The north China winter drought of 2008 and 2009, which China’s National Meteorological Centre classified as an “extreme weather event” attributable to climate change, illustrates the challenges to China’s food security posed by worsening water shortage.
This drought was the worst in 30 years and affected China’s principal wheat-growing areas, damaging several hundred square kilometres of farmland. Reports indicated that about 40% of China’s winter wheat crop would be affected and that the drought was expected to decrease the wheat harvest by 5% nationally and by 20% in areas such as Henan province, east-central China.
The scale of such effects has led many commentators to warn that climate-related drought in north China could threaten the country’s food security. Political factors dictate that food security is an especially sensitive issue in China as the government is anxious to insulate the large population of rural poor from food price shocks.
While it is unclear whether or not climate change will actually threaten China’s total domestic food supply, the government cannot afford to ignore extreme weather events, which increase pressure on the country’s military and paramilitary institutions to develop disaster management and assistance capabilities.
The drought provides an illustration of the increased need for such operations. The paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP) mobilised some 2,400 troops over eight provinces. Additionally, assets from the People’s Liberation Army and Air Force were called into service. With the predicted increase in extreme weather events, China’s military will be compelled to incorporate these domestic disaster response and assistance capabilities more closely into its operational planning strategies.
Interestingly, this does not seem to have happened yet; China’s recent law governing the PAP makes only brief mention of disaster-relief activities, focusing instead on the force’s internal security role. In addition to posing challenges to the country’s military, adaptation to water-related climate impacts will impose serious economic costs upon China. North-west China’s Xinjiang province, for example, is building 59 reservoirs to collect meltwater from the Himalayan shrinking glaciers in an attempt to address concerns about long-term water availability. The 10-year project is expected to cost 200 million yuan (US$29.3m) annually for at least the next three years, a considerable sum for one of China’s poorest areas.
Water-storage costs also vary widely between regions. The cost of capturing 120 billion cubic metres of water is 30.7 billion yuan (US$4.5 billion) in the southern Xi River area, for example, and less than 14 billion (US$2 billion) in the central Yangtze River. Most noticeably, it will become increasingly difficult and expensive to enhance water storage capacity through measures such as reservoirs and catchments in water-stressed areas like north China, simply because water shortages will be so severe.
As one commentator has noted, climate change is an “engine of destabilisation”. This characterisation seems particularly appropriate with respect to China. Water-related climate impacts will be severe in several areas within the country, with the result that China’s military, governmental institutions and national resources will be increasingly burdened by climate change and water issues. As a result, the government has been compelled to devote more attention to these issues, a trend which is only likely to accelerate.
Concern for resource security issues does appear to drive Chinese policymaking to at least some extent. In mid-2008, state media reported that “With food and water security becoming great concerns around the world, China will take measures to ensure agricultural water use and promote its plan to increase food production,” including raising the price of water.
China further appears to take the issue of water availability in the Himalayas seriously, flying several cloud-seeding sorties a month to increase rainfall and water availability on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Perhaps the clearest statement of the government’s linkage of water and security issues, however, is the National Framework for Medium to Long-Term Food Security, released in 2008, which emphasises water-saving agriculture.
Water-related climate change impacts will strain the capacity of Chinese institutions and policy frameworks. This is particularly evident with respect to the military’s natural disaster response capabilities and transboundary water-management policy, as well as with domestic agricultural, emergency-management and water-management policies.
The Chinese government, perhaps with the increased aid of international and civil society actors, will be pressed to improve its conceptual, planning and implementation capacities in each of these policy areas. China will be forced to devote large economic resources to adaptation, including the construction of flood defences, reservoirs and water-distribution systems, if it is to escape the worst water-related climate-change impacts. At a time when China’s development priorities demand investment in so many areas, this increasing burden is almost certain to increase political tensions between provinces and governmental institutions.
Nonetheless, these issues in fact point a way forward for improving international cooperation on climate change. First, water-related security issues present a particularly good opportunity to broaden and deepen bilateral and regional cooperation on climate change. Acute institutional vulnerabilities, such as increased strain on emergency management and disaster-response capabilities in China, present opportunities for international technical assistance and cooperation.
Moreover, adaptation assistance under the new climate regime can be focused to address strategic concerns such as food security. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has launched a programme in cooperation with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop new rice varieties capable of surviving various climate change-related stresses. The US$35 million (239 million yuan) project will focus on enabling farmers in south Asia to obtain higher rice yields even in the face of climate change, with fewer inputs of fertiliser and irrigated water. Similar models could be explored, possibly with a greater degree of co-financing, in China.
Finally, climate change cooperation should be seen not only as an ecological imperative, but also a strategic one. As the Council on Foreign Relations has noted, international climate negotiations have a clear national-security dimension, in as much as the international community has an interest in integrating nations like China and India into a “rules-based global order” through participation in climate negotiations.
This interest is heightened when the security ramifications of climate change are considered. Particularly when applied to the regions likely to become flashpoints in a changing climate, the strategic approach can help to guide policymakers towards adopting long-term, systemic approaches to addressing climate change.
Given the severity of climate change for both China and the world at large, it is welcome news that Beijing increasingly sees reducing its own emissions as a matter of national interest. But getting a better idea of what is at stake can provide valuable insights to guide the progress of global climate cooperation.
Framing climate change as a strategic security issue helps to parse its manifold repercussions, which stretch from instability in China’s borderlands to pressures on local government coffers. It also provides added perspective on how large climate change will loom in the future of both China and the world, unless aggressive steps are taken to prevent it.
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.
Homepage image from the Wuyang government shows soldiers helping to irrigate fields in Henan province.