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Geopolitics

Water could be China’s Achilles heel

A drought in the Chinese province of Hunan in 2014. TPG/Getty

China is running out of water, says Hal Brands in Bloomberg. The country has 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its fresh water. Entire regions, especially in the arid north, “suffer from water scarcity worse than that found in a parched Middle East”. Existing supplies are being spoiled by industrialisation and pollution: as much as 90% of China’s groundwater is “too dirty to drink”; more than half is so filthy it “cannot even be used for industry or farming”. Energy shortages caused by a lack of water are increasingly common. The cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen (combined population: almost 30 million) have been warned they will “face severe drought” in the coming months.

This is an “expensive problem”: water scarcity costs the Chinese economy an estimated $100bn a year. As the shortages increase, so too does the risk of civil unrest. And Beijing’s efforts to increase its supplies are causing “geopolitical strife”. The giant dams it has built on the Mekong River have “triggered recurring droughts and devastating floods” in countries downstream, such as Thailand and Laos; further planned dams in the Himalayas will hit India and Bangladesh. But China’s leaders see water scarcity as an existential risk; in 2005 Premier Wen Jiabao called it a threat to the “very survival of the Chinese nation”. The thirstier China gets, the “more geopolitically nasty” things will become.

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