As China Saves Water, It Drains South Asia

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This essay won 2nd place in the 2023 YRIS High School Essay Contest for its response to the following prompt: “What is a current issue in international relations or world affairs that does not receive enough attention in global media?”

The first law of holes is quite simple: when you are in one, stop digging. But China just doesn’t stop digging holes—both into its rivers and international stability. In recent years, China launched a series of secret dam construction projects to increase its water supply. These dams, however, are turning the tides of critical rivers, weaponizing water, and strangling economies in Southern Asia. Making matters worse, the issue has been grossly undercovered by the media since China keeps its dam construction projects a “state secret” (Eyler 2020).

At the turn of the 20th century, China aggressively exhausted its resources. Because the global power was self-sufficient in water, cheap labor allowed businesses to blow through the water supply (Wu 2012). Industrialization and pollution went unchecked, prompting thousands of fresh water bodies to dry up (Hsu 2013). Today, half of all river water and 90% of groundwater in China is too dirty to drink (Brands 2021).

While the consequences of industrialization were preventable, the inherent cause of China’s water shortage stems from population pressures. Beijing houses 20% of the world’s population yet only 7% of its water supply (Udimal 2017). Down the road, there won’t be enough water to sustain China’s population, with the Chinese minister of resources, Wang Shucheng, predicting that Beijing would run out of water in 15 years (Shaheen 2021). In the meantime, China loses over $100 billion from water scarcity every year (Brands 2021). The sands are running out of the hourglass. Without a steady supply of water, China’s economy will grind to a halt, and populations will experience disasters akin to the Great Famine of 1959 (Bernstein 2006).

To address such water insecurity, China is developing desalination technologies, importing water-intensive soy crops, and exploiting groundwater (Cho 2011; Dalin 2014; Collins 2022). But building dams seems to be the most realistic solution. So far, China has built 11 dam reservoirs along the Mekong river that are designed to catch Himalayan glacier melt (Eyler 2020). As Allen Basit put it, “Glaciers are bank accounts of water,” and “the Chinese are building safe deposit boxes on the upper Mekong because they know the bank account is going to be depleted” (Beech 2020). However, the Mekong river doesn’t only belong to China—it is the lifeblood of Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia. So, as Beijing straddles the river, it prevents over 200 million other people from accessing clean water.

China has built an astounding 87,000 dams throughout history (Zhongru 2012). However, none have been as invasive as the current iteration. Nevertheless, these monumental feats of engineering have done little to create a secure channel of water. Dams still leave China high and dry. No matter how well-intentioned, Beijing’s dams harm South Asia more than benefit China.

On April 10, 2020, a peer-reviewed Eyes on Earth study revealed that China is restricting more water than everfrom its downstream neighbors (Basist 2020). As a result, Roseean Gerin reports that “the Mekong River is so dry…that local residents can walk across it” (2022) The consequences soar further, involving droughts and floods, economic damage, and environmental degradation.

Dams have triggered unprecedented droughts throughout South Asia. For example, the Stimson Center found that “China’s dams held back so much water that they entirely prevented the annual rise in river level in…wet-season Thailand (Eyler 2020). This has not happened since modern records have been kept.” Similarly, due to droughts in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, millions lack access to water (Nam 2021). While dams collect minimal water for China, they cause detrimental droughts, thus spoiling much more water in South Asia.

Beijing may induce droughts during wet seasons; however, during dry seasons, dams trigger mass flooding. In December 2013, dam reservoirs caused a 10-day flood in Chiang Rai, shattering millions of lives (Davies 2014). This is part of a broader pattern where Chinese dams release water during dry seasons and withhold water during wet seasons. China’s ambitious project goes to show that manipulating the natural tide of rivers can have life-devastating effects.

Meanwhile, China is also in hot water for ravaging South Asian economies. For instance, only one dam amounted to $26 billion of economic losses (Kamaljit). Because Laos and Cambodia river water levels hit a record low, crops are regularly washed away, thus destroying agricultural sectors of the economy (Lewis 2013). In Thailand, production of sugar consequently reached record lows, too. Fish-reliant economies further face adversity, with fish catches 80-90% lower in Cambodia (Benali 2022). In July 2022, dams caused rice production in Vietnam and Thailand to decrease significantly (Onishi 2020). Not only does these dams upset the balance of the ocean ecosystem, but it also reduces the primary source of food and protein in many South Asian nations. In short, China’s mega-dams increase the unsustainability they aimed to prevent.

