China’s Growing Water Risk Factor

By Scott Moore 24 October, 2022

China is especially vulnerable to water-related climate risks but that also means increasing capacity for adaptation for which it has big ambitions. Moore, Director of China Programs & Strategic Initiatives at UoP, expands

Although media and policy attention target China as “the world’s largest emitter”, it has made some of the world’s most ambitious investments in adaptation infrastructure
To understand China’s climate policy, observers should focus as much on water as on energy; adaptation, water mgmt & conservancy is at the forefront for China’s leaders
Increasing impacts = increasing capacity for adaptation; China is possibly the world’s best example of attempting to do have ambitious mitigation & adaptation policies

When it comes to climate change, China’s status as the world’s largest emitter is typically the focus of media and policy attention.

But while China’s central role in mitigating climate change is relatively well known in the outside world, less well appreciated is the importance that climate change adaptation plays in driving Beijing’s climate policy and many of its infrastructure investments.

China is the world’s largest emitter…

…but it also has some of the most ambitious investments in adaptation

The importance of adaptation stems both from fact that China is heavily exposed to climate risks, and the fact that China has made some of the world’s most ambitious investments in key adaptation infrastructure like water conservancy. Indeed, while the world’s focus is often on whether Beijing’s big bets on clean technology will cut emissions, arguably even more significant is how its view of climate risks drives its climate policy more broadly.

When I spent a year in Beijing researching China’s climate policy in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, many of my contacts pointed to one climate-related concern in particular: changes in the distribution and availability of water in China’s major river basins.

That concern points to the fact that climate adaptation, water management, and water conservancy are closely linked in the minds of China’s senior leaders. This linkage in turn suggests that to understand China’s climate policy, and where it is headed, observers should focus at least as much on water as on energy. That is something I explore in my latest book, China’s Next Act: How Sustainability and Technology are Reshaping China’s Rise and the World’s Future.

To understand China’s climate policy, observers should focus at least as much on water as on energy

The perception of water-related climate risk has long played an under-appreciated role in shaping China’s climate policy. The 2007 National Climate Change Program prepared in advance of Copenhagen, the first major policy document to address the climate issue, emphasized China’s vulnerability to climate-linked disasters, especially flooding and drought.

It is significant that Beijing has continued to cite highlight water-related climate risks in submissions ahead of major international climate conferences.  An officially-sanctioned research paper issued just before the Glasgow climate conference last December found for example that China has faced an increase in average temperatures higher than the global average, exacerbating water shortages.

As this emphasis suggests, China is indeed especially vulnerable to water-related climate risks. In fact, among large economies it is arguably the single most highly exposed to these risks. A 2021 World Bank report on climate vulnerability, for example, ranked China 61st among 181 countries, and noted that “Even in proportion to its large size and economy, China’s vulnerability to climactic hazards is high.”

Its outsized vulnerability reflects 2 factors: geography & extensive urbanization

This outsize vulnerability reflects two primary factors: geography, and especially the fact that several of China’s largest urban areas are located in low-lying coastal and estuarine areas while the Tibetan Plateau, often referred to as “the third pole,” is experiencing more rapid warming than other regions; and China’s extensive urbanization, which has created a dense cluster of vulnerable infrastructure and assets.

China’s vulnerability to water-related climate risks has been dramatically, and tragically, highlighted by three consecutive summers of record-breaking flooding. Though China has long suffered catastrophic flooding, with average annual damages estimated at $18 billion, recent flood events have been unusual in their intensity.

Catastrophic flooding is a big issue with avg annual damages at $18bn…

During the summer of 2020, precipitation in central China was estimated by state media to have been roughly 20% higher than normal, causing such severe flooding that observers began to question the integrity of the mammoth Three Gorges Dam.

The following summer, flash floods led to the deaths of dozens of people, several of whom were trapped on a subway in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. The portion of China’s population exposed to these risks is expected to continue to increase, with an additional 27-35 million people affected annually by the mid-twenty-first century, largely thanks to climate change.

…but increasing climate impacts = more capacity for adaptation

Yet if China’s exposure to flooding and water shortage is increasing, so too is its capacity for adaptation. China has long boasted an under-appreciated, and under-studied, disaster response capability, and one in which Beijing has continued to invest. Even less well appreciated is the adaptive capacity afforded by China’s massive investments in water infrastructure.

These include China’s many large dams, which apart from helping to control flooding also create substantial storage capacity, helping to mitigate periods of water shortage. Even a decade ago, China possessed 10% of the entire world’s water storage capacity. Just as important, China has built a network of inter-basin water transfers that link major storage dams and help to even out regional variations in water availability. In combination, this system of reservoirs and conduits means that China has a formidable defense against drought as well as flooding.

