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Water Scarcity in Northern China

Type of conflict main
Intensity 3
Region
Eastern Asia
Time 1980 ‐ ongoing
Countries China
Resources Biodiversity, Agricultural / Pastoral Land, Water
Conflict Summary Water scarcity has become an increasingly severe issue in northern China. Over-withdrawal of surface water and groundwater for industry, farmland and...
Water Scarcity in Northern China
Water scarcity has become an increasingly severe issue in northern China. Over-withdrawal of surface water and groundwater for industry, farmland and domestic consumption has led to decreasing water levels, ground subsidence, salinity intrusion, and ecosystem deterioration. Climate change, which has already induced a measurable impact on China’s drought cycle and precipitation rate, is intensifying an already fragile situation. Water scarcity is perceived to be a security threat by the Chinese central government and, against a backdrop of increasing environmental awareness and localised activism in China, has the potential to induce social unrest.
Conceptual Model

Climate Change

Northern China receives limited precipitation compared to the southern part of the country. This uneven distribution of water is worsened by the effects of climate change, which have already induced a measurable impact on China’s drought cycle and precipitation rates. According to some reports, rainfall is expected to decrease in the north of China and increase in the south.

Intermediary Mechanisms

Reports predict further threats to both water and food security. In 2014, northern China experienced historic lows in groundwater, directly affecting agricultural grain production. The province of Henan was forced to introduce emergency measures as reservoirs grew dry. It is predicted that the supply of water will not be able to meet the demand by 2030 at the current rate.

Fragility and Conflict Risks

Environmental awareness and activism has increased in China and have sparked several significant protests. Although these protests have not directly addressed the issue of water scarcity in China, there is potential for future social unrest.

Climate ChangeEnvironmental ChangeIntermediary MechanismsFragility and Conflict RisksSocial and Economic DriversChanging climate leads to decreased water availability.Economic developments place additional strains on water resources.Economic activity causes pollution.Freshwater becomes scarce as an essential resource. Pollution reduces available/usable freshwater.Reduced availability of/access to natural resources leads to tensions between states.A slow change in climatic conditions, particularly temperature and precipitation.Gradual Change in Temperature and/or PrecipitationAn increase in the scarcity of clean water and/or an increased variability in water supply.Increased Water ScarcityA broad concept to cover economic growth in general but also specific economic changes or changes of incentives.Economic DevelopmentPollution and degradation of ecosystems, such as coral reefs.Pollution / Environmental DegradationReduced availability of essential natural resources, such as land and water.Change in Access / Availability of Natural ResourcesTensions between states that may but need not escalate into overt violent conflict.Interstate Tensions
Context Factors
  • Water-stressed Area
Conflict History

Since the 1980s, China has faced water shortages of increasing magnitude and frequency for urban industry, domestic consumption and irrigated agriculture. Per capita water resources in China are just over 25% of the world average and, further complicating the issue, these resources are extremely unevenly distributed. Whilst southern China has an abundance of water and receives roughly 80% of the country’s total precipitation, northern China, which comprises approximately 40% of the country’s total population, 50% of its GDP and half its agricultural land, receives a mere 12% of total precipitation (Council on Foreign Relations, 2013). Limited precipitation in the north, coupled with human over-exploitation of existing resources and the effects of global climate change have led to decreasing water levels and desertification. According to the 2030 Water Resources Group, if China continues on with ‘business as usual’ in relation to current water usage, the supply of water will not be able to meet the demand for water by 2030. The predicted shortage, in this scenario, would be at least 200bn cubic metres (The 2030 Water Ressources Group, 2009, p. 10).

Increasing Environmental Awareness in China
Against this backdrop, there has been increasing environmental awareness and activism in China. In 2013, the environment surpassed land expropriation as the leading cause of social unrest in the country (Council on Foreign Relations, 2013). This environmental activism has tended to focus on more visible and localised environmental polluters, for instance, within the immediate vicinities of proposed industrial plants. In 2013, for example, a thousand people protested in the streets of the Songjiang district in Shanghai against a proposed lithium battery factory amid concerns about water and air pollution. In the same year, over a thousand protesters took to the streets in the southern city of Kunming to voice concerns over the environmental impacts of a planned chemical refinery by China National Petroleum Corporation (Duggan, 2013). Although these protests have not directly addressed the issue of water scarcity in China, the situation is volatile and therein lies the potential for future social unrest. In an earlier instance recounted by David Pietz, armed villagers had clashed over water at the border between Hebei and Henan provinces in 1992 (Pietz, 2015).

