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'China's Water Hegemony in Asia' or 'Shared Rivers, Shared Futures': Which?

Dr. TIAN Fuqiang (Center for International Transboundary Water and Eco-Security, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, China)

Dr. LIU Hui (China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, Beijing 100038, China)


The water resources challenges of the Southern and Southeastern Asia regions are exceptionally complex, with growing populations and economies needing reliable and predictable water resources for livelihoods and food and energy production. The region is characterized by monsoon cycles leading to exceptionally high rainfall and runoff variability, and extremes of severe flooding and drought, overlain with uncertainties of a changing climate. Many great rivers rise from the Himalayas and are shared by more than one nation, with almost all of the region's mainland nations dependent to a greater or lesser extent on these transboundary waters. Most of the flow of these rivers comes from midstream precipitation, with glacier melt providing less than 20% of these rivers' overall flow, except in the Indus basin (c.50%)[1]. As in all regions of the world, water security is essential for the economic and political stability of each nation and for the region as a whole. This goal can only be achieved within these basins through building trust and establishing cooperation among nations, requiring universal understanding of reciprocal rights and responsibilities. This will provide the platform for effective cooperation in science, information sharing, and basin management[2]. Building such trust and effective cooperation is undermined when irresponsible scholars from otherwise respected institutions in the region spread misinformation that poses as 'policy research'. An extreme example of such misinformation, and its acerbic language, is in a 2016 article 'China's Water Hegemony in Asia'[3], addressing the specific case of the Lancang-Mekong basin. As researchers working on cooperation on transboundary rivers, we feel obliged to respond to the misinformation in this article, providing evidence, including facts and figures.


Misinformation 1: A severe drought currently ravaging South-east and South Asia has helped spotlight China's emergence as the upstream water controller in Asia… indeed, Beijing itself has highlighted its water hegemony by releasing some dammed water for drought-hit nations. 


Since late 2015, all six riparian countries[4] along the Lancang-Mekong River have been hit by severe drought due to the impact of strong El Nino event. The situation has been most serious in the downstream Mekong, threatening lives and livelihoods. In response to the needs of the countries in the lower reaches of the Mekong River and despite its own difficulties relating to household and agriculture water supply and maintaining stable power grid, the Government of China offered its support and released emergency water flows to help alleviate downstream drought. The action was welcomed by benefiting basin countries (e.g. Vietnamese Foreign Ministry's Vice Spokesperson Pham Thu Hang welcoming China's increased outflow, and Cambodia also expressing appreciation for the emergency water supplement from China[5]).


A letter from the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Secretariat CEO Dr. Pham Tuan Phan to the Minister of Water Resources of China stated: "the Secretariat views this decision (emergency water supply) as a kind and considerate gesture exhibited by a good neighbor and friend to the Mekong countries. This has also shown China's sincerity in the cooperation with the downstream countries, especially within the context where China itself was also suffering from drought condition, which has affected its household water supply and agricultural production. The Secretariat would like to extend its profound and sincere thanks to the People's Republic of China for its consideration and special arrangement of such a relief measure in the interest of downstream countries."


China's action and the response from downstream are evidence of cooperation and the recognition of rights and responsibilities. Yet it is construed as evidence of 'water hegemony over downstream countries' and 'new-found power to control the flow of a life-sustaining resource'[6]. When flows are regulated and released upstream, drought impacts of low flows downstream can be mitigated. It is deliberately misleading and disingenuous to describe this as evidence of 'water hegemony over downstream countries'[7].


Misinformation 2: 'China's refusal to join the 1995 Mekong treaty, which created the commission, has stunted the development of an inclusive, rules-based basin community to deal with water- and environment-related challenges.'


'The Mekong Basin has had a long history of conflicts' and 'the 40 years of Basin planning, from the first substantive report of the US Bureau of Reclamation in 1956 to the Mekong Agreement in 1995 was a time of great difficulty'; 'many funders had agendas of their own' and 'international experts undertook most of the substantive work' are all quotes from the MRC's 'The BDP Story'[8]. It is essential that river basins institutions are led and owned by the riparian countries themselves, as ownership creates commitment and it is difficult to own an institution that is foreign-funded and foreign-led, although the reasons for this in the unique case of the Mekong are understood. China is very pleased to note that a Chief Executive Officer from a riparian country was appointed in January 2016, 'the first time that the MRC has appointed a CEO from one of the four Member Countries. The move coincides with the MRC's efforts in structural reforms of decentralisation and "riparianisation" to make the organisation self-sufficient by 2030'[9].


