Hudson Institute

The Global Impact of China’s Water and Related Environmental Problems

The water level of the Yangtze River and Jialing River in the Chongqing section falls in Chongqing, China, August 17, 2022. (Photo by Costfoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
The water level of the Yangtze River and Jialing River in Chongqing, China, on August 17, 2022. (Photo by Costfoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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The quantity, location, and quality of water resources in China have long been a distinguishing and even defining characteristic of its history. Records at least as far back as the Ch’in era in the third century BC note the presence of massive waterworks such as irrigation and transportation canals. Terraced rice fields in hilly areas in central and southern China remain iconic images of Chinese civilization.

During a contentious and important debate in the mid-twentieth century, geographers and political scientists asked whether the erection of a “hydraulic society” was the explanation for what political scientist Karl Wittfogel identified as “oriental despotism.”1 The German-trained academic argued that the existential requirement to contain endemic flooding and move water from the massive rivers of central and southern China to agricultural areas necessitated an authoritarian system for deploying labor on the scale required for hydraulic engineering projects spanning the continent.

Chairman Mao Zedong drily noted at the beginning of his reign that “there is a lot of water in the south and not much water in the north . . . borrowing some water would be good.”2 Mao was soon to unleash the massive workforce of China to renew and expand efforts over the centuries to get water to farmland, control flooding, and reengineer the landscape of modern China.

Even without exaggerating the centrality of water issues for historical China, in the modern era water resources are clearly still vital to the country’s economic and ecological health. And hydraulic engineering projects have become increasingly important, both to China’s Asian neighbors and to the global environment. An important new survey of the “ecological history” of modern China concludes that “in growing from impoverished giant to wealthy superpower in seventy years, China has sacrificed whatever resilience its ecosystem once possessed. It has polluted and poisoned its air, water, and soil . . . it has turned forests into plantations and seen deserts expand . . . and has seen lakes come to resemble green paint.”3

Unfortunately, China’s ecological problems have increasingly had negative impacts outside its borders.

China’s unprecedented geoengineering to move water from the south to the north is now imperiling both the water resources available downstream from Tibet and the Hindu-Kush mountains, and the economy and ways of living of literally billions of people. China needs ever more land to grow higher quality food and produce higher yields, which frees up land for housing its population. These efforts have led to deforestation not only in China but also in South America and South Asia. And the consistent choice of Beijing’s leadership to drive economic growth at the expense of environmental health has led to dangerous levels of water pollution and poor soil health in China. Environmental degradation has become a growing political issue in China, and its export of this problem has incited considerable international concern.

This study explores these issues with a focus on water resources, and it outlines the regional and global impacts of Chinese policy. The study concludes with a discussion of China’s ability and ambition to address these problems as well as how affected countries can help move Chinese leadership toward a more constructive and cooperative effort to develop a solution.

Controlling Flooding, Improving Irrigation, and Moving Water from South to North

Flooding has a near mythological significance in Chinese history. Because the country’s huge population congregates on fertile river plains, flooding has claimed huge numbers of human victims and altered the landscape of the country for thousands of years. Modern historians note that many of the costliest human tragedies result from flooding and chronicle significant losses in 1887, 1931, 1935, and 1978. Early Chinese historians loosely associated emperors’ success at controlling flooding with the so-called mandate of heaven (but these assessments were likely retrospective explanations for the rise and fall of dynasties). An epic 1998 flood in the Yangtze plains inundated an area the size of Kansas, reinforcing the will of the People’s Republic of China to build the Three Gorges Dam.4

Always aware of historical precedent, Chairman Mao was especially attentive to shoring up the system of dikes along major rivers in China to repair centuries of neglect or underinvestment resulting from the slow decline of the Ching dynasty. In the 1950s, lacking the capital to invest in mechanical earth-moving equipment, Mao unleashed millions of manual laborers to move rock and earth to shore up failing dikes and irrigation canals. In ways that modern observers found consistent with other historic hydraulic civilizations, such as Egypt, Mao deployed regional armies of peasants to do this work. In one almost apocryphal episode during the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1957–58), he deployed teams of over 100 million laborers to expand irrigation infrastructure and dikes, many of them on a small scale, throughout central and north China. These workers restructured almost one-fifth of China’s farmland. According to official reports, they moved over 25 billion cubic meters of rock and soil—enough to build a paved road 1 meter deep and 66 meters wide from China to the moon. In a short time, Mao employed corvee-type labor to double the amount of irrigated land that had been carved out in the previous 4,000 years.5

