A Myriad of Water Conflicts Within the State: Human Security Solutions in China?

March 20, 2009

Water conflicts are more likely to take place on an individual or community level as a “conflict”, rather than on a state-level as a “crisis”. The last time two states went to war over water was 4,500 years ago (“Dehydrating Conflict”)! However, in China alone, there were over 120,000 recorded conflicts over water quantity from 1990 to 2002. Therefore, there is a need to look at intra-state water conflict management systems.
A look at a few cases in China would illustrate the problems and potential solutions. The Three Gorges Dam is a project subsuming energy development, economic stimulus, geographical reallocation of water and ecological threat. Yet, it has flooded archaeological and cultural sites and displaced some 1.24 million people. Over one billion tons of wastewater is release, annually into the river, causing dramatic ecological changes. The question lingers of whether the human and environmental costs are too great compared to the economic growth achieved.

There is also competition between cities: Beijing, in need to provide sufficient drinking water to its residents, got into conflict with the neighbouring municipality of Tianjin because of a reservoir project that draws water from the upper reaches of the Juhe River which runs through both cities. Both cities refused to compromise, so what can be done in this situation?

When water conflicts are not well-managed, drastic consequences can appear.  In Zhejiang province, villagers got so fed up with the polluting discharges reaching them along rivers from the textile factories in Jiangsu province that they created their own dam in the 50-meter-wide river.

In China, disputes between villages, cities and provinces are often resolved by the central government in an ad hoc, case-by-case fashion. Despite improving environmental laws to allow victims of pollution to seek compensation, no formal institute or private organization has been set up to provide third-party mediation on environmental disputes.

From a Human Security point of view, much improvements could be made in China’s water conflict management strategies.

First, there is a stress on meeting the water needs of each individual, and not just the state. This would prevent disproportionate sacrificing of people’s interests and the environment for the sake of economic growth, as it arguably was done in the Three Gorges Project.

Second, a higher priority would be given to water as an urgent security need. This stems from the ‘freedom from want’ school that access to water is a fundamental basic tenet to human security. This is evident as water is also inextricably linked to poverty. Treating water needs as a priority would imply that the government needs to establish a comprehensive framework for water conflict management, and not just deal with it on an ad-hoc basis.

Thirdly, human security acknowledges the capacity for cooperation and collaboration. This means that all stakeholders should be included in water conflict resolution processes, and not just having the government decide. Moreover, when processes are at a stalemate, as in the example of conflict between Beijing and Tianjin, a competent third-party could be called in to mediate. The World Bank in the case of the Indus Water Treaty was a successful example of third-party mediation.

Given that most water conflicts are intra-state, there is a need to develop a plausible framework to address these conflicts. How can we refine our security framework strategically to resolve the huge numbers and different types of water conflicts, especially those that occur within the state?

By Carmen, Ng Ka Man & Angie, Chan Nga Ki

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9 Responses to “A Myriad of Water Conflicts Within the State: Human Security Solutions in China?”

  1. bapruim Says:

    This is an interesting article, I was surprised to find out that most conflicts were intra-state. It seemsthat you think it would be a good idea to involve third parties in the mediation of these disputes, and I agree. However, do you think it would be a good idea to involve third parties from states around China mediation dealing with outside water issues first or second? China is a big area, and it may need to consider its own problems like north vs south and east vs west in its mediation of its own state before it addresses outside conflicts. However, outside conflicts may have a great impact on intra-state conflict. If countries around China start using more water as they grow as well, that would seem to greatly exacerbate the intra-state conflicts in China. what are your thoughts on combining water mediation with dignitaries from the surrounding areas to see if they can help alleviate water issues in stressed areas?

    • Carmen Ng Says:

      Hi bapruim,

      Thank you for your comment. We are glad that you enjoyed reading our blog post. Yes we did suggest that an inclusion of a third party in mediating water dispute could be more effective as it was proven by other similar examples such as the Indus Waters Treaty. Any multilateral approach is certainly more effective in balancing each party’s interest in a sustainable manner. However, we have not suggested China to deal with external water disputes with other states. It is true that water allocation can be solved or arranged on a level broader than just one state. For example, countries sharing the same river basin can come together and follow a mutually-agreed water allocation method. But as you already pointed out, China has too much on its plate already before even addressing other states’ disputes. At this moment, no urgent need to “dealing with outside water issues first or second”, as you mentioned above, is observed.