Nevertheless, China has held annual dialogue meetings with the Mekong River Commission since 1996, and the Ministry of Water Resources of China (MWR) has been providing flood season hydrological data to the MRC Secretariat since 2002. In 2010, to help downstream countries cope with the extreme drought, MWR provided emergency hydrological data to the MRC. In cases of extreme weather conditions, such as typhoons, China has voluntarily offered information on upstream reservoir operations. The MRC Secretariat and the MRC member countries have acknowledged the significant value of hydrological information supplied by China for flood control and disaster mitigation in the Mekong basin. When Thailand suffered severe floods in 2011 and Myanmar in 2015, the Chinese government responded to requests for help by sending expert teams, whose dedicated work and reports have been praised.


From January to June 2016, dozens of delegation from Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the MRC Secretariat have been invited to China. Hundreds of officials and experts in the water sector and young journalists of basin countries have been invited to visit the reservoirs on the Lancang River, the Three Gorges Project, the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, and some major cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing, to share China's experiences of water management. China also sent staff and delegations to the Mekong Countries and MRC Secretariat for technical exchanges and to reach a better understanding of the concerns of downstream countries. In mid-July 2016, a working level discussion of how to form the Joint Working Group on Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation will be held to facilitate practical water resources cooperation.


The facts show that China has engaged with the Mekong River Commission since it was formed and that this engagement has grown steadily over time, as circumstances have allowed and required. The scale of cooperation has recently expanded considerably. The potential for basin countries to cope with water-related challenges is being improved through cooperation and will grow with increased cooperation.


Misinformation 3: 'China's chokehold on almost every major transnational river system in Asia'.


The total volume of water flow out of China to riparian countries is about 700 billion m3, which is about 25% of China's total freshwater flows. The water flowing into China is about 20 billion m3. The total outbound water flow (which is good in quality) is therefore more than 30 times the inbound water flow. China only consumes within its border less than 5% of the total water volume of its transboundary basins.


The United Nations and the World Bank give high priority to the development of sustainable hydropower, which is deemed low carbon and renewable, Hydropower currently comprises 80% of the World's installed renewable energy, and is a key energy option for both poverty reduction and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions[10]. Most industrial nations, including China, have developed a relatively high proportion of their hydropower potential. However, China has only developed 10% of its hydropower potential on its transboundary rivers.


China has built more than 90,000 dams, most of which are located on domestic rivers rather than transboundary ones. Reservoirs built on transboundary rivers are small in number and scale. For example, the Yaluzangbu-Brahmaputra is one of the largest rivers in the world, with the upstream Zangmu Reservoir having a storage capacity of about 80 million m3, which is 0.05% of the annual mean runoff, and China's water consumption is less than 0.5% of the total river flow. In the Irtysh River Basin and the Ili River Basin, the water storage capacity of China's existing reservoirs is only 10% of that in downstream Kazakhstan. In the Heilongjiang-Amur River basin, the water storage capacity of China's existing reservoirs is 12.5% of that in Russia. According to the statistics of the MRC BDP, on the Lancang-Mekong Basin, the total regulation capacity of existing reservoirs on the Lancang River and its tributaries is about 22 billion m3, roughly equal to the storage capacity of existing reservoirs on the Mekong tributaries. These reservoirs on the Lancang Rivers are primarily used for hydropower generation, without consumptive water use. Moreover, these reservoirs play a significant role in regulating river flows between wet and dry seasons. According to our analysis, the outbound flow of the Lancang River can typically be reduced by about 30% during the rainy season and increased by about 70% in dry season, through reservoir regulation.


The facts show that China does not 'have a chokehold' on the water resources of the many transboundary rivers within its border (no more than any upstream riparian state, such as India on the Indus and the Ganges), but provides substantial, high quality water resources for its neighboring countries. Like all riparian states within a transboundary river basin, China has reciprocal rights and responsibilities.


