs for sure but who is paying attention – your input needed beyond Via Meadia. Difficult issues need informed and able minds.

  • Luke Lea

    Presumably (hopefully?) China has no plans to suck these rivers dry the way we do the Colorado.

  • Matt_Thullen

    Perhaps India should start planning the construction of factories that emit high levels of lead, mercury and other fun substances in border areas just upwind of China. That just might get the Chinese government to think about cross-border consequences of their own actions.

  • Pete

    Too many people.

  • Jim Luebke

    Some two-thirds of the world’s population lives within pumping distance of blue ocean.

    Desalinization technology could render many of these water questions moot, or at least soluble.

    From a hydroelectric point of view, the drop from the Himalayan plateau to nearby seas is a dream-come-true. Dams here are probably inevitable.

  • Anthony

    Wow, this is rich. First, China pollutes most of it’s rivers, and now they have the temerity to complain about not having enough water.

  • rheddles

    Within 10 years there will be affordable solar powered devices that will remove pure water from air with over 15% relative humidity. This problem, too will be addressed by human ingenuity.

  • Anthony

    Prognostication, speculation, and condemnation notwithstanding, there exist responsibility toward future – high quality analysis vis-a-vis stable global water supplies warrants policy discussion.

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