Meanwhile, Mao tried to use the mass mobilization of manual labor on collective farms to expand basic grain production to keep up with the rapidly growing Chinese population, but these efforts fell short. More than this, the great demographer Vaclav Smil called the results of the Great Leap Forward the world’s largest famine: “Between the spring of 1959 and the end of 1961 some 30 million Chinese starved to death and about the same number of births were lost or postponed.”6

Instead, a turn toward more intensive, mostly private-sector agriculture under Deng Xiaoping and his successors achieved some measure of self-sufficiency. As per capita income grew, peasants and the growing urban population demanded better diets with more protein, especially meat. Additionally, Deng prioritized modern manufacturing, which enabled the broad use of mechanical farm equipment, fertilizer, and advanced seeds. The structure of Chinese agriculture was transformed into one featuring large, mechanized farms and cattle facilities.

Modern surface water irrigation was not enough to support the quantity of production China required, so both Mao and Deng tapped increasing amounts of groundwater for this purpose. Groundwater and water from underground aquifers drained resources the country had previously used largely for human consumption in cities.

Deng helped realize part of Mao’s dream to move water from the south to the north. Even before the Ch’in dynasty, workers started building the Grand Canal, which linked the Yangtze River (China’s longest river) from Hangzhou north to the Yellow River basin and on to Beijing and Tianjin. It reached its northernmost destination in the seventh century and was the object of continued work thereafter. China used the canal largely for transport and later tapped it for irrigation. During the Ming dynasty (fifteenth century), workers enlarged it to allow some water transfers to the north.

But the Maoist dream of food self-sufficiency motivated Chinese leadership in the modern era to build what came to be known as the South-North Water Transfer Project. North China is home to 35 percent of China’s population and 40 percent of its arable land but only 7.2 percent of its water resources. Construction of the massive South-North project began in the Deng era. It includes two main sections: the first from the eastern delta of the Yangtze to the Shanghai and Beijing areas, and the second from central China north to the plains with its vast agricultural lands and growing urban populations. The two sections cross over and under dozens of eastern-flowing rivers, such as the Yangtze and the Yellow. China completed the two legs in the first decade of the twenty-first century at a cost of over $60 billion. They now move approximately 24 cubic kilometers of water each year. A third leg of the project, from the mountainous regions of south-central China to the Yellow River, appears to be an engineering feat not yet possible even in China. The water-starved urban areas around Beijing and Tianjin need much of this water.

Such a colossal project would not have been possible if Deng had not unleashed the rapid industrialization of modern China. The swift growth of the industrial economy generated enough capital and machinery to build the modern canals and irrigation systems. It also contributed to higher incomes and standards of living, including more protein-rich diets for the Chinese people. But industrialization and urbanization stretched the limited water resources of China.7

The agricultural sector alone requires around 30 cubic kilometers of water each year, which strains available resources even before accounting for the demands of industry and urban populations.8 Coal has remained the largest single source of electricity and process heat for industry. Its use has increased by a factor of at least eight since 1978. Coal-fired electric power plants use an average of 584 percent more water than facilities burning natural gas.9 The mining of coal and other minerals further contributes to the degradation and even desertification of vast tracts of land (and fertile soil) across China through untreated wastewater and sludge deposits.

Meanwhile, water consumption in urban areas in China grew by a factor of nine between 1980 and 2015, with per capita consumption growing by nearly one-half.10

Another damaging ecological consequence of industrialization was the widespread use of timber to make coke for smelting in the modern steel industry. Mao famously targeted steel production in the 1950s as the key to catching up with the West. Under the regime of Deng and his successors, coal production grew by 2,700 percent. Especially in the early decades of industrialization, timber was the feedstock of choice for coking ovens that industry used for smelting iron and steel. According to one estimate of total forest loss (which includes losses from the clearing of land for agriculture), China has lost between one-fourth and one-third of remaining forest lands since the early Maoist years.11 Chinese soils also lost much of their ability to retain water and control flooding due to this deforestation.