Misinformation 4: 'Despite its centrality in Asia's water map, China has rebuffed the idea of a water-sharing treaty with any neighbor.'


China has uniquely complex transboundary river challenges, with transboundary rivers shared with 13 neighbouring countries and 3 riparian countries. China's Ministry of Water Resources responds positively to all cooperation initiatives by other countries and has set up various mechanisms to promote cooperation. Every year China holds more than 100 negotiations at different levels with neighboring countries. Significant achievements have been made in many fields, including flood season data provision, expert exchanges, joint research, and emergency management.


Sino-India cooperation is an example. In their meeting in Beijing on 14 January 2008, H.E. Mr. Wen Jiabao, Premier of the State Council of the People's Republic of China and H.E. Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of the Republic of India agreed 'A Shared Vision for the 21st Century of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of India' which included the following: "The two sides also welcome their efforts to set an example on trans-border rivers by commencing cooperation since 2002. The Indian side highly appreciates the assistance extended by China on the provision of flood season hydrological data which has assisted India in ensuring the safety and security of its population in the regions along these rivers. The two sides agree that this has contributed positively to building mutual understanding and trust."

China had established hydrological stations in remote, hard-to-reach mountainous areas with harsh climate specifically to provide flood season hydrological data to India. China expended considerable resources and overcome great difficulties to handle emergency issues such as a barrier lake on the branch of Langqinzangbu River in Tibet in 2004 and a landslide on the mainstream blocking the Yaluzangbu River. These actions were recognized by the leaders for making positive contributions to disaster mitigation and prevention downstream. Cooperation is limited, but it has begun and will grow.


Another example is Sino-Kazakhstan Cooperation. In 2010, China and Kazakhstan signed the agreement to jointly establish the Horgos River Friendship Joint Water Diversion Project to share the water resources of transboundary rivers. The project began in 2012. In 2014, when China itself was also suffering from drought conditions, China provided emergency water supply to downstream Ili River upon the request of Kazakhstan and received appreciative communications from the Kazakhstan Government and people.


These examples show that China has not rebuffed proposals for cooperation with neighbouring nations, but has been a trustworthy partner in jointly coping with water-related disasters and sharing transboundary waters. Cooperation is a journey, and getting started on the journey is essential.


Misinformation 5: 'In the Mekong basin, China has denied that it is stealing shared waters or that its existing dams have contributed to river depletion and recurrent drought in the downstream region. Yet, by ramping up construction of additional giant dams, it has virtually ensured long-term adverse impacts on the critical river system.'


China has reciprocal rights to the flows and other benefits derived from shared river water with downstream nations. This is true for all upstream nations, such as India, which is upstream of Pakistan on the Indus and upstream of Bangladesh on the Ganges. China, like all other riparian nations, also has responsibilities, in particular to seek and to achieve cooperation. In the case of the Lancang River Basin in China, the basin area is 20% of the total area of Lancang-Mekong Basin, the outbound water flow from China is only 13.5% of the total water flow at the Mekong estuary, and China's water consumption is less than 1% of the total Basin flow. Cooperative operation of the hydropower stations on the Lancang River can significantly increase the outbound flow in the dry season and can reduce it in the flood season, although the latter will have less benefit due to the very high precipitation on the floodplain downstream. For instance, a severe drought hit the Lancang River basin in the dry season of 2013, with the rainfall 50% below the normal average and drought extent and intensity comparable to that in 2010 (when severe drought hit the Mekong downstream, when China's reservoirs were not completed). In 2013, upstream dam regulation increased the net discharge of the Jinghong hydropower station by 66% over natural conditions, resulting in the residents of the Mekong River's upper reaches escaping the hydrological impacts of the severe drought.


With the completion of the reservoir cascade, a 300-400% increase in river flow can be provided at critical times to fight extreme drought. During the extreme El Nino drought in the first half of 2016, the emergency water supplement from China to the Mekong yielded significant results, with an accumulated discharge volume of 12.65 billion m3 from Jinghong Reservoir by May 31st.


