The international effort to manage at-risk water resources needs China’s support

Danilo Turk and Sundeep Waslekar applaud China’s recent moves to cooperate more closely with its neighbours on the management of shared rivers, and call on it to do more on the global front

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 5:34pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 5:34pm

Since the United Nations proclaimed water as a sustainable development goal last September, a number of new initiatives and high-level panels have been launched by various groups of nations. China is not part of any of these initiatives, but it has begun to introduce substantial water policy decisions on its own, without engaging in the international discourse.

In January, President Xi Jinping announced in Chongqing that Beijing would no longer allow large-scale development on the Yangtze River, in order to protect its ecology. This decision was the continuation of a new policy outlined by Premier Li Keqiang earlier. Li had proposed, at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Myanmar, a plan to cooperate with neighbouring countries in the management of the Lancang-Mekong River.

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Much like the Yangtze River, which suddenly turns from the south to the north near Shigu town in Lijiang, Yunnan, creating a spectacular view, the decisions announced by Xi and Li reflect a change of course for China’s water policy. Aside from these decisions, it is already cooperating more closely in other ways: it has intensified dialogue with the Mekong River Commission, and is supplying a daily flow of information to India on the Yarlung Tsangpo River during the flood season.

It could be argued that China should become a fully fledged member of the commission and extend cooperation on flow data with India from the flood season to throughout the year. Yet, a beginning has been made.

However, while China is taking cooperative measures in its neighbourhood, it has chosen to remain quiet on the global front.

The international community needs to come together in one voice in favour of active water cooperation. All UN member states, including China, have endorsed the goal of sustainable management of our water resources. To achieve this, cooperation is vital, and China could do more for the global campaign.

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If China joins other countries in promoting transborder water cooperation, it will achieve two objectives. First, enhanced cooperation will generate a peace dividend. In any river basin, a joint investment plan of several billion dollars in irrigation, navigation and hydroelectricity production is possible if neighbouring countries work together with a common aim. Second, international cooperation can also be useful to protect water infrastructure from terror attacks.

In the Middle East, Islamic State has taken over important dams and other assets on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It has been using water as a weapon, as well as a target in its warfare.

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China is not directly affected by these developments. However, in future, Islamic State’s counterparts in Africa may use similar strategies. Since China has substantial investments in Africa, it will not be able to escape the consequences. It cannot ignore developments in the Middle East and raise the alarm only when the same fate befalls Africa. It is much better to initiate protection of water infrastructure.

Further international water cooperation is essential to meet the challenge of climate change. In every part of the world, there is a “water tower” from where glaciers of the region form rivers downstream. Tibet is the most significant water tower in Asia, as almost all rivers in China, Southeast Asia and South Asia originate there. In Africa, there are water towers in Ethiopia and Guinea. In Latin America, the Andes mountains host the water towers of the continent.

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These water towers are affected by climate change, resulting in the increased retreat of glaciers and the risk of serious changes in water flows. As each water tower is a source of rivers to several countries, there is no alternative to transborder cooperation.

China is planning to invest in large infrastructure projects in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, in Central Asia, as part of its new Silk Road initiative. Some of these countries are embroiled in armed conflicts exacerbated by a failure to cooperate in water and drought management. The stability of Central Asian countries is at risk due to the shrinking of the Aral Sea. If transborder cooperation is to be advanced in these regions, the principle needs to be established at a global level.

The new Chinese policy very much supports good governance and cooperation in Southeast Asia. The question is whether China will make a full turn, contributing to the global change in a similar direction, and create as spectacular an impact as the bend of Yangtze at Shigu.

Danilo Turk is a former president of Slovenia and chairman of the Global High Level Panel on Water and Peace. Sundeep Waslekar is president of Strategic Foresight Group, an international think tank, and inventor of the Water Cooperation Quotient