China’s rise over the last four decades has been manifested in growing economic, military and political power. One source of that power is its control over resources needed by other countries, such as minerals used in today’s high-tech batteries and solar-energy systems. A more prosaic power resource is the water in China’s trans-boundary rivers. That water has historically flowed unrestrained into other countries, but now it is increasingly being impeded by Chinese dams.

Dongjiang water pipes in Sheung Shui. File photo: Wikicommons.

As Hong Kong marks 25 years since the end of British rule, it is opportune to remind ourselves that water played an important role in consolidating China’s control over the territory. That’s because Hong Kong, especially beyond the New Territories, was always short of water. Starting in the 1960s during British rule, major infrastructure for channelling Dongjiang (“East river”) water to Hong Kong was part of what Cheung Siu-Keung, writing in The China Quarterly, has described as China’s “strategic task” of integrating Hong Kong into China.

During Sino-British negotiations in the 1980s on whether and under what conditions Hong Kong would be voluntarily relinquished to China, British officials were mindful of the territory’s extreme dependence on China for water, and specifically that Hong Kong could not survive without it. Simultaneously, Chinese officials knew that their control over water and other resources gave them the upper hand in negotiations. The constellation of water resources in favour of China made the end of British rule inevitable.

Hong Kong’s dependence on mainland water remained politically significant even after the Handover. For example, a decade ago Chinese officials used the threat of cutting water supplies when warning pro-independence activists of the practical folly of their aspirations. China learned a significant lesson during Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong’s future: water resources can be a tool for substantial international influence. Today, water is being used by China to heighten its power vis-à-vis nearby countries.

Banners in Central celebrating Hong Kong’s 25th Handover anniversary. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The instrumental value of China’s water resources does not mean that they have been treated with great care. Quite the contrary: China’s lakes, rivers and wetlands have not been spared the wider environmental impacts of rapid economic growth. Those impacts have been predominantly negative, often extremely so. Examples include China’s role in the global scourge of plastic, its negative effects on global fisheries and forests, and its gargantuan (and growing) emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are driving global warming and climate change.

Indeed, one of the most severe consequences of China’s economic rise has been the devastation of its rivers, many of which are notoriously polluted by industrial, agricultural and municipal run-off – the vast majority of it untreated – often making their waters unusable for any purpose. (Elizabeth Economy’s book on China’s environmental challenges is titled The River Runs Black for good reason.)

China’s rivers are also choked by tens of thousands of dams. Half of the world’s dams are in China but for its government, that’s not enough. To meet growing domestic demand for electricity, it has in recent decades been implementing what Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro describe as a “top-down, mandate-driven dam-building spree” across the country. Increasing hydroelectric generating capacity, which is already more than three times that of any other country, is part of China’s plan to increase electrical supply in underdeveloped provinces. Already, one-fifth of China’s electricity comes from dams. Hydroelectricity is touted as a way to achieve President Xi Jinping’s pledge for China to become carbon-neutral by 2060, despite questions about whether dams are a good way to reduce emissions.

The Three Gorges Dam in China. File photo: Rehman, via Wikicommons.

China’s dams bring enormous costs to the environments of affected rivers and the people who rely on them for their wellbeing and livelihoods. Practical opposition to dams within China is limited for the same reason that opposition to other policies is limited: when people – journalists, filmmakers, activists – try to expose the adverse impacts, they are summarily suppressed through sackings and intimidation.

China is not just choking its own rivers; it’s doing the same to those of other countries through pollution, deforestation and development projects. It has exported its enthusiasm for dam construction, and it is well established as the “pre-eminent global player in major dam projects.” As part of the Belt and Road Initiative, it is building dams as far afield as Africa. Often the main beneficiary of such foreign dam projects is China itself. Construction is profitably financed by Chinese banks, workers are brought in from China, and for China-built dams in Southeast Asia, the resulting hydropower is often intended for export to China.

Dams built and funded by China in other countries adversely affect ecosystems by restricting water flow, preventing the movement of nutrients and sediments, and stopping the natural migration of fish species. For example, Chinese dams on the upper Mekong – known as the Lancang in China – have already endangered dozens of fish species in Vietnam and threaten virtual extinction of the Tonle Sap lake system in Cambodia.

Xiaowan Dam, Lancang (upper Mekong) River, China. File photo: Guillaume Lacombe/Cirad, via Flickr.

Chinese territory is the starting point for major rivers that flow into more than a dozen other countries, making it Asia’s upstream “water controller” and giving it unmatched power to “weaponise water” against downstream countries. The major rivers of South and Southeast Asia originate on the Tibetan Plateau. This has mattered only in recent decades as China has undertaken massive dam-building projects on those rivers. It will become even more significant in the future because global warming, substantially driven by China’s carbon emissions, is melting Tibet’s glaciers. Warming of the plateau is outpacing the global average by several times. Initially this may increase water flows, but eventually it may all but end the supply of water.