“…China is possibly the world’s best example of attempting to do both [ambitious mitigation & adaptation policies]

Thanks to Xi Jinping’s pledge to reduce China’s carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2060, Beijing has already put forward one of the world’s most ambitious climate commitments. Yet even if China, and the rest of the world, can keep these commitments to reduce emissions, it will continue to wrestle with sea level rise and other climate change effects. In some respects, investment in adaptation both reflects this reality and hedges against the possibility that the world will not meet its emissions reduction goals.

There is little contradiction or tension between having ambitious policies both to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and in fact China is possibly the world’s best example of attempting to do both, and thereby addressing both the water and energy dimensions of climate change. China’s example in enhancing adaptive capacity is one to which the outside world should pay more heed.

Further Reading

  • China’s Path to Peak Emission Regions – Are Chinese provinces set to meet carbon emission peak ambition by 2030? Dr Zhanfeng Dong from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning lists out leaders & laggards and unveils what’s on their action list
  • Looking for water in China’s 14FYP – The new China is not the old China. China Water risk’s Yuanchao Xu & Debra Tan went searching for water in the 14FYP and are left feeling optimistic, see why
  • Water caps & targets – how has China fared and where is it going? – China has set a 2025 water reduction per unit of GDP target – is it aggressive enough? CWR’s Xu & Tan take a look
  • China Can Water Down Impact Of Floods – China has long suffered from floods; 7/10 worst floods were in China. Global water gurus Asit Biswas & Cecilia Tortajada look at the great advancements China has made to mitigate flood impacts
  • Greening The Yellow River For A Beautiful China – As President Xi reiterates the Yellow River’s importance, Dr Zhanfeng Dong from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning expands on policies for “黄河宁,天下平” – a stable Yellow River, peace in China

More on latest 

  • Rivers are Running Dry Today – Rivers are our lifelines; they support cities, food & economies for centuries. This summer they were tested with severe drought/floods – will they fail? CWR’s Tan & Lam dive into challenges facing 5 major river basins that are the industrial/agricultural heartlands for China, Pakistan, US and Europe.
  • China’s Growing Water Risk Factor – China is especially vulnerable to water-related climate risks but that also means increasing capacity for adaptation for which it has big ambitions. Moore, Director of China Programs & Strategic Initiatives at UoP, expands
  • Building Too Close to the Water. It’s Ridiculous! – Reeling from climate disasters, it’s time for managed retreats & buyouts in Australia. O’Donnell, Honorary Associate Professor at ANU, expands
  • A Climate-Ready Northern Metropolis – Seizing the opportunity, Loh, Chief Development Strategist at HKUST, launched the ‘Sustainable Northern Metropolis’ project. We sit down with Loh to talk about the project’s vision, risks, opportunities for HK to climateproof with Shenzhen & more
  • Heat Waves Hit the Poor Hardest – Heatwaves are among the deadliest disasters and poorer countries will be 2-5x more exposed to them by 2060, which risks $ billions. Sadegh, Abatzoglou & Alizadeh share more key findings from their research
Scott Moore
Author: Scott Moore
As Director of China Programs and Strategic Initiatives, Scott Moore works with faculty members from across the University to design, implement, and highlight innovative, high-impact global research initiatives in areas including sustainability and emerging technology. Dr. Moore directs Penn Global’s four research and engagement fund programs, including those designed to support faculty-led projects in China, India, and Africa. Dr. Moore also works collaboratively with colleagues across campus to elevate Penn faculty engagement initiatives with regional or thematic foci. Scott Moore is a political scientist whose interests center on environmental sustainability, technology, and international relations. His first book, Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflict, Cooperation, and Institution-Building in Shared River Basins (Oxford University Press, 2018), examines how climate change and other pressures affect the likelihood of conflict over water within countries. Prior to Penn, Dr. Moore was a Young Professional and Water Resources Management Specialist at the World Bank Group, and Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Officer for China at the U.S. Department of State, where he worked extensively on the Paris Agreement on climate change. Prior to entering public service, Dr. Moore was Giorgio Ruffolo Post-Doctoral Research Fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. Scott’s research and commentary on a wide range of environmental and international affairs issues has appeared in a range of leading scholarly journals and media outlets, including Nature, The China Quarterly, Foreign Affairs, and The New York Times. Dr. Moore holds doctoral and master’s degrees from Oxford University and an undergraduate degree from Princeton.
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