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China’s water grab

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Marxists a century or so ago believed that what they called “Oriental despotism” arose in Asia because of the need in China and elsewhere to control the water supply. In 1957, Karl Wittfogel’s work on the subject, “Oriental Despotism,” was published, warning that the need to control water for irrigation and other purposes in the region had given birth to a totalitarian state unlike any that had developed in the West.

China is now the world’s largest economy. Though its ascension has been a long time coming, China’s new status has analysts once again looking to water as one of its most powerful strategic levers. In fact, understanding China’s water policy is as crucial to fostering world peace and international relations in the 21st century as arms treaties and diplomatic missions.

In much of the world today, water is a more precious natural resource than oil. Too many people are beginning to live with too little water. The World Economic Forum has listed a “water crisis” as humanity’s No. 1 societal risk. China is home to 21 percent of the world’s population, but only 7 percent of the world’s fresh water. The country has many arid regions, with more than a quarter of its land classified as desert. Expansion of irrigated farming, the growth of water-intensive industries and the rise of its middle class have led to demands for more water. How it gets that water should be a major national security concern for the United States and its allies.

To bring more fresh water to its 1.3 billion people, China has long committed to controlling the “water tap of Asia” the Tibetan Plateau. This huge basin of fresh water feeds glaciers, underground springs, vast alpine lakes and towering waterfalls across Asia. The Tibetan Plateau and surrounding Himalayas hold the headwaters of many of the continent’s largest rivers, including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Ganges, Salween Sutej, and Brahmaputra — all of which combine to supply fresh water to nearly half the world’s population. To solve its own water crisis, China has been damming the rivers coming out of Tibet, diverting water that normally flows to its Asian neighbors. Diverting water can be damaging ecologically and economically to downstream users and the same sorts of cross-border friction that have plagued many of our western states may well prove corrosive to China’s diplomatic aspirations as regional hegemon.

China’s internal water policies are felt far beyond its borders. Tampering with water flow out of the Tibetan Plateau affects the industrial and agricultural viability of India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam. Residents of Bahir Jonai blame China’s manipulation of water for floods that destroyed the Indian island community after a massive torrent of water that originated in the Himalayas hit the village. Upon completion, the Three Gorges Dam concentrated such a gargantuan amount of terrestrial matter in one spot (infrastructure material and dammed-up water) that, according to NASA, it slowed the rotation of the earth. Water is a global concern, and the increasing scale of China’s management of it demands the world’s attention.

Throughout its history, as Wittfogel observed, China’s hydraulic engineering, canal-building and water management has by design also served as a means of internal governance and a central framework for China’s social and economic development. Today’s Three Gorges Dam and the South-to-North Water Project are simply modern manifestations of an ancient tradition.

In today’s world, however, we must all realize that water cannot be treated simply as a commodity, as it will increasingly affect virtually everything in an ever more connected international economy. China cannot simply go it alone but must instead join the rest of Asia in sharing data and developing global strategies for managing water across national borders.

Harnessing data and using it to monitor and assess our global freshwater supply will give us new knowledge and new options for understanding, adapting and resolving the very complex freshwater problems we see emerging. Technological advancements in big data analysis can enable us to take a more comprehensive and holistic view of our global freshwater system and tease out the cross-border trends and patterns of how population growth, urbanization, migration and changing weather patterns are impacting our human relationship with water.

As East and West look for on-ramps to international discourse and cooperation in the 21st century, especially with China, water has emerged as an excellent and increasingly vital place to start.

Robert Gusentine is the COO of Global Sounding, which assesses and monitors global freshwater supplies.

washington times

14 Comments on "China’s water grab"

  1. Davy on Fri, 20th Feb 2015 8:35 am 

    Just so the anti-Americans blood does not boil. The US is ranked at the top among a few others in developmental destruction of nature. The US is ranked in the top per capita consumption which is not sustainable in a resource starved world. With that said this article is about China and by extension Asia. Can we stay on topic Mak?

    China is an example of the horrible excesses of development driven greed and mal investment. The US used to be the example of the largest misallocation of resources in human history with its suburbia car culture. China has overtaken that position significantly in only the last decade. During this decade the US has been in decline on all economic fronts from consumption to development. China is sucking up the worlds resources that should be equitably spread among the rest of the world. China is buying up infrastructure, commodities, and farm land in an aggressive way to support its cancerous growth.

