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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically-grounded solutions to enduring geopolitical problems

On 14th November Charlie Parton, OBE, of The Royal United Services
Institute (RUSI) gave an in-depth and compelling talk on “The
Looming Water Crisis in China’s North: the greatest threat to its
economic growth and political stability?” He spent 22 years of his
37 year diplomatic career working in or on China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Charlie Parton spoke of the urgent need for China to address its
looming water shortage, which could lead to economic and political
instability. Although China’s overall water resources are
reasonable, the problem is that 80% of the water is in south China,
meaning that eight northern provinces suffer from acute water
scarcity. These 12 provinces account for more than a third of
China’s agriculture, 46% of its industry, 50% of its power
generation (coal and nuclear use a lot of water), and 41% of its

Mr Parton outlined the geographical issues of providing water to the
north from other regions including Lake Baikal, and highlighted the
rapidly decreasing water resources: groundwater levels are falling
fast; nearly 10% of water is unusable due to pollution; poor
irrigation and water intensive crops such as rice, cattle; climate
change is added factor. Some of the solutions proposed by China are
not viable such as water transfer, and desalination. It is however
investing £90 bn is irrigation, and moving towards high tech

Mr Parton discussed ways of mitigating this crisis – introduce
metering; focus of agriculture and industries which do not use huge
quantities. Acknowledging that China has initiated some projects to
address the water shortage, and accepts problems with pollution, Mr
Parton pointed out some of the inconsistencies in China’s policies,
such as its aim to create over 1 million textile jobs – this
industry is water intensive; continuing and developing coal mining
(also water intensive); increased meat production (especially beef).

Other solutions which would contribute to solving some of the issues
are problematic in a country where civil society is lacking; where
NGOs who would exert pressure are non-existent, and where there is no
free press, and water is currently free to users. More propaganda on
water usage would be beneficial.

Mr Parton urged the University to encourage PhD students
to take up the issue as a topic for research. Discussion continued
informally after the end of the talk with members of the audience and
academics from POLIS.