Suicide By Drought

How China is Destroying Its Own Water Supply

A man leads camels at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Courtesy Reuters

On the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau, one sometimes hears a strange chattering -- an excited buzz that seems to emanate from the earth itself. Anyone who stops to look for the source will quickly realize that the ground is marked by a series of holes, from which small, shy creatures are likely to be watching.

The labyrinthine burrows made by these mammals, called pikas, provide them security. But they provide China and much of Asia security as well. By digging holes in the ground, pikas allow rainwater to percolate into the earth and replenish the water table. Without the humble pika, the water simply runs along the surface, triggering floods and soil erosion. So it is no coincidence that, when the pikas became the target of a state-led poisoning campaign beginning in the mid-twentieth century, waters began, slowly, to dry up across the country. The pika was accused of being a pest that destroyed grasslands. Scientists have pointed out that the pika prefers long grass and that its visibility is a symptom, not a cause, of grassland degradation. But policy is slow to catch up with science; pika killings continue today.

The pikas’ plight illustrates China's difficulties in confronting its water crisis. The economic development on which Beijing depends to keep the population in check poses a dire threat to the fragile ecosystems that the country and the continent depend on for water. It might thus seem politically impossible for China to enact any of the far-reaching environmental reforms that it needs. In the long term, though, absent any policy changes, China is likely on the path to serious civil strife, and perhaps even civil war.


Most of China’s most important rivers originate in the plateaus of Tibet and the surrounding mountain ranges, an area known by scholars as the Third Pole because of its plentiful ice. The rivers flowing from the Third Pole -- among them, the Mekong, the Yangtze, and the Yellow River --

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