Suicide By Drought: Op-Ed by Professor Khan Looks at China’s Growing Water Crisis

Foreign Affairs

Sulmaan Khan, assistant professor of Chinese foreign relations at the Fletcher School


Most of China’s most important rivers originate in the plateaus of Tibet and the surrounding mountain ranges, an area known by scholars as the Third Pole because of its plentiful ice. The rivers flowing from the Third Pole -- among them, the Mekong, the Yangtze, and the Yellow River -- traditionally satisfied the majority of China’s water needs. But those waters, along with China’s other supplies, have been steadily disappearing. Since the 1950s, 27,000 rivers have vanished from China. China has only seven percent of the world’s freshwater to meet the needs of about one-fifth of the world’s population. Of that water, only 23 percent is located in northern China, which, as home to most of the country's major industries, uses much more water than China’s south. Meanwhile, much of the country's available water supply has been rendered unusable by pollution.

The rapid economic development of western China in the last decade and a half has put even more pressure on China’s water supply. Beijing has supported this economic development in spite of its pernicious ecological consequences, though, because it believes that economic growth is the key to calming the restive minorities in the west. (If Kazakhs, Tibetans, and Uighurs have plenty of employment opportunities, the theory holds, they will be less likely to rebel against Communist Party rule.) But Beijing’s control over what goes on in western China is limited. Grand engineering projects designed in Beijing and implemented in distant provinces do exist: think of the railway to Tibet or the Three Gorges Dam. But lately, the process of development in western China has mostly been ground-up -- cities have mushroomed out of nowhere, almost entirely unnoticed by the central government. ...

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