Ensure fair share of water resources

China controls water resources that almost half of the world’s population depends on, so it is incumbent on Beijing to ensure full transparency on development projects that affect countries downstream

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 January, 2018, 1:23am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2018, 7:22pm

China effectively controls the water and food security of 46 per cent of the world’s people through rivers originating in Tibet. Authorities have every right to make the best use of resources, but they have to also keep in mind the impact on countries downstream.

Dams and water diversion plans are increasingly being viewed with concern by neighbours, with some even making accusations that water is being used as a political tool. To avoid conflict, Beijing has to improve communication and consultation so that the region can better manage an increasingly scarce commodity.

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Climate change, urbanisation, industrial development and population growth are increasingly putting strains on Asia’s water security. China’s dams are necessary for hydroelectric power, irrigation systems and diversion plans, ensuring electricity, water and food and social stability. But such projects can also disrupt downstream flows on the region’s major rivers, the Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus, which form in Tibet.

The dams China has built on the upper reaches of the Lancang River, known downstream as the Mekong, have been blamed for disrupting agriculture, aquaculture, transport and tourism in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, especially during droughts. River levels perceived as being either too low or too high and silting are regular complaints.

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India has been critical of Chinese projects on the Brahmaputra, known in China as the Yarlung Zangbo, and expressed alarm about suggestions that a 1,000km diversion tunnel could be built to supply water to Xinjiang. At the height of a border dispute last year, New Delhi claimed Beijing reneged on agreements to provide hydrological data and as a result, dozens of people died in Assam state in September in unexpected floods.

China said it could not provide the data due to recording facilities being upgraded, but India claimed the decision was politically motivated. India has also been accused by Pakistan and Bangladesh of mishandling water resources. The lack of legally binding international agreements is problematic, with China refusing to sign the UN Watercourses Convention on grounds of territorial sovereignty, and India and Pakistan abstaining.

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Given the importance of China to Asia’s water resources, it has to be transparent and communicative with neighbours. Suspicion, mistrust and tension can be averted through dialogue. The Beijing-led Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism, set up two years ago to provide communications and serve as a development platform, can serve as a model, but such bodies have to also be sensitive to the importance of rivers to ecosystems and livelihoods.