If the countries of Asia were ever gathered into a room and asked, “Who here has ever felt victimised by China?”, a lot of hands would go up in the air. China is often portrayed as the region’s Mean Girl, the power player who exercises soft power to get what it wants, never openly engaging in conflict but also too strong to refuse any requests. This has especially been true in the recent South China Seas tensions, with the general consensus that China’s claim to the area is on very shaky ground.
The case is not as clear cut when it comes to rivers in the Asian region. After a closer look at the details, China’s refusal to ratify a recent UN treaty regarding river ways is actually quite understandable. (Fun fact: China did not even have to pay off my recent UWA parking fine for me to come to this conclusion.)
All countries face the balancing act of economic growth and progress versus environmental protection. With a population of 1.3 billion, China faces this challenge on a whole other level. As an alternative to coal, China has turned to hydro-power in the last twenty years. Since it began seriously tackling construction of super-dams in the last 20 years, over 22 million people have been displaced within China to make room for these structures, often with little or no compensation.
Only two of China’s rivers are exclusively domestic. The majority of their rivers flow through China to various countries in the South-Asian region. As a result, the decisions China makes impacts not just its own citizens but those of Thailand, India, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to name a few.
The dams have caused algal blooms and decreased fish stocks, with fish migration patterns blocked by dam structures, impacting the livelihood of those who live downriver. At the Mekong river basin, low water levels mean saltwater floods back into the river mouth; the Thai government estimates that 400 000 hectares of agricultural land have been ruined by salinity. Low water levels all along the river is vitally damaging when flooding agricultural land is essential to the cultivation of rice. The sheer size of dams artificially holding trillions of kilograms of water over fault lines has even caused an increase in seismic activity, with direct links between dam constructions and earthquakes which have gone on to kill hundreds of thousands of people.
China has an estimated 80 000 dams within the country, and the majority of the hundreds of future dams to still be built are planned for upriver areas. China’s dam project decisions impact the estimated 60 million people who rely on the Mekong river basin, and the hundreds of millions more who live alongside the river. But the environmental damage caused by the rivers is too vast; the waterways simply and literally have too many dams to function.
China’s continued dam construction has faced heavy criticism, especially from India. With river water so essential to everyone, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to imagine a UN-less world where conflicts over rivers are solved with conflict and artillery fire. Realistically there is a reason you have never heard of the Sino-Indian River Wars of 1992; these conflicts don’t tend to happen. River usage issues have traditionally been solved with bilateral diplomatic agreements. The oldest treaty on record is about river water rights, between the Sumerian cities of Lagash and Umma. More recently, the last fifty years has seen 37 violent incidents occurring over river water use, but 150 treaties have been signed in that same time frame.
The South-Asian region this year faced the worst drought in twenty years. Rain levels are record-low, caused by an El Niño exacerbated by climate change. Earlier this year, in an act of “water diplomacy”, China agreed to increase water flows from its dams to ease drought conditions for its southern neighbours. Whilst the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced China had decided to “overcome its own difficulties to offer emergency water flows”, many cynics point out that China only gained from this situation, increasing electricity generation with this action.
The tensions do not rest with China alone. Thailand caused controversy when it decided to pump some of the water China had released to other drought-stricken areas of country, drawing criticism from other countries further downriver. India has responded to China’s dam-building by constructing their own super-dams to secure water reserves, impacting other countries. Laos, downriver of China but upriver of everyone else, continues to build dams to generate its own electricity. The US (which doesn’t even go here) has been exerting influence in an attempt to mediate negotiations. Whilst there are many river treaties in the Asian region, only a few can be arguably called successful.
In 1997 the UN attempted to address the ad hoc system bilateral treaty system, adopting the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. It took nearly twenty years for the treaty to come into force in 2014. The Convention essentially forms a “guide” to drafting river treaties, and is the first global treaty around trans-boundary river usage.
There are several issues that non-ratifying countries have with the Convention. Some, like Pakistan, disagree with the inclusion of groundwater, since it’s difficult to source where or how a problem is caused. The Convention also requires other countries to consult and negotiate between each other before commencing work that could impact trans-boundary river systems, impacting national sovereignty.
The most contentious area is Article 7, which states that nations cannot govern their water in “ways that harm other states”. This means that the burden of responsibility falls almost exclusively to upriver countries, like China. The majority of ratifying nations are downriver nations, and the regions who arguably need the Convention the most, like South America, have few or no signatories. Vietnam, the deciding signature which brought the treaty into force, remains the only Asian nation to ratify it. China refuses to ratify it; India refused because China won’t. Other Asian nations, like Cambodia, Thailand, Bangladesh and Laos supported the original 1997 vote but have not ratified the treaty since.
China remains between a rock and a hard spot. With the exception of nuclear power, which comes with its own international law luggage, hydro-electricity remains one of the only practical ways a country can generate renewable energy on a large scale.
As it currently stands, trans-national rivers are embroiled in issues of sovereignty, environmental right and wrong, and the balance between human ingenuity and anthropological environmental disaster. Our capacity to impact the environment, and the lives of hundreds of millions of people, is growing exponentially.
Is a global treaty the answer to Asia’s problems? Maybe one day in the future. But for now, perhaps the UN needs to stop trying to make the treaty happen.
Kylie Mathews is a third-year Communications/Media and Economics Major at UWA, and Social Media Director of the ILC. She spends her spare time trying to decide if she actually wants to study law, or if she has just seen Legally Blonde too many times.