This report The Waters of the Third Pole prepared by Aon Benfi eld UCL (Hazard Research Centre, University College London), China Dialogue, Humanitarian Futures Programme (King’s College London) has an interesting annexe.
It says: "The following stories are not necessarily intended to approximate reality, but this approach can be used to challenge conventional thinking and to enable policy- and decision-makers to think ‘out of the box’."
Is this scenario so improbable?
China’s water, 2020–2025: scarcity, pollution and conflict
Over the past decade, the Chinese government has failed to address underlying structural issues in domestic water allocation, develop adequate systems of water pricing and rights, curb waste or allow water trading. Instead, government response has been to rely on water-transfer projects and to limit water allocations to provinces, rather than to promote conservation through regulatory or market mechanisms. By 2020, unregulated economic activity and over-exploitation of limited or contaminated water sources had combined to push China’s water crisis into catastrophic proportions.
Groundwater tables under the northern plain have dried up, or at least sunk so deep that farmers are unable to extract the remaining water. Continued erratic rainfall and rising temperatures have rendered the Yellow River and its major tributaries seasonal resources. The Shiyang River in Gansu has completely disappeared. The oases of the northern plains are particularly reliant on glacier meltwater, and many, like that of Minqin County, have been completely evacuated. The early 2020s saw the water availability per person in the Hai, Huai, and Yellow (Huang) river basins fall well below 500m3/year, less than the minimum for human existence. In this former breadbasket, desertification continues to overwhelm arable land. Dwindling glaciers have caused the Gobi desert to encroach further upon the oases in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Desertification now affects 600 million people, nearly half the country’s population.
Policies of state-directed environmental migration have now relocated 3 million farmers and nomadic herders in Qinghai, Ningxia and Gansu to Xingjiang and Inner Mongolia. This is having enormous environmental and social repercussions since these now-arid destinations themselves are unable to provide adequate support for increasing populations and there is not enough arable land for migrants to sustain new livelihoods. Ethnic tensions have been escalating in China’s western hinterlands, with increasing violence. These incidents culminated in a series of savage riots that spread from Hohot, Lhasa and Urumqi throughout urban centres in the region in June 2020.
Conflict driven by water stress
As the summer of 2020 progressed, severe droughts, worse even than in 2019, threatened to drive the 200 million inhabitants of the North China plain into potential starvation, and the army is enforcing water rationing in the overrun cities of Beijing and Tianjin. In the run-up to the National People’s Congress in October 2020, the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced the launch of the construction of the western section of the South–North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP), aimed at increasing crop production in the Gobi desert and easing over-crowding in the east. In an attempt to gain popular support as the national water crisis accelerated, the Chinese leaders disregarded international agreements and abandoned any effort to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment – despite the serious pollution associated with construction of the central section of the project.
India–China relations have been at an all-time low since the completion of the 40,000MW dam at the ‘Great Bend’ of the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra River in 2019, harnessing the power of the deepest canyon in the world. This far exceeds the scale of projects such as the Three Gorges Dam, and the Indians claim that maximum river flow has already been reduced by 20%, while the Chinese refute such accusations. On 1 October 2025, Chinese National Day, Chandra Singh, the Indian President announced that, unless China discontinued water-transfer plans, India would make an official declaration of war. In the first weeks of October, India deployed an extra 60,000 troops in the border area and strengthened air defence in Ladakh. Seemingly, uncontrolled skirmishes broke out between troops on the border, resulting in casualties on both sides. Chinese internal conflicts over water allocation and pollution were so widespread that the threat to national security provided a useful focus for the government as it aimed to encourage patriotic unity against a common enemy.
Chinese troops were deployed to quell rising dissent within Tibet about environmental damage caused by mega-infrastructure projects. Chinese nuclear missile deployment in Haiyun and Da Qaidam in Qinghai province was confirmed, but the international community remained powerless. No bilateral agreement was ever reached between India and China after the memorandum of agreement to share hydrology data in 2002 degenerated into a means for China to exhort payment from India in return for often-dubious information. Attempts by NGOs to establish an international dialogue and roadmap towards a ‘benefit-sharing’ agreement have failed, and the international community can only watch and wait.
In the face of these Chinese actions, India has pursued its own grand plans. By 2019 a canal had been constructed to move water from the upper parts of the Ganges, Yamuna and Brahmaputra Rivers westward, ending in the Luni and Sabarmati Rivers in Rajasthan and Gujarat. This diverts water away from the Ganges, a few kilometres from the India–Bangladesh border. The immense levels of construction along the river severely affected the flow of water downstream in Bangladesh. Stagnant reservoirs have led to high levels of toxic algae and bacteria that Bangladesh claims are now poisoning hundreds of thousands of people.
Destruction of ecosystems and livelihoods
In order to complete the western water-transfer route, China has also diverted water from the Lancang (Upper Mekong) River, and a series of 15 cascading dams has been completed. The 292-metre Xiaowan dam is now the world’s tallest, as high as the Eiffel Tower. The reservoir behind the dam has grown to 102 miles long. At the same time Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia have all been pursuing their equally destructive dam projects, violating international standards concerning both environmental and social issues. The Mekong River Commission dissolved in 2015, after failing to play any role in regional facilitation or to prevent dangerous dam-construction projects.
Dramatic changes to the river’s unique cycle of flood and drought – the annual flood pulse – have wrecked the delicate ecosystem of the region. In the waters of the Mekong that used to sustain the world’s second-largest inland fishery, most fish species are now threatened with extinction and the 60 million people who use the river as a source of food or livelihood are struggling for survival. Cambodia’s great central lake, Tonle Sap, the nursery of the lower Mekong’s fish stocks, used to fill up in monsoon season with a fifth of the Mekong’s waters. In 2025 it has become barely seasonal, and the loss of livelihood pushes another 15% of Cambodians below the poverty line and endangers many more.
On 7 September 2030, severe monsoon floods deluged 1.4 million hectares of land in the Mekong Delta, affecting 14.2 million people in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Vietnamese government’s ‘living with floods’ programme of the 2010s, to resettle people living in vulnerable zones, has failed due to lack of funding. Thus 5.3 million people in An Giang, Dong Thap and Tien Giang provinces have been driven out of the Mekong and the Red River Deltas. Climate refugees have swelled the population of Ho Chi Minh City, and Cambodia attempted to shut its borders in panic.
As regional dialogue reached a deadlock over dam building, there are no regional mechanisms in place to cope with a humanitarian disaster of this massive scale. Moreover, hugely expensive construction of dams and reinforcement of thousands of miles of dikes built after the Commission collapsed in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam will exacerbate the disaster in its aftermath. Barriers inhibit the self-cleansing mechanism of rivers and trap millions of cubic yards of industrial waste, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of industrial rubbish, and millions of tonnes of pesticides and fertiliser from fish and shrimp farms. The livelihoods and lives of the approximately 30 million inhabitants of the Mekong Delta are under long-term threat.