- - Thursday, February 19, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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