By Jim Lauria
In the upcoming U.S. presidential election, China has emerged again and again as both threat and ally. With all the talk about trade, economic balance, and military concerns surrounding China, this is a timely opportunity to dive into a little-discussed aspect of Chinese global power plays: water.
In my years working in Asia and living in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, I became a fan of Sun Tzu, the legendary Chinese general who wrote The Art of War 2,500 years ago. Sun’s treatise on strategies and tactics have become a standard text for military and business leaders around the world — I studied it to understand business philosophies in China, and made it required reading for all my sales managers.
Sun’s basic premises — including the importance of controlling key resources, of quietly winning by preparation and superior positioning before the battle even begins, and of using water to define the field of battle — continue to guide Chinese military and diplomatic strategy today. If you look at the positions China has taken over the last half-century around water, you can imagine Sun Tzu smiling. And you can hear the echoes of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2001, when he said, “If we are not careful, future wars are going to be about water and not about oil.” In true Sun Tzu fashion, China is preparing to win before war is declared.
The Other People’s Army
I’m a child of the Cold War, conditioned to fear the massive People’s Army. But as I’ve spent my career in the water industry, I’ve learned to put greater weight on the army of engineers and workers who have re-plumbed China and put the nation’s hand on the faucet that controls the lion’s share of Asia’s water — as well as the suit-and-tie traders who have been purchasing virtual water around the globe.
To really see the picture, you need to first understand just how desperate China’s domestic water situation is. Together, China and India are home to 40 percent of Earth’s population, but the two countries have access to just 10 percent of the world’s water. In China, desertification is a massive problem, an environmental, social, and political cataclysm. Blame poor management, diverted irrigation supplies, climate change, or all of the above. The bottom line is that ethnic communities in western China are one good water shortage away from becoming breakaway republics (which is why China and Russia have teamed up to pipe water into the region).
The other key to China’s water strategy is Tibet. It’s not about the Dalai Lama, beautiful temples, or even Richard Gere. Tibet is the world’s largest reservoir of accessible fresh water, behind only the North and South Poles in terms of the water it holds. Tibet’s Himalayan ice is home to the headwaters of 10 of Asia’s most important rivers, including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Indus, and Sutlej. Look downstream and you’ll find the dependent populations not just of China but of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, and parts of Russia.
Since the 1962 war between India and China — arguably a war over water — 10,000 square kilometers of Tibetan ice are under Indian control and three times more are under Chinese control. The next time the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh shows up in the news (with China asserting its claim to “Southern Tibet”), take a moment to remember that it abuts Tibet and would provide China with elbow room to control the upper Brahmaputra, which it has already dammed but assured the world won’t disrupt flows to India.
As an engineer, I’m instinctively drawn to another aspect of Tibet’s water. It’s at a high elevation. It’s all potential energy. Unlike some of the massive irrigation and water-moving schemes that span great reaches of Asia, Tibet’s treasure trove of water is poised to flow downhill all on its own. It’s the most energy-efficient way to control water, and can also be harnessed for its energy in the form of hydropower. It’s the purest form of the water-energy nexus. China has not only commandeered the well, but also the pump — the yin and the yang, the water and the energy.
In its current position, China now depends on transboundary flows for less than 1 percent of its water, a marked contrast over nearly all of its neighbors. With little strategic exposure and its hand on Asia’s water faucet, will China become a one-nation OPEC of water?
China has sent engineers and workers to neighboring Pakistan to help with water projects there. However, if Chinese policy changes — and if its river allocations do, too — India, not China, will be stuck with the tab to fulfill treaty obligations to supply water to Pakistan. And India would likely be pumping water to its enemy from curtailed supplies from the Chinese-dominated Himalayas.
Even with control of Asia’s water valve, China is still short on water. That’s a three-part problem — not enough quantity overall, the challenge of having supplies in one place and demand in another (sound familiar, California?), and declining water quality.
Domestically, those are huge priorities. It’s no coincidence that the generation of Chinese leaders who followed Mao were heavily salted with water-savvy technocrats (including President Hu Jintao, a hydrologist; Prime Minister Li Peng, a hydro engineer; and Premier Wen Jiabao, a geologist and engineer). The tradition of engineer-led government continues — current president Xi Jinping studied chemical engineering at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.
But there’s another strategy at work, too — importing water. Not by dragging icebergs or floating tanker ships or other outlandish water import plans that have been considered by many governments, but by importing “virtual water.”
John Anthony Allen of Kings College in London coined the phrase, describing the water embedded in all sorts of products by virtue of the water used to produce them. Every ton of beef or tank of milk imported into China from America represents thousands of gallons of water. So do the massive cargoes of Brazilian soybeans or corn grown on Chinese-owned corporate farms in African nations like Zambia.
Here’s a case study in brief: Smithfield Foods, America’s largest pork producer and processor, which accounts for one in every four pigs produced in the country, is now owned by Shuanghui International, a Chinese corporation. Every 5-ounce portion of pork represents 8.4 gallons of virtual water, according to the National Pork Board. That would pencil out to about 3,542 gallons of water for all the pork sold from an average pig. Add it up.
The bottom line: between virtual water in exports and investments in foreign farmland and irrigation supplies, China has its hand not just on Asia’s faucets, but on ours, South America’s, and Africa’s, too.
Lessons To Learn
Wang Sucheng, China’s former minister of water resources, once said “to fight for every drop of water or die, that is the challenge facing China.”
I have no doubt that can be taken literally, and if China goes dry — or its neighbors do — I fear it might. Fortunately, America doesn’t have to grapple with China for control of our vital water supplies (though our allies do, so we’re still engaged in the struggle). Even without a direct battle for water with China, we should be taking Sun Tzu’s advice of knowing both our adversary and ourselves.
I leave it to the U.S. Navy to map and strategize the issues surrounding China’s bid for control of access to the Pacific. The NSA, Army, Air Force, and Marines can grapple with cyber-threats, war machines, and troop movements. As a water guy, I’m keeping my gaze firmly fixed on the army of workers in coveralls who are quietly, carefully, steadily implementing China’s brilliant water play. And I’m urging America to learn from China.
Just as a generation of generals and MBAs learned strategy from Sun Tzu, water experts, civil engineers, and public administrators should learn from China’s application of his principles to water. We should stop squandering our resources and improve our water use efficiency, shore up our crumbling fresh water delivery systems, and build the desperately needed infrastructure to reuse and recycle our water. We have no Tibet, and I’d like to think we wouldn’t take it over if it were next door. Instead, our vast and enviable resource is the water we’re already using. If we reuse the vast majority of our treated wastewater for irrigation like our friends in Israel, adopt toilet-to-tap technologies like Singapore, or think of conservation in terms of “nega-liters” like Sue Murphy of Western Australia’s Water Corp, we will strengthen our own national security. No guns. No battleships. And the only tanks we would need to do that would contain water.
We don’t have to beat China on a battlefield. But we can accept the challenge we see in them every time we look at a tap.
As Sun Tzu so wisely said 2,500 years ago, “to win without fighting is best.”
Jim Lauria is a water engineer, business writer, and strategy mapper. His book, How to Get Your Money Back From Big Companies, is a guide to getting restitution for defective products and poor customer service.