Enormous Chinese imports of timber and timber products from the rest of the world cause deforestation elsewhere. This is due not only to domestic deforestation in the modern era but to the growing needs of the domestic export economy, including the paper and wood products. China is now the second-largest importer of timber, pulp, and paper and the largest exporter of wood products, making it a processing powerhouse similar to its role as a minerals processor.12 An environmental watchdog group has noted that “over half (51%) of China’s timber product imports in the 2010s were sourced from countries with weak governance, poor rule of law, and/or documented evidence of widespread illegal deforestation.” The group also estimated that in the period between 2016 and 2018, China’s imports led to the deforestation of 239,000 to 489,000 hectares of old forests, predominantly in the southern hemisphere.13

Hydropower and Modernization

One of the signature achievements of modern China is the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze. Mao, and previously Sun Yat-sen, dreamed of building the world’s largest hydroelectric power station, and China achieved this goal over the course of a dozen years in the twenty-first century at enormous economic, human, and ecological costs. The reservoir it created extends over 400 miles, flooded over 156,000 acres, and displaced hundreds of thousands of rural villagers. The focus of the multipurpose project was flood control (the infamous 1931 flooding of the Yangtze killed over 4 million people), irrigation (including for the South-North project), and power generation for the industrial economy. In 2022, the Chinese government announced plans for further expansion of the South-North project to move water directly from the Three Gorges Reservoir north via an 870-mile canal, past Shanghai and toward the water-deprived Beijing province and the parched but arable lands nearby.14

Three Gorges is only one of hundreds of new hydroelectric projects spanning the great rivers of China. Since 2007, China has built 19 of the world’s 71 largest “megadams”—those with over 400 megawatts (MW) of power generation capacity. In 1949 it had some 163 MW of hydropower, but this total grew by 1,800 percent by 2017, to 19 gigawatts (GW). Plans were then made for another 90 GW by 2030 and yet another 80 GW by 2050.15 Approximately 17 percent of electric power in China comes from this source.

One of the primary areas of growth for hydropower in recent decades has been the headwaters of the major rivers that flow into South and Southeast Asia from the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayan mountains. These include the Indus, Brahmaputra, and Ganges Rivers flowing into India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan; and the Mekong, Irrawaddy, and Salween Rivers draining into Southeast Asia (see figure 1). Altogether, more than 2 billion people reside in areas largely fed from Tibet, South China, and the Hindu-Kush areas east and north of Kashmir.16

Figure 1. Major Rivers in Tibet

Figure 1
Source: Brock Ternes, “Exploiting Shangri-La: Assessing the Tibetan Plateau’s Natural Resources and the Work of Karl Wittfogel,” Review of European Studies 12, no. 1 (December 2019): 1,

As of 2022, China had built at least 13 dams to generate power and control water flows on the upper Mekong River and its tributaries in southern China and into Myanmar (see figure 2). According to extensive research by the Stimson Center, collectively this upper river system of reservoirs stores enough water to fill the Chesapeake Bay. China controls 40 percent of the flow of the Mekong in its own territory. It regulates the flow based on wet and dry conditions and its power generation needs.17 Populations in Yunnan and Szechuan use much of the power that the dams generate upriver, and infrastructure transmits electricity farther east to more densely populated and industrialized coastal China.

When releasing waters during the dry season in Southeast Asia, China causes considerable disruption to the important aquaculture industries in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. These releases have even contributed to reduced rice yields in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, which produces half of the country’s annual rice harvest. Seventy percent of protein consumption in Cambodia has come from traditional inland ponds where farmers cultivate a variety of fish, but changes in upstream water flows disrupt the fishes’ natural cycles.18 In 2022 high rains in the Tibetan and Yunnan River valleys feeding the Mekong resulted in high levels of storage in the upper Mekong reservoirs while Southeast Asia experienced record low water levels during the drier summer months.19

Figure 2. Mekong River Dams

Figure 2
Source: International Campaign for Tibet,& “Tibet-map-dams-29,” June 14, 2019,

Chinese programs to capture and hold waters from the Tibetan Plateau for the rivers flowing into India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar have even more consequential effects. On these rivers, China has systematically sought to capture their headwaters before they reach South Asia. China has already built 16 to 18 dams in the tributaries in Tibet feeding the Brahmaputra, as well as several more dams on the main river itself (see figure 3).

Beijing has been planning what would be one of the most audacious engineering projects in human history, which would capture the electric power potential of the so-called Great Bend in the river. The proposed project would send the Brahmaputra, the world’s largest river by amount of flow, through a 6,552-foot drop cut into the high mountains. If they ever complete it, Chinese engineers expect the generation capacity to be at least twice that of the Three Gorges Dam.20 India and Bangladesh fear the consequences of this and other projects on the mighty river. An estimated 60 percent of Bangladesh’s population relies on water from the Brahmaputra River for its daily needs.21

China has also constructed dams on the Indus River, which flows from the Himalayan region through Pakistan and back to India, and on several of its major tributaries, including the Jhelan and the Chenab. Although the use of water from this important river is a potential flashpoint between Pakistan and India, a 1960 treaty successfully established a system for sharing its downstream waters. The agreement has generally held since that time. If China persists in building new hydroelectric projects on Indus tributaries, it could upset a delicate balance in the sensitive regions where China and India are endemically at loggerheads.