    The sad part of the so called Chinese miracle is the huge mal investment side of this effort. Vast amounts of prime farm land has been built over. Many areas are now brown field sites never to be useful in food production in our lifetime. Water sources are being depleted and quality destroyed at an unprecedented pace. Shortages are imminent. Air, water, and soil quality are at dangerous levels.

    China has been pushing the wrong policies of industrialization and urbanization at the expense of what one was one of the most prepared nations for deindustrialization of the end of BAU. Chinese cities were smaller with the majority of the population on bikes. The countryside was an example of age old subsistence agriculture that was resilient and sustainable. Now we have a China destroyed by the western model.

    Water will be the end of growth for China. Coal is hitting limits too. China growth is stalling and with it will be its ability to kick the mal investment bad debt can down the road. China is on the road to a hard landing that will bring down the rest of the interconnected global world with it. This is a very dangerous situation for all of us especially other Asians.

  2. Rodster on Fri, 20th Feb 2015 9:16 am 

    The Chinese have destroyed their water supply due in large part to industry. From lime green lakes, red crimson lakes, floating dead fish, floating dead pigs, floating lime green algae and garbage dumps pile 14 stories highin some residential neighbor hoods. It’s tragic what BAU does to the environment.

    China’s clean water supply is now down to 40%. Good luck with all that gold, China. That’ll surely save you.

    And it’s not only China. There’s an estimate that we as in humans dump EIGHT MILLION TONS of plastics each year in the ocean floor. And we wonder why the Australia’s Barrier Reefs are being threatened and why we have dead zones in the ocean from all the shit we dump in it each year and that includes toxic chemicals. In the case of Japan, radioactive material.

  3. dave thompson on Fri, 20th Feb 2015 9:47 am 

    “Upon completion, the Three Gorges Dam concentrated such a gargantuan amount of terrestrial matter in one spot (infrastructure material and dammed-up water) that, according to NASA, it slowed the rotation of the earth.” If this is true, all the other human activity on earth combined has got to be put in perspective. Quick someone call the corporate media to sound the alarm!!!!!!!!

  4. Makati1 on Fri, 20th Feb 2015 7:07 pm 

    There is a lot of “misinformation” being disseminated around the world about China ans how bad it is. We wouldn’t be able to guess which Fascist country, located between two oceans, it is coming from could we? It has only slowed down because they have Russia to demonize first.

    Water is the new oil. That China is taking over as much as possible is no different than the West taking over the oil fields around the world for their own use. But, I don’t think we have to worry about it. Too many other things likely to take out the species before we run out of a renewable resource like water.

    As for conditions in China, they are no different than they were in the Us in my childhood 50 years ago. Shit floating in the rivers, streams running red from factory dies and chemicals, smog that burned your eyes, etc. What would the Us be like with four times the population it has now? (The land masses are about equal. About 9,000,000 square miles each.) Or, if the drought dries up the West and the aquifers run dry, what then? Canada has a lot of water… LMAO!

  5. Davy on Fri, 20th Feb 2015 7:48 pm 

    Poor Mak, what a piss poor attempt to dress up a dreg. Mak, just face it China has destroyed itself in greedy development. The country is now destroying the rest of the world along with it. You can put perfume and makeup on a corpse but it still looks dead.

  6. antaris on Fri, 20th Feb 2015 9:06 pm 

    Mak, you leave Canadian water to us Canadians.

  7. Makati1 on Fri, 20th Feb 2015 9:16 pm 

    antaris, Canada is already owned and run by the DC Mafia. If you don’t know that, you have not been paying attention.

  8. Davy on Fri, 20th Feb 2015 9:35 pm 

    Now Makster is insulting the Canadians. Mak, why do you have such a chip on your shoulder? Could it be you made an awful decision to move to a very bad place to experience the side effects of Peak Oil? We all know it is not going to be pretty for 4BIL people when the oil flow dries up. Sorry Mak, but that is no reason to take it out on others.

