CHINA’S WATER POLICIES: IMPLICATIONS FOR XINJIANG AND KAZAKHSTAN

By Eric Hagt (07/30/2003 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Beijing’s White Paper on Xinjiang, released in May of this year, calls for a continuation of the ambitious 1999 strategic campaign to ‘Develop the West’. Key implications of that policy include the continued expansion of cotton growing and energy exploitation. Both are vital industries for Xinjiang’s development and yet both create a demand for water that is unsustainable in a region that already shows signs of environmental strain. Due to increasing demand, the ground water table level has gone down 60 meters in the past 30 years, a rate that exceeds almost every country. China’s northwest also faces the chronic problem of desertification. Since 1994, annual net expansion of desertified land has averaged 10,400 square kilometers, causing an estimated direct loss of $US7.7 billion to the economy each year.

Beijing has employed several approaches to satisfy this growing thirst for water. In the past two years, the Chinese government has invested U.S. $5 million in prospecting for groundwater in the region. The effort paid dividends when in February, China discovered a reservoir beneath the Taklamakan desert floor (about the size of Portugal) with a capacity of 36 billion cubic meters. Exploiting this water supply will take time, however, and will only partly alleviate problems. Beijing has also sought to secure water resources by diverting rivers that its neighbors rely heavily upon. China’s goals for the region and the assertive water policies they require may not only affect the stability of the province but could also jeopardize relations with its Central Asian neighbors, especially Kazakhstan.

IMPLICATIONS: China’s determination to press ahead with its plans remains resolute. In the past two years alone, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has invested 2.1 billion yuan (U.S. $250 million) in energy development projects in the region. However, developing the energy of the Tarim and Turpan oil fields will bring urbanization and increased population that intensifies the demand for water. In addition, cotton, an extremely water-intensive crop, currently takes up nearly 40% of Xinjiang’s arable land, and will increase 13% by next year. Xinjiang’s cotton output now plays a vital role in China’s textile industry and has been identified as a strategic interest to the country’s economy. Such agricultural goals strain the region’s scarce water resources.

Meeting these water demands will in part derive from diverting the Irtysh and Ili Rivers, both of which originate in China and eventually flow into Kazakhstan and Russia. The Chinese leadership hopes the river diversion project will lead to economic development and raise local standards of living and thereby erode support for Uyghur separatism. However, a recent assessment indicates that China’s greatest stress from environmental degradation will occur in its north-west region, including Xinjiang. This could trigger ecological crisis if the issues of a rising population and increasing demands for water in the face of shrinking aquifers are not addressed. Irrigation schemes to supply water for industrial and agricultural needs over the long term could result in environmental, developmental and political consequences similar to those in Central Asia. A linkage between environmental degradation in China and the attrition of its political legitimacy may lead to an escalation of tensions between Beijing and ethnic inhabitants of Xinjiang.

China’s water policies will also have a direct impact on Kazakhstan’s economy and environment. The two main rivers that China proposes to divert, the Irtysh and the Ili, feed important agricultural and industrial regions in central and eastern Kazakhstan. The Irtysh begins in the Chinese Altay mountain range, flows west into Kazakhstan’s Lake Zaysan before crossing into Russia, where it runs through the large city of Omsk and eventually joins the Ob River. The Ili flows into Kazakhstan near Almaty and terminates in Lake Balkash. As many as 23 other smaller rivers and tributaries are also being considered for diversion. Large industrial regions such as Karaganda and Pavlodar get most of their water from the Irtysh, which may also be increasingly used to supply Kazakhstan’s new capital, Astana, thus placing additional pressure on water supplies in the region.

The planned diversion of up to 10% of the rivers’ volume will impede economic growth in the region. Moreover, the shallowing of the rivers and shrinkage of the Balkash and Zaysan Lakes could have environmental repercussions such as salinization and micro-climate change—similar to the problems of the Aral Sea region. In addition, unregulated levels of fertilizers and chemicals are dumped into the rivers by all parties, leading to high pollution levels. These have broader environmental security implications related to ecological, development, health and migration.

CONCLUSIONS: Although the region’s transborder river issues are unlikely to lead to open conflict, the absence of equitable water management policies could have serious implications for the region. First, mismanagement of water and resulting environmental degradation could aggravate Uyghur grievances against Beijing, leading to instability. Second, there is the danger of friction between China and Kazakhstan. Thus far, China has been unwilling to expand water negotiations from bilateral to multilateral discussion (to include Russia) and negotiations have failed to incorporate international law. China has yet to show real willingness to engage in meaningful cooperation or compromise in pursuit of its water demands.

However, a more positive scenario is also possible. Bilateral talks between Kazakhstan and China put the weaker state, Kazakhstan, at a disadvantage. This problem may be best solved by switching to multilateral talks involving Russia, which is directly interested in fate of the Irtysh River, and Kyrgyzstan, whose glaciers feed several Chinese rivers. Such a multilateral forum is found in the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, which has helped solve land border issues and may also serve to remedy transborder water disputes. Yet, it is noteworthy that despite the border treaties of 1996 and 1997, China seized 150 square miles of Kazakh territory in 2001 for control of a Black Irtysh River watershed.

China’s assertive water policy is indicative of a trend in some Asian states, which are keen to ensure their national water supplies, often to the detriment of other states. With the acute scarcity and climbing competitive demands on water resources in the region, water management between states will be determined in the context of geopolitical concerns and domestic policies.

AUTHOR BIO: Eric Hagt is a researcher with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is a contributing author to the Freeman Chair’s upcoming report, “China’s New Journey to the West: China’s Emergence in Central Asia and Implications for U.S. Interest”.