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BW Businessworld

Inside The Chinese 'Water'melon

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During the 1880s the European traders sought great concessions from China for trading at the Chinese ports. It was called the cutting of the Chinese Watermelon. Mostly these concessions were granted because the European powers at that time were both economically and militarily strong. Note this as we will come back to this later.

The Chinese economic engine among other things heavily depends upon its power generation and its farm outputs. China's farmlands are crucial to feed its billion people and also to keep up its food export which by the way runs into billions of dollars. China also derives roughly one-fifth of its power from hydropower plants. When the recent drought reduced the reservoir levels in Chinese dams, China had to cut power supply to industrial belts. The importance of water-energy nexus cannot be understated in the Chinese economy.

Water resources also have been an important part of China's state agenda. Not only have they been tapped for increasing China's farm production but also for its industrial expansion. China is today both the world's largest producer of wheat and rice. In recent years China has also shown the highest activity level in hydro power sector in the world. The relative share of hydro power generation has been falling in many countries in the world including India. Yet China's share has been growing in spite of it adding a coal plant to its grid each week.

The fixation of the Chinese administration increases the Chinese vulnerability to any adverse effect on its water resources. China went ahead with the Three Gorges dam, the largest hydropower plant in the world inspite of grave environmental and social concerns the dam raised.

The adverse effect of this massive water dependence is visible in the severe drought China faced the last and this year which affected both its food and power production. For the first time China had to import corn.  But the administration for ubiquitous reasons seems to see answer not in less dams but more dams. Now it wants to build four more super dams on Jinsha River, Shanghai Daily reports and on other rivers, one of which includes the Zangmu Dam on Brahmaputra- the one which has been raising concerns in India.

Share of hydropower in total generationIn spite of the recent assurances by the Chinese government to India that the dam will not restrict the flow of water to India, the assurance can only be taken with a pinch of salt. For both the adverse climate conditions that China has been facing in the past year threatening to pull down its water-energy strategy and the lack of knowledge that India possess of the Chinese-Brahmaputra region, it may actually go ahead with its plan to divert or manipulate Brahmaputra's flow. For the past one year China has faced the worst drought in last 50 years. Parts of south, central and north China suffered severe shortage even though the region is considered water rich. Hubei province one among many affected saw 55,000 Hectares of farmland affected and disruption of drinking water supply to 300,000 people. However in the past one month the situation has completely flipped now many of the drought affected provinces face a 56 years worst flood. Hangzhou province has seen 250,000 hectare of farmlands destroyed and industrial production halted in two thousand factories, Zinhua reports. While the drought in north continues where 2.4 million hectare cropland stands affected. The situation has been very crippling for vast parts of China and it is not looking to get better.

Very likely that these climatic disasters are evidence of climate change but China seems determined to tackle this with more structures. China has enormous stakes in its water-energy nexus. Beyond the super dams it also plans a number of smaller dams. It has 28 projects lined up on Brahmaputra alone including one that could be the world's largest, Guardian reports and some other projects on upstream Kosi.

Chinese assurances alone can't be trusted in this situation. A recent intelligence report by RAW says, "Beijing is not responding to India's concerns on the Brahmaputra dam. There is an urgent need to take up this issue with China as these dams will 'severely impact' the flow of water into India." That is not a surprise given that it is the scale of Chinese dependence upon its water-energy nexus that will decide its actions. The dire situation of drought and floods inside China is not something that can be expected to subside. Infact with the climate change in action, such situations can only get more frequent and worse. These might force China to make use of its water resources wherever available- which includes the Brahmaputra and Kosi.
If the situation keeps degrading we might see India and China on a negotiating table in a couple of years deciding what concessions can India and Bangladesh can make for China, 'given' its situation. And how that will play out reminds me of the story I quoted in the beginning about the Chinese watermelon.

Yash Saxena is a sustainability consultant with Emergent Ventures, a climate change mitigating consultancy. He also works on innovation evangelism with Techpedia