Climate Change Intensifying the Situation
Climate change is continuing to exasperate a shortage of water in northern China. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC)’s Fourth Assessment Report, rainfall is expected to decrease in the north of China and increase in the south. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, issued in 2013, predicts threats to both water and food security, including a reduction in grain yields (Tiezzi, 2014). The summer following these saw groundwater levels in northern China hit historic lows, forcing some agricultural provinces, including the province of Henan, to introduce emergency measures as reservoirs grew dry (Chang, 2014). Additionally, the northern province of Liaoning, a region known to be the ‘bread basket’ of China because of high corn production, experienced its worst drought in 63 years (Larson, 2014).

Global Implications
Water scarcity in northern China also has global implications. As water is increasingly diverted from the south to the north and more water projects are constructed, the water supplies of neighbouring countries, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, India, Thailand and Bangladesh will most certainly be affected. Indeed, in order to resolve the water scarcity in northern China, the Chinese central government has embarked on a vast engineering project: the South-North Water Transfer Project, a 2400km network of canals and tunnels designed to divert 44.8bn cubic metres of water annually to China’s northern regions (Kaiman, 2014; see South-North Water Transfer Project in China). However, the implications of the net water loss to the south of China and neighbouring countries remain unclear.      

Resolution Efforts

Although water scarcity has not catalysed conflict or social unrest as such, it does possess potential triggers for social unrest in the future. Due to this, and against the backdrop of increasing environmental awareness within China, water scarcity now features predominantly within Chinese domestic politics. Indeed, in recognition of the continuing threat of water scarcity, the Chinese central government elevated water to top of the agenda in 2011, displacing agriculture which had previously held the top position. The Chinese central government has also introduced water efficiency targets and national water usage caps by 2015, 2020 and 2030 respectively (China Water Risk, 2011), the results of which remain to be seen.

The South-North Water Transfer Project, although a highly visible attempt to mitigate water scarcity in the north, has been criticised by prominent scientists and environmentalists who have argued that the diversion poses potentially serious ecological consequences, including salt-water intrusion and habitat destruction (Freeman, 2010). The knock-on implications for water reserves in the south and China’s neighbours are, as yet, still unknown.         

Intensities & Influences
conflict intensity scale
Intensities
International / Geopolitical Intensity
Human Suffering

Influences
Environmental Influences
Societal Influences

Violent Conflict No
Salience within nation National
Mass Displacement Less than 100.000 and less than 10% of the country's population are displaced within the country.
Cross Border Mass Displacement No
Resources
Biodiversity, Agricultural / Pastoral Land, Water
Resolution Success
Resolve of displacement problems Displacement continues to cause discontent and/or other problems.
Reduction in geographical scope There has been no reduction in geographical scope.
Increased capacity to address grievance in the future There is no increased capacity to address grievances in the future.
Grievance Resolution Grievances have been partially addressed.
Causal Attribution of Decrease in Conflict Intensity There has been no reduction in intensity
General opencollapse
Country Data in Comparison
ConflictNoData Created with Sketch.
Fault Lines Defining Conflict Parties
Purely Environmental | Cultural   ♦   Occupational   ♦   Economic   ♦   Urban / Rural   ♦   National / International conflict   ♦   Sub-national political


Actors
Participation Conflict Party     Conflict Resolution Facilitator
Chinese Government
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Environmental activists and protesters
Functional GroupCivil Society
Geographical ScaleInternal Grassroots
Entry Points for Resilience and Peace Building
3 Improving infrastructure & services The Chinese government has set in motion the South-North Water Transfer Project in an attempt to mitigate water scarcity in the north. However, the project has been highly criticized for its potentially serious ecological consequences.
2 Improving resource efficiency The Chinese central government has elevated water to the top of its agenda and introduced water efficiency targets and national water usage caps by 2015, 2020 and 2030 respectively.
Further Details opencollapse
Conflict Characterization
Character of the contested good Public good: No one can be excluded from use and the good is not depleted.
Structure of decision-making power / interdependence Asymmetric: The power to affect the environmental resource is unequal.
Broad conflict characterization Resource capture is not present.
Ecological Marginalization is present.
Data of involved Countries
Resources and Materials opencollapse
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Topics

Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Cities

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Co-Benefits

Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Development

Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Energy

The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Finance

Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.

Forests

Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender

Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Security

Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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