  9. GregT on Fri, 20th Feb 2015 10:59 pm 


    Mak isn’t insulting us Canadians. He is telling it like it is. We lost our water rights when we signed NAFTA. Canada might as well be an American colony. Exactly why when I hear someone ‘American bashing’, I automatically assume they include Canada as well. We have become Americanized. We are now even waging unjust Wars, just like you guys are.

  10. Davy on Sat, 21st Feb 2015 6:17 am 

    Greg, I disagree in tone because the Canadians with the means and connections have moved in in multiple areas to take advantage of Americans. It is a two way street. It would be better to mention the global plutocrats are colonizing Canada as they are America. The Chinese are the latest parasites being welcomed with open arms by both countries.

    Mak will use any and all condemnations of the US to further his agenda including the Canadian and American relationship. Mak is clearly in the wrong on almost every discussion because he is agenda driven and peddling a message distorted message. His facts are for the most part factual but their delivery is clearly wrong in relation to the truth. The anti-Americans here disregard the agenda driven message because they like Mak’s message or they ignore his agenda and like the facts. That is what I am getting at Greg.

    Nafta has meant bad things for many Main Street Americans. It has benefited the wealthy of all three countries. Unfortunately the size of the American economy compared to Canada and Mexico shows in this relationship but the underlying realities of the 1% in all countries benefiting while the rest suffer is the issue Mak should be discussing in a fair and balanced way. I am exposing just another example of a distorted Mak agenda.

  11. PrestonSturges on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 10:20 pm 

    Mak, in America we hear this stuff from our Chinese neighbors. Their families come to visit and gawk at actual trees just growing along the road, mile after mile.

    China is buying up farmland around the world, so it seems like they expect to be earth’s factory.

    It’s pointless for them to spend much of anything on a military, there is no hope of protecting their supply lines in a meaningful way.

  12. antaris on Sun, 22nd Feb 2015 11:05 pm 

    Mak I’ve known for years that we have been owned by the yanks.

  13. GregT on Mon, 23rd Feb 2015 12:24 am 

    “Obama’s New Visa Law Seen Helping Chinese Buy U.S. Real Estate”

    “A report by the National Association of Realtors, released in July, said China had become the largest source of foreign real estate transactions on a dollar basis. Canada remained the largest buyer in terms of volume. Canadians accounted for 19% of property buyers last year, down from 23% in the previous year, while Chinese accounted for 16% of buyers, up from 12% the year before.”

    “Wealthy Chinese investors, most of whom are buying on a cash-only basis in cities like Los Angeles and New York, are comfortable with the moderate to high prices in major American cities because of schooling and the lifestyle element. Moreover, a relatively stable housing environment in the U.S. over the long term makes it an attractive investment for Chinese house hunters looking to add to their own personal housing stock.”

    Welcome to our world in Vancouver BC. Back in the 90s, the Asian population in Vancouver was minuscule. Today, caucasians in Vancouver are now the minority. Great for real-estate prices though, if you are a seller. An 1800 sq ft walk-up on a 35 ft wide city lot can now be purchased in many parts of the city for a mere 1.5 million. Not so great if you are a first time home buyer planning on making a life in the city. Time to make the move to Manitoba.

  14. Davy on Mon, 23rd Feb 2015 5:08 am 

    Greg, I mentioned in an earlier article the Canadians are buying the US up. You should review the statistics on business purchases. Anyway, I am not sure this house buying spree of the Chinese is a bad thing. It has happened throughout history in the US. That is part of what makes the US more dynamic than other cultures. It is also what makes the US more wealth unequal. All those purchases by foreigners are the wealthy or plutocratic money. They spend money in narrow bands of locations that cater to the rich. This is a BAUtopian phenomenon and will last as long as the US is seen as a refuge by the wealthy.

    Mak and other anti-Americans should take note. Asia is in significant currency flight. The wealthy Asian’s know China is a sinking ship so they are walking with their money to North America. BAU’s days are numbered. The brick wall is within 10 years at best. This brick wall could be the long emergency or a short but quick end but in either case a BAUtopian environment of money migration globally cannot last as we know it. We know the notional wealth of the rich is nothing more than digital rehypothocation of the physical. When SHTF the digital notional rehypothocated wealth will evaporate when the entire global world takes a haircut. When BAU implodes the new level of economic activity will be barely enough to feed us.

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