Workshop by China Programme, IDSS
Hydropolitics and Conflict Management in Transboundary River Basins: China and its Neighbors
China is facing a looming water crisis due to severe water scarcity which is compounded by highly uneven spatial distribution, rapidly rising demand and growing water pollution. One of the solutions China has adopted to alleviate its water crisis is to better utilize the water resources of major rivers that run across Chinese borders. On these transboundary rivers, China has built, or plans to build, large dams for hydroelectricity and impressive water diversion facilities, which subsequently have triggered anxiety and complaints from downstream countries and criticism from the international society. For instance, China’s hydro projects at the upper stream of Mekong River has become of major source of conflicts between China and Southeast Asian countries. Some scholars and diplomats even consider the Mekong River as “the next South China Sea”, which could potentially derail Sino-ASEAN relations. Similarly, China’s plans to harness the waters of the Brahmaputra River have set off ripples of unease in the two lower riparian states, particularly India. Many Indian and international security experts have been warning of the coming of “water wars” between the two countries. In the case of Illy and Irtysh rivers, while China has shown more willingness to cooperate with Kazakhstan on transboundary river issues, rapidly growing water demand in Xingjiang has resulted significant diversion of water flows from Illy and Irtysh rivers to China’s internal use. This has notably reduced the water flows to Kazakhstan.
As “Asia’s water tower”, China is in a position to affect many downstream countries and communities with its policies related to Transboundary Rivers. China’s 16 main transboundary rivers supply water to nearly three billion people in 14 countries in Asia, equal to 50% of the global population. With increasing and more forceful complaints from Southeast and South Asian neighbours, China faces mounting pressures to improve its management of shared transboundary watercourses. Contention over transboundary water resources has emerged as a main area of non-traditional security concern for both China and its neighboring countries. This could potentially undermine the stable regional relationship which is the foundation for the future success of China’s Belt Road Initiatives. While the stakes are high, there is generally lack of systematic studies on these issues.
This workshop, thus, intends to bridge the gap by comprehensively examining the multifaceted reality of the water conflicts between China and regional countries. The workshop extends the discussion of transboundary water politics beyond the foreign policy and geopolitical arena and digs into more salient institutional factors that together have impeded a major breakthrough in China’s move towards sustainable sharing of natural resources with other states. This workshop also compares and contrasts how China manages the water disputes along all major transboundary rivers, including the Mekong River with Southeast Asian countries, the Brahmaputra River with India, the Shiquan River with Pakistan and India, the Amur River with Russia, the Illy and Irtysh Rivers with Kazakhstan and the Tumen River with North Korea. Finally, the workshop aims to shed lights on how China and regional countries could avoid the ‘potential water wars’ and achieve mutually beneficial cooperation along the transboundary rivers via a multidisciplinary approach.