  2. Selena Wong Says:

    Dear Carmen and Angie,

    Thank you very much for sharing the case of China. Undoubtedly, China is now well-known for it success in surviving the economic turmoil. Nevertheless, China is also, ironically, notorious for its handling of humanitarian issues. From a human security perspective, I believe the examples you shared reveal demerits of the rule of the Communist Party. Not only does they manifest how the importance of economy outweighs that of the well-being of its people, but they also illustrates there is a lack of monitoring system in this rising power in ensuring stakeholders complying accordingly with the law.

    Furthermore, you are very correct to point out that “no formal institute or private organization has been set up to provide third party mediation on environmental disputes”. As I have learnt in other China Studies courses, there are a growing number of NGOs registered in China, which mainly deal with the environmental problems within the territory. However, many of these so-called NGOs are indeed government-operated non-governmental organizations known as GONGOs. Apparently, its name has already told its limited neutrality and credibility. Also, NGOs or concern groups, which hope to contribute in sensitive issues such as HIV/AIDS or other humanitarian problems, are still very much prohibited by the state.

    If China is to be a responsible power, it ought to be more open, not merely in terms of its trade, but also in terms of inviting third-parties in handling its human security issues.
    I totally agree that the Indus Water Treaty serves as a good example of third-party mediation which China could learn from.

    Selena Wong Sai Yin

    • Carmen Ng Says:

      Dear Selena,

      Thank you for your comment. I am glad that you agree with what we tried to highlight in our blog post, which is the lack of formal institution in the water dispute conflict resolution process. Yes, everything you said were very true. And I’d like to highlight the reason behind how the GONGOs play a limited role, is not just about the eagerness of the Chinese government to open iup itself, but also about the constitutional structure of having a party-state and the interlocking structure that prevails from local level to national level.

      As we’ve mentioned in our blog post, water disputes in China are usually handled by the central government in an ad hoc, case-by-case fashion. It makes sense to point out that in these “case-by-case” decision-making process, NGOs (no matter they are government-owned or not) would not play a meaningful role. First, the decision-makers do not have to make decisions that follow a constitutional or legal requirment. Secondly, there’s no structurally designed checks and balances in monitoring how those decision-makers resovle the conflicts “case-by-case”. Even the officials are not assigned to make people-centered policies, how could an NGO (even when it’s genuinely an NGO) help channeling its voice when the vessels of opinions itself find no entrance to a democratic decision-making platform?

  3. carmenkmc Says:

    Dear Carmen and Angie,

    Thank you for your insightful post and the following are my thoughts after reading it:

    First, I am not entirely sure about how the Three Gorges Project may prevent ‘disproportionate sacrificing of people’s interests and the environment for the sake of economic growth’. Could you please elaborate more on it? Thanks!

    Second, I agree that inter-city water use conflicts are dominate in China but I doubt if 3rd party intervention by the World Bank as you suggested is the best option. My reasons are first, China is a sovereign state and she is very likely to argue that such conflicts are internal and foreign intervention is not justified. Moreover, resolution of such disputes require tremendous local knowledge so that a local organization will be in a better position than the World Bank to address the disputes.

    Therefore, with reference to your question at the end of the post, I suggest the creation of an international treaty covering the following: 1. on the inter-state level, neighboring states share clean water resources peacefully and 2. on the intra-state level, state promise to efficiently manage its clean water system and guarantee equal access to clean water by its people. Specified NGOs/international organizations may have a more active role in achieving the first element whereas local organizations set up by states in in order to fulfill their treaty obligations can achieve the second element (with the help of NGOs/international organizations if necessary).

    Carmen Cheng

    • Carmen Ng Says:

      Dear Carmen,

      Thanks for your comment. In response to your first question, we did not say the Three Gorges Project itself can prevent the happening of “disproportionate sacrificing of people’s interests and the environment”. Instead, what we suggested, was that a people-centered approach in tackling water dispute, instead of a state-centered policy making approach, would have greater potential to realistically meet the water needs of each individual, and not just the state.