Figure 3. Brahmaputra River Dams

Source: Genevieve Donnellon-May, “China’s Super Hydropower Dam and Fears of Sino-Indian Water Wars,” Asia Global Online, November 9, 2022,
Source: Genevieve Donnellon-May, “China’s Super Hydropower Dam and Fears of Sino-Indian Water Wars,” Asia Global Online, November 9, 2022,

In 2007, a crucial Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report asserted that the Himalayan glaciers might be depleted as early as 2035 and called the health of the Tibetan–South Asia water ecosystem into question.22 Such an outcome would be disastrous for all of southern China and South Asia. But other studies quickly repudiated the alarmist report, and the authors had to issue an embarrassing correction. The runoff from the world’s highest mountains is declining somewhat due to the diminution of centuries- or millennia-old glaciers. Climate change may have caused this. But near-term or even long-term extinction does not appear likely in the coming centuries. More recent research shows that the annual flows to the south are largely the result of monsoon rains and the melting of annual snowfalls over the wide catchment basins of the region’s glaciers and river valleys. A 2019 paper from the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center estimated that the proportion of runoff due to glacial melting accounts for less than 1 percent of the total from the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin and around 2 percent for the Indus basin.23 Even with the prevalence of rain and snowmelt as the source of Tibetan water flows, the growth of Chinese programs to capture the water and develop hydropower is of grave concern to much of South Asia.

The State of Water and Related Soil Resources in Contemporary China 

Despite the Herculean (Sisyphean may be a better metaphor) efforts of the Chinese state and its people over the course of many millennia, China continues to experience shortages of water, especially in its northern plains. China ranks 105th in the world in terms of water availability, with about 2,100 cubic meters (m3) per capita. The US has around 8,500 m3. Beijing has only about 280 m3. And the northern areas also have low levels averaging 963 m3, which are comparable to many parts of sub-Saharan Africa (see figure 4).

Figure 4. Distribution of Water Resources in China, 2019

Figure 4
Source: Weixin Sun, Yuhan Zhang, Heli Chen, Lin Zhu, and Yong Wang, “Trend Analysis and Obstacle Factor of Inter-provincial Water Resources Carrying Capacity in China: From the Perspective of Decoupling Pressure and Support Capacity,” Environmental Science and Pollution Research 29 (May 2022): 31,551–66,

Moreover, as of late summer 2022, severe drought conditions afflicted much of southern China, the traditional source of water for the entire country (see figure 5). This probably explains the PRC’s haste to construct new dams for Tibetan water systems.

Since at least 1997, the iconic Yellow River has frequently run dry before reaching its outlet in the Yellow Sea. In the 2000s, the river failed to bring water to its terminus in the sea an average of 180 days per year.24 As China brought old marshlands and river flood plains into cultivation in the modern era to increase grain production, it diminished the ability of these lands to retain water and help control flooding. It also reduced the size of the freshwater lakes used in part to supply urban areas. In the north, the middle Yangtze basin lost up to 41 percent of the surface area of major lakes between 1949 and 1980 alone.25

Centuries of increasingly sophisticated and extensive projects to tap groundwater supplies have resulted in significant depletion of those resources. Official Chinese data indicates that groundwater supplies in China have dropped by around 25 percent since 2012 alone.26 One measure of groundwater depletion estimates losses of 60 billion cubic meters annually, leading to major subsidence issues in urban and rural areas alike. Under UNICEF’s standards, Beijing’s water supply would qualify as “extreme water scarcity” according to the Baker Institute.27

In terms of the quality of water supplies, China has not been able to improve conditions despite ongoing programs, especially in the twenty-first century, to address the many challenges that rapid industrialization and urbanization, overuse of chemicals in farming, and lack of sewage and industrial waste treatment have caused. China uses two and a half times as much fertilizer and four times as much pesticide as US farmers, with worse results in terms of productivity.28 The PRC did not implement sustainable agricultural practices because it feared food shortages and decided to increase production regardless of environmental consequences. As a result, salinization plagues up to two-thirds of irrigated lands in northern China due to poor drainage of these naturally arid lands.29