It’s only a matter of time before China builds more dams. Already, Beijing proposed a giant project that would pose a grave threat not only to Thailand and Cambodia but also India (Saika 2022). But this and similar proposals only dip China’s toe in the water. Dams are a short-term solution. To secure a sustainable water source for all nations, China must improve transparency and search for more pointed, domestic solutions.

So far, all of China’s dam constructions and river releases have been kept a state secret. This lack of transparency is intended to limit public and international backlash. However, it disrespects China’s southern neighbors. Should China increase transparency and cooperative engagement with South Asia, these countries can prepare for floods and droughts ahead of time. China must also collaborate with the U.S. to share water resources and innovative solutions. In this way, transnational information-sharing may also help China yield more water.

Many countries maintain that China is morally bankrupt, having sold South Asian stability for fresh water (Johnson 2021). While dams may look a promising solution, they only augment and shift the issue southward. If China doesn’t stop digging, it will find itself in a bottomless hole—demoralized by the world and still thirsty for water.

Work Cited and Referenced: 

Angel Hsu, William Miao. “28,000 Rivers Disappeared in China: What Happened?” The Atlantic, 13 July 2015, 

Basist, Allen et al. Monitoring the Quantity of Water Flowing Through the Upper Mekong Basin Under Natural (Unimpeded) Conditions. Sustainable Infrastructure Project, Bangkok, 2019. 

Beech, Hannah. “China Limited the Mekong’s Flow. Other Countries Suffered a Drought.” The New York Times, 13 Apr. 2020, 

Bengali, Shashank. “‘No Fish’: How Dams and Climate Change Are Choking Asia’s Great Lake.” Los Angeles Times, 20 Jan. 2020, 

Brands, Hal. “China Is Running out of Water and That’s Scary for Asia .” AEI, 29 Dec. 2021, 

Brands, Hal. “China’s Water Shortage Is Scary for India, Thailand, Vietnam.” Bloomberg, 29 Dec. 2021, 

Cho, Renee. “How China Is Dealing with Its Water Crisis.” State of the Planet, 25 July 2019, 

Collins, Gabriel, and Gopal Reddy. “China’s Growing Water Crisis.” Foreign Affairs, 19 Apr. 2023, 

Dalin, Carol et al. “Water Resources Transfers through Chinese Interprovincial and Foreign Food Trade.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 8 July 2014. 

Davies, Richard. “Floods Landslides Chiang Rai Thailand.” FloodList, 29 July 2022, 

Eyler, Brian. “New Evidence: How China Turned off the Tap on the Mekong River • Stimson Center.” Stimson Center, 8 Dec. 2022, 

Gerin, Roseanne. “Worries in Laos and Thailand as Upstream Dams Drain Mekong River.” Radio Free Asia, 2 Feb. 2022, 

Johnson, Kay, and Panu Wongcha-um. “Water Wars: Mekong River Another Front in u.s.-China Rivalry.” Reuters, 24 July 2020, 

Kamaljit, Bawa S.  “China, India, and the Environment.” University of Vermont Policy Center, 19 March 2010. 

Lewis, CharltonL. “China’s Dam Boom Is an Assault on Its Great Rivers .” The Guardian, 4 Nov. 2013, 

Li, Hongbin et al.”The End of Cheap Chinese Labor.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 26 (4): 57-74, 2012. 

Nam, Hoang. “Mekong Delta Struggles to Find Freshwater as Drought, Salt Intrusion Continue .” VnExpress International, 22 Mar. 2020, 

Onishi, Tomoya. “Rice Prices Hit 6-Year High as Thailand and Vietnam Face Drought.” Nikkei Asia, 30 Mar. 2020, 

Saikia, Jaideep. “The Chinese Threat to Lower Brahmaputra Riparians India and Bangladesh .” The Diplomat, 19 Feb. 2022, 

Shaheen, Thérèse. “China Is Turning Its Water-Scarcity Crisis into a Weapon.” National Review, 8 June 2021, 

Thomas Udimal, et al. “China’s Water situation; The Supply of Water and the Pattern of its Usage.” International Journal of Sustainable Built Environment, Volume 6, Issue 2, pp. 495-500, 2017. 

Zhongru, Wu et al. “Comprehensive Evaluation Methods for Dam Service Status.” Science China-technological Sciences 55: 2300-2312, 2012.


Ashwin was a junior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South in New Jersey when he submitted this piece to the 2023 YRIS High School Essay Competition.