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Water Scarcity in Northern China

Water scarcity has become an increasingly severe issue in northern China. Over-withdrawal of surface water and groundwater for industry, farmland and domestic consumption has led to decreasing water levels, ground subsidence, salinity intrusion, and ecosystem deterioration. Climate change, which has already induced a measurable impact on China’s drought cycle and precipitation rate, is intensifying an already fragile situation. Water scarcity is perceived to be a security threat by the Chinese central government and, against a backdrop of increasing environmental awareness and localised activism in China, has the potential to induce social unrest.

Conceptual Model

Climate ChangeEnvironmental ChangeFragility and Conflict RisksIntermediary MechanismsChanging climate leads to decreased water availability.Freshwater becomes scarce as an essential resource.Pollution reduces available/usable freshwater. Reduced availability of/access to natural resources leads to tensions between states.A slow change in climatic conditions, particularly temperature and precipitation.Gradual Change in Temperature and/or PrecipitationAn increase in the scarcity of clean water and/or an increased variability in water supply.Increased Water ScarcityPollution, and degradation of ecosystems, such as coral reefs.Pollution / Environmental DegradationReduced availability of essential natural resources, such as land and water.Change in Access / Availability of Natural ResourcesTensions between states that may but need not escalate into overt violent conflict.Interstate Tensions

Conflict history

Since the 1980s, China has faced water shortages of increasing magnitude and frequency for urban industry, domestic consumption and irrigated agriculture. Per capita water resources in China are just over 25% of the world average and, further complicating the issue, these resources are extremely unevenly distributed. Whilst southern China has an abundance of water and receives roughly 80% of the country’s total precipitation, northern China, which comprises approximately 40% of the country’s total population, 50% of its GDP and half its agricultural land, receives a mere 12% of total precipitation (Council on Foreign Relations, 2013). Limited precipitation in the north, coupled with human over-exploitation of existing resources and the effects of global climate change have led to decreasing water levels and desertification. According to the 2030 Water Resources Group, if China continues on with ‘business as usual’ in relation to current water usage, the supply of water will not be able to meet the demand for water by 2030. The predicted shortage, in this scenario, would be at least 200bn cubic metres (The 2030 Water Ressources Group, 2009, p. 10).

Increasing Environmental Awareness in China

Against this backdrop, there has been increasing environmental awareness and activism in China. In 2013, the environment surpassed land expropriation as the leading cause of social unrest in the country (Council on Foreign Relations, 2013). This environmental activism has tended to focus on more visible and localised environmental polluters, for instance, within the immediate vicinities of proposed industrial plants. In 2013, for example, a thousand people protested in the streets of the Songjiang district in Shanghai against a proposed lithium battery factory amid concerns about water and air pollution. In the same year, over a thousand protesters took to the streets in the southern city of Kunming to voice concerns over the environmental impacts of a planned chemical refinery by China National Petroleum Corporation (Duggan, 2013). Although these protests have not directly addressed the issue of water scarcity in China, the situation is volatile and therein lies the potential for future social unrest. In an earlier instance recounted by David Pietz, armed villagers had clashed over water at the border between Hebei and Henan provinces in 1992 (Pietz, 2015).

Climate Change Intensifying the Situation

Climate change is continuing to exasperate a shortage of water in northern China. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC)’s Fourth Assessment Report, rainfall is expected to decrease in the north of China and increase in the south. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, issued in 2013, predicts threats to both water and food security, including a reduction in grain yields (Tiezzi, 2014). The summer following these saw groundwater levels in northern China hit historic lows, forcing some agricultural provinces, including the province of Henan, to introduce emergency measures as reservoirs grew dry (Chang, 2014). Additionally, the northern province of Liaoning, a region known to be the ‘bread basket’ of China because of high corn production, experienced its worst drought in 63 years (Larson, 2014).

Global implications

Water scarcity in northern China also has global implications. As water is increasingly diverted from the south to the north and more water projects are constructed, the water supplies of neighbouring countries, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, India, Thailand and Bangladesh will most certainly be affected. Indeed, in order to resolve the water scarcity in northern China, the Chinese central government has embarked on a vast engineering project: the South-North Water Transfer Project, a 2400km network of canals and tunnels designed to divert 44.8bn cubic metres of water annually to China’s northern regions (Kaiman, 2014; see South-North Water Transfer Project in China). However, the implications of the net water loss to the south of China and neighbouring countries remain unclear.


Functional group
Geographical scale
Government of China
Government of China
Functional group
Geographical scale
Internal national
Conflict Party
Conflict Resolution Facilitator

Conflict resolution

Although water scarcity has not catalysed conflict or social unrest as such, it does possess potential triggers for social unrest in the future. Due to this, and against the backdrop of increasing environmental awareness within China, water scarcity now features predominantly within Chinese domestic politics. Indeed, in recognition of the continuing threat of water scarcity, the Chinese central government elevated water to top of the agenda in 2011, displacing agriculture which had previously held the top position. The Chinese central government has also introduced water efficiency targets and national water usage caps by 2015, 2020 and 2030 respectively (China Water Risk, 2011), the results of which remain to be seen.

The South-North Water Transfer Project, although a highly visible attempt to mitigate water scarcity in the north, has been criticised by prominent scientists and environmentalists who have argued that the diversion poses potentially serious ecological consequences, including salt-water intrusion and habitat destruction (Freeman, 2010). The knock-on implications for water reserves in the south and China’s neighbours are, as yet, still unknown.

Resilience and Peace Building


Improving infrastructure & services

The Chinese government has set in motion the South-North Water Transfer Project in an attempt to mitigate water scarcity in the north. However, the project has been highly criticized for its potentially serious ecological consequences.


Improving resource efficiency

The Chinese central government has elevated water to the top of its agenda and introduced water efficiency targets and national water usage caps by 2015, 2020 and 2030 respectively.