Focus on the Local When Discussing China’s Water Management

On November 9th, CSCC welcomed Dr. Scott Moore, Director of Penn’s Global China Program, to discuss his new book titled “Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflict, Cooperation, and Institution-Building in Shared River Basins.” This talk wrapped up CSCC’s week on China’s environmental concerns. As someone who has studied political ecology and environmental anthropology, I found his lecture particularly fascinating. 

Dr. Moore focused on the nuances and implications of water disputes in China. Perhaps, most critically, he debunked the myth there is more interstate water conflict than there is subnational water conflict. 

He began by introducing what factors affect how water conflict can become water cooperation. First, it depends on the level of decentralization in a country, meaning the amount of delegation and coordination between the government’s subnational and jurisdictional levels. Second, it relies on sectional identity, meaning how much cultural and historical features shape the fairness of water delegation in localities. Third, it hangs on how much access outsiders (i.e. non-elites) can access the political process. 

He then gave a general overview of China’s water issues. Surprisingly, China is not particularly out-of-step with other countries in terms of how it uses its water. However, China does stand out in terms of its dependency ratio, meaning how much water China takes from beyond its borders. While most other countries use a significant amount of water from other countries, China does not. This presents China with numerous spatial water allocation problems withinthe country; different Chinese provinces receive radically different amounts of water. For instance, Southern and Southwestern China have plenty of water, yet Northern and Northwestern China do not have enough water. This “spatial puzzle piece”, as Dr. Moore called it, poses great challenges for China.

In an effort to address the spatial disparities in water, the Chinese government has invested heavily in engineering projects. Naturally, politics come into play with these kinds of water management programs. Most famous is the Three Forges Dam, which caused a public outcry – reflecting the limitations of Chinese bureaucracy trying to handle water resources. 

Lastly, Dr. Moore examined specific local water conflicts in China. First, he unpacked how central-local water disputes rely on hierarchical structures of governance. For example, many have celebrated the South-North Water Transfer Project as the paragon of large-scale water transfer. However, many do not know that several municipalities refused to buy the water from the project because it was more expensive than using ground water or desalinized water. Second, he unraveled the importance of inter-jurisdictional water conflicts. He discussed that the different jurisdictions struggle more with other jurisdictions over water costs and water allocation. For example, officials in Gansu and Ningxia have been fighting for 70 years over the design and construction of one dam. 

I most appreciated Dr. Moore’s attention to the local negotiations of water cost, allocation, and management. By analyzing central-local and inter-jurisdictional water conflicts, he exhibited what many scholars in the China field often stress, that China is not a monolith. 

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