      As for your second concern, let me say we share the same concern that China will most likely be reluctant to any kind of foreign assistance or intervention. But it is not totally hopeless. For past cases like SARS and Sichuan-earthquake in May 2008, China demonstrated a higher-than-usual level of openness to international institutions (of course in that case it’s not instant voluntary sharing of information). My point is that, China does have the willingness to open up, IF the government is convinced that China is suffering from the dispute as a VICTIM and international organizations can offer solutions that benefit China’s internal stability.

  4. Carrie Chow Says:

    Dear Carmen and Angie,

    Thank you for providing us with such a clear review of some major water conflicts in China and the ways in which human security could help achieve a better results.

    I agree with you that for inter-state conflict, the ad-hoc way of deciding water distribution and development project could be dangerous. And is this particular area, the human security agenda could draw our attention to the better strategies to resolve the issue by focusing on individual needs and bringing in more stakeholders.

    Your first point (i.e. stressing on individual water needs) has stimulated my thoughts on the urgent need to focus on individuals rather than on the ‘maths’ (e.g. industrial / GDP growth in China’s case). We have seen how those massive industrial plants have polluted water supplies in China (both rivers and underground water), which in turn threaten the livelihood of millions of people living in rural areas.

    The issue that lingers in my mind is: given that the ‘losers’ do not even have a state to speak out their needs (as would be in the cases of international conflict), how to get decision-makers realizing this when their careers are linked more with GDP growth? Admittedly I do not have a good answer to that, perhaps more voices and transparency of the situations could put political pressures on them? What do you think?

    Your second point is also noteworthy. As pointed out by Wolf in ‘Water and Human Security’, ‘water quality has been neglected to the point of catastrophe’. In China, the polluted water supply means that the whole food chain is affected: e.g. crops production is affected, fishes become poisoned, etc. so that people’s life are seriously endangered. In this respect, I think that human security could be valuable in focusing on measures to improve water quality (e.g. better technology in water use and sanitization, etc.).

    Carrie Chow

  5. carriechow1 Says:

    In addition to my above comment, I just want to add one point about the linkage between water and poverty in the case of China.

    As shown by Postel and Wolf (‘Dehydrating Conflict’), in China a significant share of the irrigated land is now jeopardized by groundwater depletion, scarce river water, a fertility-sapping buildup of salts in the sold, etc. Groundwater depletion ALONE places 10-20 percent of grain production in China at risk.

    What is really alarming to me is, that while this years we saw from the news that many former migrated workers in cities are moving back to rural areas (which is where they came from) because of lost of jobs, this, together with the fall in grain productivity, means that the average income of them will further decrease. This might, quite expectably, cause serious unrest in rural areas in the future. Therefore, I agree with you that the government should develop a more holisitic and long-term policy on water issues.

    Carrie Chow

  6. lmcinhk Says:

    I strongly recommend that you read the work of Ma Jun, one of China’s environmental heros. In this piece on China Dialogue (http://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/2847), he discusses “Defending Water Security” in China by looking at the one case of water pollution in Yancheng, Jiangsu province. He argues that in this case as with many others…

    “Laws have been decreed and policies issued at the highest levels. The environment authorities have put systems in place and launched crackdowns. There is no doubt that water security is an issue that is taken seriously. In practice, however, the environmental authorities are weak. Environmental protection policies are subordinate to the broader economic picture. Environmental impact assessments can be breached if they are a barrier to investment. Once a crackdown has ended, polluting industries can pick up where they left off – as long as it will benefit GDP growth. Faced with the choice between economic growth and protecting water resources, local governments favour the economy.”

    “…Responding to … questions, a local environmental official told reporters that it is normal to meet basic needs before protecting the environment. An official with the local investment office commented that western countries have shown the feasibility of polluting first and cleaning up later; it is an unavoidable development model, he said. The media summarised his position as, “it is better to be poisoned than poor”.”

    “…These views are not unique to Yancheng. Some see environmental problems as the normal consequences of an early stage of economic growth, which will be naturally resolved through further development. However, when pollution is a direct threat to the health and lives of the people, why should we wait? It is mostly the officials – who can afford to drink bottled water, live apart from polluters and eat uncontaminated foods – who think it is best to run the risk of dying. It is vulnerable social groups who suffer most from water and air pollution.”

    Food for thought…

    — LMC


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