ClimateNortheast Asia

PRC’s growing thirst may spark tension with Russia over Lake Baikal

Tom Abke

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) faces a water shortage and is eyeing Russia’s Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake, as a possible solution to the crisis. However, Beijing’s attempts in recent years to import water from Lake Baikal have been dampened by Russian public opposition, despite initial support from the Kremlin.

As the PRC’s thirst grows, access to the 31,500-square-kilometer lake could become an area of dispute between the two authoritarian states, analysts say.

As much as 90% of China’s groundwater is undrinkable and only half is suitable for agricultural or industrial use, according to the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. Much of the toxicity is the result of rapid industrialization. Arid regions and severe droughts have exacerbated the country’s water shortage, felt most severely in the north, where over half of the areas in the Hai, Huai, Liao and Yellow river basins are under water scarcity conditions.

Tantalizingly close sits Lake Baikal, pictured, near the Russian province of Tuva, an area controlled by China’s Qing dynasty from 1644 to 1911. Chinese entities sought to import water from Baikal via a 1,000-kilometer pipeline in 2017 and by bottling in 2019.

The proposed pipeline would have traversed Mongolia to supply China’s Gansu province. The plan was endorsed by Russia’s then agricultural minister and a Chinese think tank, but Russian environmentalists voiced opposition and the project stalled.

In 2019, construction was underway on a Chinese-funded bottling plant, but following a petition drive by opponents that garnered about 1 million signatures, a district court in the Russian city of Irkutsk near Lake Baikal ruled the construction was illegal and ordered it stopped.

For now, much of northern China’s water comes from the south, the Lowy Institute reported. However, a record-setting drought across southern China in 2022 could turn Beijing’s attention back to Lake Baikal.

“The key issue is how Russia would manage the local opposition to building such a project,” Dr. Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the Rand Corp., told FORUM. “China could offer to fund the pipeline and pay a generous amount for the water, which could be an incentive. However, Russia’s local government and populace will resist the export, which means Moscow will have to either repress the local population on China’s behalf, potentially leading to even more anger, or accept that the politics are too sensitive right now.”

Russia overtook Saudi Arabia as the PRC’s largest oil supplier in 2023, and significant exports of Russian gas, petrochemicals, timber and minerals also make their way to Chinese customers.

“There remain tensions between China and Russia over history, border and other issues. Disputes over the terms of deals for resources could be another friction point,” Heath said. “However, these differences are far exceeded by the shared interest to oppose and resist U.S. power. China and Russia remain partners of convenience.”

Tom Abke is a FORUM correspondent reporting from Singapore.


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