A joint rapid assessment undertaken in March 2016 by the Government of Vietnam, the United Nations and non-governmental organizations reported[11] that the drought that had hit the southern and central regions of Vietnam created water shortages for about two million people. China's emergency water supplement played an active role in safeguarding domestic water supply in the drought-hit regions and by limiting the extent of seawater intrusion, shortening it by 8km in sông Cổ Chiên, 10km in sông Cửa Đại, and 6-7 km in sông Hau[12]. According to the initial results of a joint assessment[13] carried out by MRC and China, the emergency water supplement increased the inflow to Mekong River from March to May 2016 by about 1000 m3/s more than historical flows in the same period, and raised the water level by 0.21m to 1.44m along the Mekong River mainstream.


It is clear that the Lancang reservoirs can reduce the impacts of drought in the Mekong Basin. However, as the outbound water volume from China is only a very small part of the total flow at the Mekong estuary, it is insufficient to rely on China's reservoir regulation to cope with extreme basin-wide drought. Cooperation in developing water infrastructure and in enhanced regulation are required among all the basin countries.


We need to take an objective and rational look at dams and the possible negative impacts (while scientific measures can be taken to reduce the impact), and to make good use of water facilities to benefit the people. At the conclusion of the book Divine Providence[14], the Mississippi River Commission describes the experience and outcomes over a century: "The nation has contributed roughly $14 billion toward the planning, construction, operation, and maintenance of the project (dams, levees, floodways). It has proven to be a wise investment that has prevented more than $478 billion in flood damages – a $34 return for every dollar invested", and only in 2011"the MR&T project prevented $110.6 billion in damages, not including potential losses from interrupted business activities and related impacts", "Can you imagine what this river would look like without engineering controls? It would resemble a Third World country – no power, no water intakes, no sewer, no navigation, no farms. The entire lower valley would be destroyed and useless."



Even within a sovereign state, the management of every river faces challenges such as flow regulation, pollution control and water resources allocation involving different stakeholders, and basin management is always difficult, allocating costs and benefits and making trade-offs. The challenges are much greater in international transboundary basins, where riparian cooperation is essential. There are 276 major transboundary rivers in the world and these basins contain 60% of the world's freshwater resources and 50% of the world's population. Effective management of these transboundary rivers faces unprecedented challenges, with growing populations and economies and a changing climate across the world. Yet resolving these challenges through international cooperation is at the core of achieving global water security and this is crucial to global peace and sustainable development.


Misinformation might make popular reading – but it foments dispute and makes successful cooperation more difficult. As scholars, we must make constructive efforts to support the resolution of differences and the promotion of mutual trust between upstream and downstream countries and other stakeholders, rather than deliberately fostering misunderstanding. We believe that, if people can put aside zero-sum thinking, explore opportunities for mutual benefit, respect each other's legitimate rights and take responsibility for resolving each other's core concerns, transboundary rivers can become rivers of cooperation and rivers of friendship based on reciprocity!

[1] Jianchu XU et al. 2009. The melting Himalayas: cascading effects of Climatic change on water, biodiversity, and livelihoods. Conservation Biology. 23 (3): 520-530.

[2] Zhong et al. Rivers and reciprocity: perceptions and policy on international watercourses, Available Online 29 February 2016, wp2016229; DOI: 10.2166/wp.2016.229

[3] Chellaney, B. 2016. http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/1qM2LdMPsMd0fLNrDUVjRK/Chinas-water-hegemony-in-Asia.html

[4] Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

[5] http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2016-04/13/content_5063533.htm?cid=303

[6] Chellaney op.cit.

[7] Chellaney op.cit.

[8] Text in quotes from 'The BDP Story': http://www.mrcmekong.org/assets/Publications/basin-reports/BDP-Story-2013-small.pdf

[9] http://www.mrcmekong.org/news-and-events/news/first-riparian-chief-executive-officer-assumes-his-office/

[11] Asia News. http://www.asianews.network/content/vietnam-appeals-us485m-drought-response-aid-15425

[12] China Daily. http://world.chinadaily.com.cn/2016-04/06/content_24314806.htm

[13] Mekong River Commission and Ministry of Water Resources of China, 2016. Joint observation and evaluation of emergency water supplement from China to the Mekong River. In press.

[14] Charles A. Camillo, 2012. Divine Providence: The 2011 Flood in the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project. P5,19,218.

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