02 February 2017
China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative has become a major foreign policy priority. The land-based Silk Road Economic Belt aims to expand China’s economic connections and political influence across much of Eurasia through vast infrastructure and investment schemes, potentially involving over 40 countries. But reviving the ancient Silk Road will not be easy. Water conflicts, as elsewhere, are top on the list of potential challenges.
Water conflicts have already been a source of tension between China and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is concerned by China’s increasing attempts to divert water from the Ili and Irtysh rivers to meet the rising water demands of Xinjiang’s booming petroleum sector. During the late 1990s, China built a canal that transfers water from the Irtysh River, which is shared between China, Kazakhstan and Russia, into several dry basins in central-north Xinjiang.
The Irtysh is the main source of fresh water for around 15 million people, mostly living in Kazakhstan’s larger north-eastern cities, including the capital Astana. Chinese water diversion projects could therefore threaten Kazakhstan’s urban and industrial development. Some environmentalists have even warned that Lake Balkhash, which receives 80 per cent of its water from Ili River, could become a desert. Managing this issue will be a major challenge in the bilateral relationship looking forward.
Water conflicts between Central Asian countries could also destabilise the region and create hurdles for China’s Silk Road Economic Belt. Since the early 1990s, water disputes due to the conflicting needs and priorities of upstream and downstream countries have been a major source of tension in Central Asia.
… Zhang Hongzhou is Research Fellow at the China Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
IDSS / Online
Last updated on 06/02/2017