Chinese officials know all too well what is happening, and realise that dams along rivers flowing from Tibet will enable them to wield control over an increasingly scarce vital resource in the future. This will give China newfound leverage over downstream countries. Nowhere is this more evident than along the Mekong, which flows from China through Myanmar,
Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Mekong is one of the most dammed rivers in the world, with more than 100 dams along its main artery and tributaries. Hundreds more dams are under construction or planned. China’s first “mega-dam” on the upper reaches of the Mekong was built in 1990. Ten more have been built since then. Because the upper reaches of the Mekong are the source of much of the river’s water, downstream fisheries, agriculture and river navigation are at the mercy of China’s dams.

The Mekong River near the Xayaburi Dam site. File photo: Kirk Herbertson/International Rivers, via Flickr.

Countries sharing the Mekong have suffered repeated droughts as China has held back increasing quantities of water to maximise a steady supply of domestic hydroelectricity. Even in the years when there has been ample water entering the upper Mekong, downstream countries have suffered droughts, proving that China’s dams are to blame (rather than, say, climate change per se). In 2019 and 2020, the Mekong’s water level fell to the lowest for a century, largely due to Chinese dams. The Stimson Centre in Washington, D.C., reported that over a five-month period during 2019, “China’s dams held back so much water that they entirely prevented the annual monsoon-driven rise in river level at Chiang Saen, Thailand. This has not happened since modern records have been kept.”

According to Stefen Lovgren, China “operates its dams in secrecy, without much regard for water flow downstream.” It considers data on water management to be a state secret. Downstream countries often experience unannounced stoppages of water flow, causing major disruptions to agriculture, fisheries and river transport, followed by unannounced torrents, resulting in flooding and economic hardship.

Mekong River. File photo: WIL, via Flickr.

Defying objective reality, the Chinese government refuses to accept that its dams cause harm to downstream countries. After Laos complained of record-low water levels along the Mekong, China’s foreign minister blamed the problem on drought affecting the river’s headwaters, even suggesting that China was being generous in allowing water to escape its dams. In 2020 China’s foreign minister declared that it “increased water outflow from the Lancang River to help Mekong countries mitigate the drought,” but evidence proved otherwise. Climatologist used satellite data to demonstrate that low water levels along the Mekong were in fact being caused by China holding water behind its dams. China subsequently agreed to notify downstream countries when it was closing its dams, although it complied only after being called out by non-governmental organisations for failing to do so.

China’s position is that it owns all of the water entering rivers within the territory that it controls, and it has no obligation to share that water with downstream countries. As Milton Osborne, a fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia, characterises the situation, “Over the past three decades, China’s actions and policies in relation to the Mekong and what happens in the Lower Mekong Basin have been marked by consistent self-interest.” The Stimson Centre has reported that Chinese stakeholders routinely assert that “Not one drop of China’s water should be shared without China using it first or without making those downstream pay for it.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that China has refused to join the long-established Mekong River Commission, a cooperative management organisation whose members include all downstream countries except Burma. Instead, in 2016 China pushed creation of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation forum, which critics have complained is little more than a vehicle for promoting China’s own interests.

Mekong River Commission. File photo: Wikicommons.

China is not alone in building dams along the Mekong, but even when other countries are doing it, China is frequently complicit. For example, dam-building in Laos is facilitated by Chinese construction firms, state-owned enterprises and funding agencies, with the resulting electricity often slated for export to Yunnan province. What’s more, there is a correlation between authoritarianism and dam building: authoritarian regimes of Southeast Asia are more likely to welcome large dam projects and, correspondingly, more likely to welcome a Chinese role in building and financing them.

Similar to China’s “weaponisation” of the Mekong over Southeast Asia, it is doing the same with the Brahmaputra River vis-a-vis South Asia. In the years and decades to come, the people of South and Southeast Asia will be warily watching water levels along their rivers that originate in China. The vitality of the Mekong and several other major rivers will depend on decisions taken in Beijing. As water becomes scarcer in the future, affected countries will have little choice but to submit to the new reality that China’s control over water has produced: they will be dependent on Beijing for an indispensable resource. This will give Beijing greater influence in the region.

Control over water is a factor that has helped China shape events in Hong Kong to its liking. That same control may help it shape events farther afield. Hong Kong’s experience reveals a significant aspect of China’s rise: water is power.


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Paul G. Harris

Paul G. Harris is the Chair Professor of Global and Environmental Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. He is the author/editor of two dozen books on global environmental politics, policy and ethics. Learn more about Paul's work on his website.