ECC Platform Library


China’s Post-Pandemic Water Woes

20 July, 2020
Scott Moore, New Security Beat

yichang, china, yangtze, three gorges dam, river, water, asia, nature

The Yangtze River in the city of Yichang, Hubei Province, China. | © Dong Zhang/

Few places have suffered more from the COVID-19 pandemic than southern China, the region where the novel coronavirus was first detected in the city of Wuhan. But it turned out that the pandemic is not the only calamity to befall south China this year. The region has been inundated by heavy rainfall since late May, creating a risk of catastrophic flooding.

While southern China typically sees heavy rainfall in the summer months, state media reported that this year’s precipitation has been roughly 20 percent higher than normal. Other outlets report that flooding has affected over 30 million people across dozens of provinces and resulted in over 120 deaths. 

Conditions have worsened dramatically over the past week. On July 10, the Yangtze River Commission, a government body responsible for flood control, raised its alert level to the second-highest category, signalling a major emergency. On July 12, meanwhile, the height of the Yangtze River near Wuhan reportedly reached the third-highest level ever recorded. Further downstream, in Jiangxi province, water levels surpassed those recorded during the 1998 flood, the worst in modern history. The same day, state media quoted top leader Xi Jinping as saying the situation was “extremely grim.”

As Xi’s admission suggests, for Beijing, already reeling from the pandemic, the floods present a high-stakes political test. After devastating floods in 1998 killed several thousand people, China invested heavily in flood control and built one of the world’s most sophisticated flood disaster prediction and response systems. Even so, serious institutional gaps remain in key areas like flood insurance, which is sparsely used and means that property damage losses may be irretrievable. Worryingly for the Party, Chinese netizens have already begun criticizing Beijing’s initial response, especially given that Premier Li Keqiang visited Guizhou, far upstream of the most severely flooded regions. Social media users have moreover noted the relatively sparse coverage of the flooding in traditional media, suggesting that censorship is to blame.   

Such responses risk repeating the initial reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, which included attempts to minimize the scale of the outbreak and discredit whistleblowers like physician Li Wenliang, provoking widespread public anger. Several signs suggest that China’s ruling Communist Party recognizes the high potential cost of bungling its response to the flood disaster. In recent days, state media has run articles portraying local Party officials heroically waging a “battle without smoke” against the floods. Xi, moreover, explicitly tied flood disaster response to the Party’s over-riding mission of poverty alleviation—perhaps implying that anyone criticizing one could also be accused of undermining the other.   

The greatest risk of the flooding, both to the Party and the people, is the prospect that one of the Yangtze basin’s many large dams could fail. In late June, a well-known Chinese hydrologist, Wang Weiluo, caused a stir when he warned that the massive Three Gorges Dam, one of the world’s largest, was at risk of collapse, threatening tens of millions of people. The dam has long been a magnet for controversy. A 1992 legislative vote to approve the dam’s construction revealed unprecedented opposition, with fully one-third of China’s normally pliant lawmakers voting no. Concerns have also been raised about the dam’s structural integrity. In 2003, cracks up to 10 meters long appeared in the recently completed dam, and in 2011 top officials admitted the need to solve “urgent problems” related to the project, including “geological disaster prevention.” Last year, meanwhile, a social media user posted satellite images they claimed showed structural deformation of the dam.    

These allegations strike a chord among Party officials. In addition to long-standing criticism directed against the Three Gorges project, the 1975 failure of several dams along the Yellow River during a typhoon is estimated to have killed over 200,000 people, and contributed to the Party’s rejection of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Given this history, official sources unsurprisingly deny that Three Gorges is at risk. An article in the Party-linked Global Times newspaper derided “rumors hyped by some Western media” and cited Chinese experts assuring the public that the dam is capable of withstanding the current levels of heavy rainfall. According to official sources, the inflow rate of the Three Gorges Reservoir in early July stood at roughly 50,000 cubic meters per second, while the project’s claimed design capacity is reportedly 70,000 cubic meters per second. In fairness to these official accounts, peer-reviewed research that has reviewed the dam’s structural stability and construction standards has also concluded the dam is sound.     

But Three Gorges wouldn’t have to collapse to bring large-scale suffering on the people of south China—or create a political crisis for the Party. On July 13, the day after Xi’s statement, the Taiwan News reported on satellite photos that appear to show that far more water had been released from the Three Gorges Reservoir than official statements indicated. If true, these releases would suggest that concerns over the dam’s structural integrity were more acute than claimed and could have exacerbated already-severe flooding in the middle reaches of the Yangtze. This scenario would almost certainly stoke widespread anger among citizens of cities like Wuhan who have endured two major natural disasters in the span of just half a year.  

Nor is the Three Gorges project itself the only source of dam-related risk for south China. Even while pledging fealty to Xi’s directives to make flood control a top priority, China’s water experts quietly pointed to the risk posed by small and medium-sized dams and reservoirs. Many of these smaller structures, thousands of which dot the Yangtze river basin, tend to be older, more poorly built, and subject to less oversight than megaprojects like the Three Gorges. If the heavy rains that continue to lash southern China continue, they are likely to be at increasing risk of failure. 

No matter how the current crisis turns out for the Party and the people of south China, both will have to contend with several serious water-related challenges as they emerge from the pandemic. South China’s current flooding is a reminder that the region will be likely to suffer from increasingly frequent extreme weather events as climate change accelerates. Despite continued focus in the western media on water scarcity in China, moreover, the current crisis underscores the fact that flooding is likely to impose higher political and economic costs. Finally, a widely cited study showing that Chinese dams appeared to exacerbate drought in the lower Mekong has heightened tensions with neighboring countries over shared waterways, meaning that criticism of China’s large dams may increase from abroad as well as at home. 

As if the damage wrought by the pandemic weren’t great enough, China’s people and its leaders must continue to tackle a number of serious water woes in the months and years ahead.   


[This article originally appeared on The New Security Beat.]

ArticleClimate Diplomacy



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.

Read more

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.

Read more


Sorry, no description found.

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.

Read more

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.

Read more


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.

Read more


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.

Read more


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.

Read more

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. 

Read more


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 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.

Read more


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.

Read more

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.

Read more

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.

Read more

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. 

Read more


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.


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.

Read more



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.

Read more

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.

Read more


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.

Read more

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.

Read more

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.

Read more

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.

Read more

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.

Read more

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.

Read more

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.

Read more