Figure 5. Drought Conditions in China, 2022

Figure 5
Source: Dennis Wong and Han Huang, “China’s Record Heatwave, Worst Drought in Decades,” South China Morning Post, August 31, 2022,

The Lowy Institute estimates that 80–90 percent of groundwater in China is now unsuitable for drinking, and 50 percent is too polluted even for agricultural use. It also estimates that 75 percent of lakes and reservoirs are too polluted for fishing and human consumption.30 Numerous lakes in China are now plagued by eutrophy, in which superabundant algae growth depletes oxygen in the water due to pollution runoff from agriculture, industry, and urban sewage. Even according to official reporting in China, by the turn of the century, 75 percent of its lakes and 80 percent of its rivers (where monitored) were graded at level IV (“mainly suitable for industrial use”) or V (“mainly suitable for industrial use and general scenic purposes”).31

China’s huge increase in the use of water for irrigation and chemicals to promote growth, the introduction of advanced seeds in the last three decades, and the use of mechanical power have helped increase the production of staple crops. These efforts have also promoted better supplies of higher-protein foods, such as meat, fruits, and vegetables. Nonetheless, improvement came at a heavy cost in terms of soil quality and the depletion of water supplies. Despite increasing fertilizer usage by a factor of 10, Chinese farmers achieve crop yields 60 percent less than those of British wheat farmers and 43 percent less than those of US corn growers. After 2010, increased usage of fertilizer consistently failed to increase yields.32

Moreover, as incomes in China have grown, appetite for high-protein products, especially meat and dairy, has grown rapidly and resulted in vast increases in imports of soybeans and corn to feed cattle. China is simply unable to meet its own needs to feed its population and increase the quality of its diet without massive imports. By the 2020s, China accounted for 60 percent of grain imports globally, taking 70 percent of Brazilian soybean exports and 53 percent of average US exports of the same grain.33 China also imports 70 percent of the cooking oils it uses in abundant quantities.

A long-term study by the Ministry of Land and Resources and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment in 2014 found that heavy metals contaminated 17 percent of Chinese farmland. A later estimate put these estimates of contaminated farmland at about 20 percent of available land and noted that one-quarter of China’s arable land is “becoming desert” due to water and soil pollution and overuse.34 Once soil becomes so damaged, it requires remediation over multiple generations to reverse the process.

Important Consequences of Water Shortages and Related Environmental Degradation in China

Policymakers should be aware of the likely consequences of China’s environmental degradation, including the following. 

1. Prohibitive costs and focus on autonomy preclude a comprehensive focus on remediation in China.

Although China has begun to address the accumulated problems of environmental degradation in the last decade, Beijing lacks the financial resources or political will to remedy these problems properly in any timely manner. Xi Jinping, in response to both the recognition of the damage these problems visit on the Chinese economy and the growing public frustration with the response’s inadequacy, has begun to talk of “ecological civilization” as a guiding principle of his leadership. Yet other developments contradict this commitment to prioritize sustainability over economic growth. Specifically, the PRC recently returned to rapidly building coal-fired power plants, and Xi has quietly dropped his pledge to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060.35

In a Hudson Institute study published in November 2023, I argued that China’s government and private sector finances are so overleveraged that Beijing neglects even short-term problems, such as paying for social welfare services and government salaries or bailing out failing real estate ventures.36 Longer-term problems, such as water shortages, soil degradation, and desertification, fall further down the list of issues that the government can effectively address. According to a study by the World Bank and China’s Development Research Center over a decade ago, the cost of overall environmental degradation reached some 9 percent of gross national income, which compares unfavorably with levels of 2 percent for the US and less than 1 percent for Germany and Japan.37 In the current environment in which China has been unable to meet basic public welfare requirements and address the severe economic slowdown, mustering the resources to clean up its waters, let alone its air, is unrealistic.

Harrell and others have noted that “ubiquitous public protests . . . ranging from opposition to dam building to protests against petrochemical plants to complaints about air pollution” drive Xi’s rhetoric of reaching for “ecological civilization.”38 In a country reeling from loss of wealth due to the real estate implosion, cratering of the stock market, and high youth unemployment, the inability to address severe ecological problems only adds to the difficulties that Xi and the PRC leadership now face and that undermine popular support.

