China Proposes Water Pipeline from Russia to Gansu Province

15 March 2017 Madeleine Lovelle, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme

Background

Chinese urban planners have proposed constructing a pipeline to pump water from Russia’s Lake Baikal in Siberia to the Gansu province, its drought-prone north-west region. The proposed pipeline is 1,000 kilometres long, and would draw water from the world’s deepest freshwater lake. The pipeline would commence at the south-western tip of Russia’s Lake Baikal, run across Mongolia and through the Hexi corridor (a desert region that lies at the western tip of the Great Wall of China) to Gansu’s capital city, Lanzhou.

IMAGE Russia China

Source: Global Times

Comment

With a total of 1.386 billion people, China has just over 18 per cent of the world’s population. Twenty-six million people reside in Gansu, yet its north-west province only receives seven per cent of China’s fresh water. The pipeline would provide great relief to China’s industrialised north-west region, particularly as the water shortage in the province poses as a serious threat to urbanisation, water wastage and pollution. Advocates for the proposal claim that not only will the pipeline benefit Gansu’s ecological environment, but it will also help boost the local economy that has suffered under the dry conditions.

Russian scientists in Siberia claim that exporting fresh water to China would provide a promising revenue stream for the country. While negotiations are yet to take place between Beijing and Moscow over the latest proposed pipeline, in 2016 Russia’s Agriculture Minister, Alexander Tkachev, proposed pumping water from Russia, across Kazakhstan to Xinjinag, another dry region in China’s north-west. The Minister noted, however, that the pipeline would only be possible if the proposal met Russia’s full environmental interests and related concerns.

The proposal for the pipeline is not the first of its nature. In 2014, China completed one of the biggest engineering feats in history with its South-North Water Diversion project. The project involved the construction of a large web of canals and reservoirs, which transport water from China’s south to meet the needs of its arid north. The greatest challenge to this latest project, therefore, does not appear to be the logistical challenge of shifting trillions of gallons of water from Russia to China, but rather, the political and diplomatic issues that may arise between the two countries.

Eastern Russia is sparsely populated. The Far East was once populated by eight million people during the period of the Soviet Union (USSR), but this population dwindled down to just two million following migration out of the area after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Amidst Russia’s growing anxiety over demographic border tensions with China, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in 2013 that populating Siberia and Russia’s Far East should be the country’s national priority in the 21st century. Though the countries have collaborated over a series of short-term threats and interests (including common approaches to governance, the United States’ presence in Central Asia, and allied presence in Eastern Europe and the South and East China Seas), Russia holds some concern over its porous borders in the Far East and the number of ethnic Chinese within Russian borders.

If Russia agrees to the plan, China’s proposal for a pipeline from Siberia to Gansu may solve short-term water supply concerns for China. As with the South-North Water Diversion project, however, it is likely that transporting water from one area to another may only act as a “band aid” solution for water supply while failing to address the threat of long-term water insecurity. Given that Russia holds territorial concerns over China’s increasing presence in Siberia and the Far East, even if the plan were to go ahead, China may find itself in a compromised position should tensions increase. As water becomes increasingly scarce, the issue of limited water supply has the potential to add to existing tensions between states. The form of trans-boundary water co-operation proposed by China is idealistic as it requires considerable co-operation from Russia and Mongolia. Political and diplomatic issues over water sharing, in this case, may instead create, rather than ease, tensions in the medium- to long-term.

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