Mapping environmental conflicts and cooperation



South-North Water Transfer Project in China

Type of conflict main
Intensity 2
Eastern Asia
Time 2002 ‐ ongoing
Countries China
Resources Agricultural / Pastoral Land, Water
Conflict Summary The Chinese central government is seeking to address the highly uneven distribution of domestic water resources through the construction of a vast water...
South-North Water Transfer Project in China
The Chinese central government is seeking to address the highly uneven distribution of domestic water resources through the construction of a vast water diversion project, known as the South–North Water Transfer Project (Chinese: 南水北调工程). The project aims to divert water from the water-rich regions in the south to the drier regions in the north via three routes: East, Central and West. However, domestic and international concerns exist relating to environmental degradation, huge construction costs and social upheaval, as poorer provincial citizens are uprooted to make sacrifices for those in more affluent cities.
Conceptual Model

Climate Change

Climate change is also playing a role in the water scarcity issues of the country as there has been a disruption of weather patterns and an accelerated evaporation of glaciers.

Intermediary Mechanisms

The water diversion project is expected to displace over 300,000 people, making citizen resettlements the greatest challenge to the project.

Fragility and Conflict Risks

There has already been discontent from citizens who have been resettled over the lack of proper compensation and the quality of the resettlement housing provided. Furthermore, the project has been criticized for disproportionately favoring China’s northern citizens, especially the residents of Beijing. Lastly, interstate tensions are expected as the project will affect rivers that cross Chinese borders and flow into South and South East Asia.

Climate ChangeEnvironmental ChangeIntermediary MechanismsFragility and Conflict RisksSocial and Economic DriversChanging climate leads to decreased water availability.Demographic changes increase pressures on available water resources.Economic developments place additional strains on water resources.Infrastructure development facilitates land use changes.Freshwater becomes scarce as an essential resource. Changes in land use lead to migration/displacements.Problems related to migration/displacements lead to growing discontent with the state.Reduced availability of/access to natural resources leads to tensions between states.Reduced availability of/access to natural resources provokes discontent with the state.A slow change in climatic conditions, particularly temperature and precipitation.Gradual Change in Temperature and/or PrecipitationAn increase in the scarcity of clean water and/or an increased variability in water supply.Increased Water ScarcityChange in population density, age structure, or ethnic makeup.Demographic ChangeA broad concept to cover economic growth in general but also specific economic changes or changes of incentives.Economic DevelopmentConstruction of major infrastructure, such as dams, canals or roads.Infrastructure DevelopmentA change in the usage of environmentally relevant land.Land Use ChangeReduced availability of essential natural resources, such as land and water.Change in Access / Availability of Natural Resources(In)voluntary long and short-term movements of people within or across state boundaries.Displacements / MigrationChallenge to the state's legitimacy, ranging from peaceful protest to violent attempts at overthrowing the government.Anti-State GrievancesTensions between states that may but need not escalate into overt violent conflict.Interstate Tensions
Context Factors
Conflict History

The notion of a South-North Water Transfer Project was already articulated by Chairman Mao in 1952 when he noted that ‘the South has plenty of water and the North lacks it, so if possible why not borrow some?’ This observation catalysed a vision to construct a vast water infrastructure project, enabling the diversion of billions of cubic metres of water from China’s water abundant south to the water poor cities of Beijing and Tianjin, and the northern provinces of Hebei, Henan and Shandong (Freeman, 2010). In scale, the project is the largest of its kind ever undertaken. 

Water Availability in China
The low per capita water availability in China is partly the result of its huge population, currently at more than 1.3 billion, a third of which is located in the relatively dry Huang-Huai-Hai river basins in northern China. China’s water resources have been further exacerbated by low water productivity in the agricultural sector and rapidly expanding industrial and energy sectors (Freeman, 2010). The capital Beijing, for instance, has per capita water resources of less than 100 cubic meters, far below the 500 cubic metres which indicate acute water shortage by international standards (China Daily, 2014). Against this backdrop, climate change is disrupting weather patterns and accelerating the evaporation of glaciers. This, in turn, has further diminished China’s surface water supplies (Freeman, 2010).