Moreover, China is backtracking on its commitments to address the global problems associated with carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Without substantial Chinese contributions to alleviating this and other environmental problems, any effort to solve them will inevitably come up short.

2. China is exporting environmental degradation.

As this study noted earlier, China has huge and growing needs to import timber, grain, and mineral resources. A principal motive for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is to gain access to such resources, especially in the developing world. Importing these resources frequently has the secondary effect of harming the global environment. Even apart from the impact of China emitting more CO2 than Europe, Japan, and North America combined, its imports of grain from South America and timber from Southeast Asia incentivize the leveling of old-growth forests, rainforests, and wetlands. One study calculates that China remains “the consumer country linked by far to the largest amount of deforestation and peat-related emission . . . equivalent to 99.4 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year.” In Brazil alone, researchers have found that soybean and meat exports to China are the largest contributors to deforestation of both the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, and the Atlantic forest, the world’s second-largest rainforest.39 Purchasing and processing oil and minerals from Africa, Venezuela, Iran, and Russia often involve degradation of land and water resources in these countries and employ labor practices at odds with United Nations human rights and labor standards.

Despite its rhetoric in bilateral and multilateral climate negotiations and high-profile global meetings at Davos and IPCC venues, China has not been a responsible partner in the global project to adopt sustainable environmental practices. There is consequently ample opportunity for the US and its allies to call out Chinese practices, develop coalitions to incentivize more responsible Chinese behavior, and offer alternatives to developing countries to work with the West on more sustainable practices.

3. China is exploiting the global water commons.

China believes that the vast waters of Tibet, southern China, and the Hindu-Kush areas in its western reaches should be considered “sovereign resources” rather than basic resources to be shared with neighboring countries downstream. The economies of Southeast Asia, which depend on these waters for their traditional agriculture and aquaculture, have already experienced severe impacts and disruption from Chinese hydroelectric and water control projects to their north. China refuses to participate in the Mekong River Commission—which Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos formed in the 1950s, the era of decolonization—to share good practices and organize equitable sharing of the vast water resources of the Mekong and other rivers flowing into Southeast Asia. The commission has evolved into an effective partnership among downstream nations. But it is hamstrung by a lack of Chinese willingness to share data and plans to utilize the water and power from the headwaters of the major rivers flowing south from the Tibetan Plateau and Yunnan.

As this paper noted earlier, China has already built dozens of dams upriver to harness hydropower and manage the waters of these major rivers. It has consistently avoided sharing reservoir and release data with downstream countries.40 China sends electricity to more populated areas in southern and eastern China and plans to export water from the reservoirs to eastern and northern China eventually. There is no evidence that it has undertaken such water movement, although persistent shortages and drought conditions in southern China make this more than a remote possibility.

Chinese hydroengineering of the major rivers emanating from Tibet and the nearby Hindu-Kush region and flowing to India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh has not yet had the same economic impact as that for the Mekong, Irrawaddy, and Salween Rivers for Southeast Asia. But that is not to say that there is no interest or that the existing hydro projects on the headwaters of the Ganges, Indus, and Brahmaputra will not be expanded in the future. The mere mention of the Great Bend project—which Beijing approved in 2020 but has not begun to build—has raised fears of the governments and inhabitants of India and Bangladesh, as some 30–40 percent of their populations depend on these rivers for fresh water.

Reporting by the South China Morning Post recaps some of the fears among Indian leaders: “An Indian parliamentary panel last year also expressed worries over China’s dam building, saying it could lead to water being stored and released by running its own turbines. This, the panel said, could lead to variations in downstream flow which could affect the Brahmaputra River and ‘thus affect India’s endeavors to tap the region’s water resources.’”41 The prime minister of Arunachal Pradesh, a northeastern Indian state that borders China and the headwaters of the Brahmaputra, went even further: “History is witness that we cannot trust our neighbor (China). You never know what they can do. They can either divert the entire river flow drying up our Siang or release water at once causing unprecedented flood havoc downstream.”42

The US and its allies have an opportunity to play a constructive role in working with all nations downstream from the Tibetan Plateau to promote responsible management of the great river systems of South Asia. Partners would include both the sovereign governments of these countries and nongovernmental organizations that work toward equitable management of natural resources and treatment of the populations that major hydroengineering projects most affect. Without effective partnership—which should encompass technical aid and diplomacy as well as engineering, financing, and construction assistance for responsible management of the flood control and electric power needs of South Asia—the exploitative dominance of China will likely continue. Both the populations of South Asia and the global environment will be the victims.

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