China accounts for 20% of the world’s population, but only 6% of its water. This imbalance—combined with the lack of fertile cropland—has historically made sufficient water management crucial. The arid north, cut by Huang He (the Yellow River) is contrasted by the humid and fertile south, innervated by the big fluvial arteries of the Yangtze and Mekong. All of the rivers in the Far East begin in Tibet, including those that flow to the Indian Ocean (Indo, Ganges, and Brahmaputra). The latter are hard to control because their headwaters are located at high altitudes in the Himalayan Mountains, and their routes through China are brief. Instead, the Mekong flows through the province of Yunnan before brushing Myanmar and spilling into Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam’s famous delta. The economies of these four countries are antagonized by China’s needs. The Asian Giant needs increasingly more water and energy. They are necessary for three vital aspects: the population’s needs (especially urban), agriculture (especially livestock), and continual energy demands. Fossil fuels pollute, are expensive, and finite. Hydroelectric energy is decidedly more convenient. People need heat, they want to breathe cleaner air, and they’re eating more milk and meat. Finally, factories need cleaner and cheaper energy.
Such a monumental problem has found a partial answer in the use of river water, regulated by dams. The Three Gorges Dam has attracted international attention, but it was certainly not the only one. It’s estimated that there are 22,000 active large dams in China, almost half of the world’s total. In any case, China’s numerous public works are not with impact on its southern neighbors. These countries depend on the Mekong to fertilize their rice paddies and provide fish for their diets. Their economies have traditionally been regulated by the cyclic nature of the dry and wet seasons, and the ecosystem and the flux of water guarantees. The presence of upstream dams subjects the downstream systems to unexpected shocks, dictated by the reckless flows or withholding of water to satisfy China’s necessities. Hydrologic studies have observed an increase of floods flowed by long periods of drought, changing fish migrations, and changes in the sizes of animal populations that guarantee the regularity of the seasons. Finally, the relationship between man and nature is called into question, whose harmony governed ancient Asian societies. Villages along the Mekong are suffering from erratic rainfall and sudden floods. If the fishers’ feelings tend to blame Chinese dynamics, scientists are more prudent. According to Beijing, unexpected water phenomena have also occurred in China, and in any case, torrential rains and not dams cause floods. However, the point of friction with the Mekong River Commission (formed by 4 concerned countries) is another. Strangely, China is not a member despite 44% of the river’s length lying within its territory. It’s not so willing to share information on water trends, nor obviously subjecting its decisions to intergovernmental organizations. Binding international laws don’t exist, and collaboration is suffering from the political climate, which is undergoing a period of strong tension, especially with Vietnam, the most populous member of the MRC. China’s dimensions, the unscrupulousness of its decisions, and its geography that bestowed it with the rivers’ headwaters have rendered it unilateral in its decisions. Beijing by now enjoys a real “hydro-supremacy,” another record that strengthens its convictions—profitably now but not in the long run—of being able to decide the fate of communal resources alone.