Outside analysts have long stressed that climate change threatens China’s basic national interests. The Chinese government has come to embrace a similar rationale, as a result moving towards aggressive efforts to limit the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
In August 2009, China’s cabinet, the Standing Committee of the State Council, announced that China would seek to control its greenhouse-gas emissions even as it continues its economic development. Climate change, the council affirmed, threatens the country’s development by increasing extreme-weather events and exacerbating water shortages. As a result, China will set itself on a path towards low-carbon economic growth, stabilising emissions within the next few decades.
This announcement, perhaps more clearly than any previous statement, illustrates the growing trend in China towards viewing climate change as a direct threat to the country’s development objectives. It is clear that a number of factors, including economic interests and international political pressure, frame the Chinese government’s position on climate change. Nonetheless, given Beijing’s attention at the highest levels to the strategic implications of climate change, it is vital to understand how it may affect the country’s fundamental interests.
At the heart of these challenges to China’s future are changes in the quantity and distribution of water resources throughout the country and its neighbours. Droughts and flooding are expected to become more severe in many areas and the melting of Himalayan glaciers to lead to steep, long-term declines in water availability in several areas of China and south Asia. Moreover, because of these changes, most major river systems are likely to experience increased variability in water flow, making it harder for farmers and other users to predict water supply. Other interlinked processes, such as desertification in northern China and saltwater intrusion in low-lying coastal areas, pose further challenges to food production and ecosystems.
These changes in water availability have important implications for the Chinese government’s objectives both at home and abroad. China already has contentious relations with its neighbours over many transboundary water resources, especially the Mekong River. As these resources shift and, in many cases, dwindle under climate change, China will have to become increasingly adept at dealing with transboundary water issues. Moreover, melting glaciers and shrinking snow packs portend severe water shortages in fragile border regions like northern Pakistan. Such spectres are of great concern to Beijing as it pursues its policy of “peaceful rise”.
Domestically too, water-resource changes threaten China’s vision of stable and orderly economic development. Its restive western areas, including Xinjiang and Tibet, are expected to suffer most from declining water resources. Already poor and underdeveloped, these regions could experience rising inter-ethnic tension over the distribution of water or become a source of growing environmental out-migration as water-stressed inhabitants seek better opportunities elsewhere. Such migration has been documented in several parts of western China and identified by environmental security scholars as a key risk factor for environmental conflict.
These implications indicate that climate change will increasingly bear on China’s strategic ambitions and priorities, forcing the revision of some. Three themes are particularly relevant for policymaking. First, climate-change impacts are defined primarily by the uncertainty that they introduce; it is difficult to plan large-scale development objectives, for example, without being able to count on stable water resources. Second, it is clear that regional climate change impacts will be more acute in some places, like north-western China, than in others. Third and finally, there will be a growing opportunity cost, in terms of financial, administrative and other resources, to adapting to climate change. For a developing country like China, this opportunity cost is of no small concern.
The eastern portion of the Asian landmass faces particularly acute changes in water availability and distribution as a result of climate change. Many Asian nations are already under water stress, and the Asian continent has the lowest per-capita water allocation of any continent save Antarctica.
In northern China, the water use-to-availability ratio was three to four times the level in the south as of the year 2000. In China and its immediate neighbourhood, climate change threatens to exacerbate this already tenuous water situation in several ways.
China’s National Climate Change Program asserts that “Climate change has already caused changes [in] water resources distribution over China,” focussing on an increase in “hydrological extreme events”, such as drought in the north and flooding in the south. This assessment draws largely from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) data indicating an observed increase in precipitation in north and north-eastern China and a marked increase in the Yangtze River delta region and the south-east.
Researchers stress that, as a result of climate change, precipitation is decreasing in eastern China’s agricultural areas, with drought-related agricultural losses increasing steadily since the mid-twentieth century. Soil degradation as a result of climate change is further expected to increase the possibility of “disastrous drought and floods” in central, south-western and north-eastern China.
A tendency towards more extreme climate events is also predicted for other regions surrounding China. A major study of the Indian Himalayas found that climate change will increase the variation of seasonal flows significantly. In the Mekong basin, south-east Asia’s most important river system, maximum monthly water flows are expected by the IPCC to increase by 35% to 41% by mid-to-late century over twentieth century levels, while the minimum monthly water flows are expected to decline by 17% to 24%. Such increased variation threatens to disrupt normal economic and agricultural activity in vulnerable regions. In the case of the Mekong, this variability is enhanced by additional risks from sea-level rise and resulting saltwater intrusion, which pose a profound threat to agricultural production in the river’s delta region.
Potentially even more serious, however, is a predicted long-term decline in water availability as Himalayan glaciers melt and snow packs are reduced in size. The IPCC estimates that a decrease in Himalayan glacier mass of about 25% is possible by 2050 as global temperatures rise. This is significant as glacial meltwater accounts for some 70% of summer flow in the Ganges River system and 50% to 60% of the flow in other major Asian river systems. One major study predicted that the flow of Himalayan-melt fed water systems will peak by 2050 to 2070, with mean annual flow declining thereafter by between one-fifth and one-third. The consensus of modelling studies is that a significant portion of north-west China and northern India will be subject to declining water availability by the end of the century as seasonal water shortages arrive abruptly, “going from plenty to want in perhaps a few decades”.
Nonetheless, there is likely to be substantial regional variability in these effects. Some river basins are likely to be particularly affected; the Tarim River for instance, Xinjiang’s most important river system, depends on glacial meltwater for 40% of its mean annual flow. Other areas of north-western China are likely to be severely impacted by changes in water availability. As the IPCC has reported, “The duration of seasonal snow cover in [Chinese] alpine areas – namely the Tibet Plateau, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia – is expected to shorten, leading to a decline in volume and resulting in severe spring droughts.” Changes of similar magnitude are predicted for major river systems elsewhere in China and Asia.
Water distribution patterns will become much more variable. Many areas of China are likely to have too much water when they don’t need it – namely, flooding during the rainy season – and too little when they do, during the dry summer months. Certain areas, such as north and north-western China and the Mekong River system, will be impacted more, and by a greater combination of factors, than others. This conclusion has important implications for both China’s national and regional security.
Scott Moore is a graduate student at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute and previously held a Fulbright Fellowship at the College of Environmental Science and Engineering, Peking University.
An earlier version of this article was published in China Security in 2009 as “Climate Change, Water, and China’s National Interest”, Vol.5, No.3. It is used here with permission.
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