Melinda Davies of the University of Queensland and Nathanial Matthews of King’s College London write in the International Journal of Water Resources Development that water is “possibly the most serious problem along China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) route.

And it is reportedly unclear “whether the development proposed through the BRI, and the rapid economic stimulation it will bring, will place too great a burden on an already disjointed and dysfunctional water management system.”

Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the five Central Asian republics have bickered over what were once common resources managed by Moscow. Though Uzbekistan’s 2016 change in leadership has quieted some of the most vicious disputes, the five have reportedly shown little progress coordinating to address persistent water shortages, amplified by growing populations and climate change.

The authors hope China can play a constructive and unifying role; it will see no benefit from socio-political instability on its western flank.  But precedent suggests that Beijing lacks the deft touch necessary. Chinese companies reportedly have a well-documented history of opaque deals in the region; there is a persistent lack of coordination among BRI contractors; and Chinese developers are not known for considering public opinion even in the face of profound skepticism about their motives. (As a sign of things to come, Kazakhstan already worries about China’s usage of the Irtysh and Ili rivers before they flow over the border, the authors point out.)

According to Eurasianet, Davies and Matthews have surveyed existing literature, including on water management in Chinese investments elsewhere, and interviewed regional experts and stakeholders about how industry, hydropower, and agriculture are impacting water supplies and cooperation, and they reportedly found little evidence of a thoughtful approach to managing the inevitable tradeoffs.

Cement production is one of many industries fueling concerns that China, in its efforts to green its own economy, is exporting its most polluting industries.  Tajikistan’s cement output has increased tenfold in the last five years thanks to Chinese finance; it exported almost 1 million tons in the first nine months of 2020.  But Tajikistan’s leaders show little interest in regulating industry or allowing civil society activists a seat at the table, according to the article.

Though the BRI is often associated with road and rail networks, agriculture is lately generating excitement.  As China grows into one of the world’s largest food importers, Central Asian governments are keen on the job-creating opportunities.  Increased yields could benefit locals, too.  But an expansion of agriculture adds pressure on water supplies.