After extensive research, the $62 billion water transfer project was officially approved by the State Council on 23rd August 2002. Work commenced on the eastern section in December with construction on the central section beginning in the year 2003. The main project is being covered by a special limited-liability company which will oversee the construction, operation and maintenance, whilst the local administration and infrastructure elements are being managed individually by a water supply company from each province (water-technology.net, 2015). In total, the project has three sections: the eastern line, running 1150km from the lower Yangtze River to Tianjin; the middle line, from Danjiangkou to Beijing; and a western line, which may eventually connect the headwaters of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers across the high altitude Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. The western route still remains largely conceptual and may ultimately prove technically impossible to construct (Kaiman, 2014).           

Citizen Reaction to the Project
At the local level, the greatest challenge to the project are citizen resettlements. Over 300,000 people are expected to be displaced by the water diversion, roughly 180,000 from Hubei and the remaining 150,000 from Henan (Freeman, 2010). Citizens that have already been resettled have complained about governmental support and the quality of the resettlement housing provided. In 2012 and 2013, authorities in Danjiangkou City handled 1021 petitions filed by 2553 immigrants who complained about land loss, unemployment and housing quality (People’s Daily, 2014). Official corruption has also been suggested, with villagers complaining that their compensation has been siphoned off by cadres, through the undervaluation of farmers’ plots of land and over-estimating their own holdings (Watts, 2011). Additionally, there has also been criticism within China, due to the redistributive nature of the project. Environmental advocate Ma Jun, of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, argues that the project’s benefits accrue predominantly to China’s northern citizens, especially the residents of Beijing (Freeman, 2010). 

International Dimension   
The South-North Water Transfer Project also has an international dimension which could lead to future conflicts. Many of the Southern Chinese major rivers (e.g. the Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong) subsequently cross the Chinese borders and flow into South and South East Asia. Any major upstream diversion would therefore entail significant (and often negative) economic, societal and environmental consequences for the countries downstream. As a consequence, downstream countries such as Vietnam and India are likely to contest this development. In the case of India, the potential effects would not only be economic, but also religious, as the Brahmaputra is revered as a sacred water source. Chinese interference with water descending from the Himalayas, therefore, has the potential to ignite future conflicts within the region (Meyer, 2014).

Resolution Efforts

Chinese officials recognize the pressing need to reduce pressures on existing water supplies through a range of methods, including tightening regulations to prevent water pollution, planning for water allocation and management of water quality (Freeman, 2010).

Internal attempts have also been made to curb the total amount of water used, but government efforts to reduce consumption by raising the cost of water have proven unpopular and any reductions in pressure on existing water supplies have been modest.

The intention to complete all sections of the South–North Water Transfer Project remains and resettlements are on-going.

Intensities & Influences
conflict intensity scale
International / Geopolitical Intensity
Human Suffering

Environmental Influences
Societal Influences

Diplomatic Crisis No diplomatic crisis
Violent Conflict No
Salience within nation National
Mass Displacement Less than 100.000 and less than 10% of the country's population are displaced within the country.
Cross Border Mass Displacement No
Agricultural / Pastoral Land, Water
Resolution Success
Resolve of displacement problems Displacement continues to cause discontent and/or other problems.
Reduction in geographical scope There has been no reduction in geographical scope.
Increased capacity to address grievance in the future There is no increased capacity to address grievances in the future.
Grievance Resolution Grievances have been partially addressed.
Causal Attribution of Decrease in Conflict Intensity There has been no reduction in intensity
General opencollapse
Country Data in Comparison
ConflictNoData Created with Sketch.
Fault Lines Defining Conflict Parties
Purely Environmental | Cultural   ♦   Occupational   ♦   Economic   ♦   Urban / Rural   ♦   National / International conflict   ♦   Sub-national political

Participation Conflict Party     Conflict Resolution Facilitator
Government of China
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Chinese environmental experts
Functional GroupCivil Society
Geographical ScaleInternal Grassroots
Government of India
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal International
Government of Vietnam
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal International
Local Chinese people
Functional GroupCivil Society
Geographical ScaleInternal Grassroots
Entry Points for Resilience and Peace Building
2 Improving resource efficiency The Chinese government has adopted some measures to ease the pressures on existing water supplies and to curb the amount of water used.
Further Details opencollapse
Conflict Characterization
Character of the contested good Public good: No one can be excluded from use and the good is not depleted.
Structure of decision-making power / interdependence Asymmetric: The power to affect the environmental resource is unequal.
Broad conflict characterization Resource capture is not present.
Ecological marginalization is not present.
Data of involved Countries
Resources and Materials opencollapse