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Dam Shame: Examining China’s Hydro-Hegemony

It was done in a panic. As Japan’s rapid and devastating invasion of China continued inward, Chinese President Chiang Kai-Shek turned to the Yellow River, a symbol of Chinese civilization, to accomplish what his soldiers could not.

In early June, 1938, Chinese troops were ordered to destroy the dykes along the river with the hope that the resulting floods would halt invading forces. The result was cataclysmic. Thousands of square miles of agricultural land were destroyed, at least half a million were killed and millions were displaced. The victims were almost all Chinese citizens. The floods did little to stop the invasion.

Today, China has adapted this strategy of weaponizing water, now for political gains. In an effort to pivot towards clean-energy infrastructure, Beijing has increased construction of hydropower dams along the major rivers of Asia, all of which begin within Chinese borders. But reengineering natural river flows has left downriver nations at the whim of Beijing’s irresponsible distribution of water and dependent on its political goodwill.

China’s Plan

For nearly 70 years, China has controlled the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau — the largest freshwater reserve outside the polar ice caps and origin of the continent’s ten greatest rivers — which two billion people rely on.

Beijing’s recent commitment to cutting back on fossil fuel consumption has led to a renewed interest in hydropower, which is now the second-largest energy source in the country (after coal). Reducing carbon emissions means overcoming the country’s reputation as a polluted hub of toxic industry, which has raised public health complaints both domestically and abroad. For a country with insufficient reserves of fossil fuels, strong renewable energy infrastructure will also move Beijing towards its goal of energy independence.

Harnessing hydropower will certainly reduce carbon emissions, but it isn’t without its consequences. Domestic rivers are becoming oversaturated to the point of decay with dams, yet the building frenzy shows no signs of slowing.

Instead, Beijing is beginning to dam international rivers; according to the New York Times, China has pledged $635 billion in international water-infrastructure over the next decade.

Downriver nations aren’t happy.

A New Bargaining Chip

In 2016, the Mekong River, lifeline of Southeast Asia, was drying up. Rice fields couldn’t be irrigated, inland fisheries were empty, and once-floating villages now rested on dusty riverbeds. 

In response, China distributed “emergency water flows” from its dams to revitalize the river. To Southeast Asians, this wasn’t an act of generosity, but a concerning reminder that their water is subject to the will of a hegemonic neighbor who uses its control over upstream dams — and access to water — as a bargaining tool.

Mekong Basin nations have pursued multilateral cooperation to secure water rights to no avail. China rejects the UN convention on shared resources and instead claims territorial sovereignty over rivers within its borders.

Acting unilaterally and irrespective of lower-riparian countries has reshaped the Southeast Asian region: seasonal patterns are no longer predictable along the Mekong and water levels are determined by how much water China releases from its dams, according to DW.

Unsatisfied with the 87,000 dams within its borders, China has been financing international hydropower projects that will power its own southern grids (while avoiding the environmental and social costs of hydropower).

Laos is particularly eager to become the “battery of Asia,” but its development-fervor has led to haphazard results: a catastrophic dam failure killed 40 and displaced thousands in 2018.

Tales of these disasters leave many concerned. While nobody expects China to weaponize water for military purposes as it did in 1938, the fact remains that Beijing has the capacity to release catastrophic floods in India and Southeast Asia that would permanently reshape regional ecosystems 

The truth is scarier: devastating artificial floods are more likely to be the result of unintentional dam failure as a result of seismic activity (many dams are built in earthquake-prone regions) or other structural failures. For example, China’s dam collapse in Tibet caused a quarter-billion dollars of damages for India and created thousands of refugees.

The Green Cost of Hydropower

This rapid and recent dam-mania has left the environment struggling to keep up.

The Mekong is registering historically-low water levels, leaving Southeast Asia in yet another drought that kills biodiversity and slows agricultural production. The numerous dams hindering free water flow and increasingly-shallow depths are having devastating effects on fish migrations — particularly worrisome for a regional economy so reliant on fishing. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) predicts a 40 percent reduction in the river’s fish stocks by 2020 as a result of the dams.

China’s taming of the Mekong River flow has mitigated regional floods (at the expense of causing droughts), but in a twist of irony, this could drive Southeast Asia into economic ruin. In a 2017 study, the MRC concluded that seasonal monsoon flooding provides $8-10 billion in annual economic benefits while costing less than $70 million in damages.  

Even the effectiveness of these dams has been called into question, in part because hydroelectricity generates low levels of energy, even compared to renewable counterparts.

“It’s inefficient, but it’s easy,” said Daniel Kammen, Distinguished Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley and former Science Envoy for the State Department. “Water is the hardest quantity to move.”

Kammen further explained that the potential energy capacity for falling water is relatively low.

“But China’s story and ours aren’t that different,” he continued. The potential energy capacity for falling water is low, and the inefficiencies inherent to hydropower shouldn’t discredit its value as a whole. 

That being said, due to rushed construction, China’s hydropower facilities are particularly inefficient when compared to global averages. Even more energy is lost in the lengthy journey: electricity must be transferred from the Southern, Western, and Southeast Asian dams to the manufacturing centers in China. Due to poor planning and faulty grid infrastructure, enough hydroelectric power is wasted along the way to power Britain and Germany for a year, according to Reuters.

While China claims it is building dams to reduce its fossil fuel consumption, some experts are skeptical.

“Building more hydropower doesn’t inherently mean a lower carbon mix,” Kammen explained.

China’s extraordinary development must be accompanied by a growing energy capacity, and while Beijing has invested heavily into renewable energy sources, it is far from abandoning fossil fuel use. When it comes to energy sources, Kammen explains that, “China’s policy is all of the above.”

Given hydropower’s inefficiencies and seasonal fluctuations, provinces such as Guizhou, Sichuan, Guangxi and more are constructing more coal-fired generators than hydropower generators to ensure a stable supply of power during the dry season. Anecdotal evidence even suggests that each new hydropower dam is accompanied by an additional new coal-fired plant.

Hydropower cannot replace thermal power due to its inefficiencies and seasonal fluctuations. 

Ultimately, China’s internal damming may be resulting in cleaner energy generation, but according to Kammen: “Internationally, China isn’t considering the social cost of carbon.”

Moving Forward

Perhaps in an effort to save face, Beijing has pursued mild water-cooperation efforts with its neighbors.

Following a disastrous flood in the Mekong Delta, China agreed to share hydrological data with basin nations that could predict potential flooding and warn those in danger. In 2010, when the Mekong water levels were drastically low, China agreed to share data during the wet and dry seasons, subtly updating its previous stance that its dams had no effect on water levels.

But Beijing’s commitment to its promises is tenuous. Since China’s 2010 pledge against low water levels, Southeast Asia has still experienced routine and severe droughts. 

Additionally, memorandums signed in 2015 pledged China to supply potentially-lifesaving flood data to India, but such data was withheld without explanation. In an interview with Asia Sentinel, strategic affairs analyst Brahma Chellaney categorized this failure on China’s part as a “political tool” that could be used “subtly in peacetime to signal dissatisfaction with a co-riparian state.”

Beijing’s refusal to play fair with neighbors is against its own self-interest. Nobody benefits from a drought-ridden Southeast Asia. Regional development only fuels China’s economy, and the Mekong River is a critical access point to the all-important South China Sea — sending a fleet of gunboats through six-inch water is a challenge even China cannot rise to.

Save some considerable self-reflection, the only thing that could potentially temper Beijing’s dam frenzy internally is a prolonged economic slowdown. While signs indicate the Chinese economy is decelerating, it’s too early to tell whether this will translate to a flattening demand for electricity.

The clock is ticking for regional nations that want to put a stop to China’s hydro-hegemony themselves. When it comes to water wars, delay favors those upstream, and the longer they wait, the fewer choices they will have. Accepting China’s hydro-hegemony or resulting to dire measures may be the only options available in the coming years. Global warming, resource depletion, growing consumption, unsustainable irrigation practices, rapid industrialization, and pollution will only exacerbate the current trends. Now is the time to act.

Featured Image Source: The Mekong Eye

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