Water politics and China

Extending from today’s lecture on water in China and, in particular, the historical role that large-scale water projects have played in ‘building the state’ in China, water-related issues continue to lie at the heart of social and political developments in China.  For example, Brahma Chellaney, an analyst at Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and author of Water: Asia’s New Battleground recently published an opinion piece in the Financial Times regarding the impacts of China’s dam-building projects beyond China.  Chellaney points out, as well, that not only is China continuing to plan and build enormous dams (like the Three Gorges Project) on other rivers, like the Mekong, that will impact downstream users outside of China (like Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia), but China is also the world’s largest overseas dam builder.  Chellaney calls it China’s ‘hydro-hegemony.’  Read his piece here (you’ll need to register – for free – with ft.com in order to read the article).

A somewhat different perspective on the relationship between water and politics in China is provided by Andrew Mertha, a government professor at Cornell, whose book China’s Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change provides an excellent account of how water-control projects, particularly hydro-power dam projects, have become flashpoints for local protests and political action in China.  Mertha argues that “the control and management of water has transformed from an unquestioned economic imperative to a lightning rod of bureaucratic infighting, societal opposition, and open protest.”

Grand Canyon of the Yarlung Zangpo River

Finally, here’s a link to an article by Zhang Ke on one of China’s latest mega water-engineering schemes: a plan to divert water from the Yarlung Zangpo (the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra River) to Xinjiang.  Zhang writes:  “It has previously been suggested that such a project could move 200 billion cubic metres of water a year – the equivalent of four Yellow Rivers. It would require core project finance of more than 200 billion yuan (US$30.9 billion) and be ‘an unprecedented undertaking in the history of the Chinese people.'”

Well, maybe not so ‘unprecedented’, given what we talked about in lecture today!

UPDATE 9/10/11:  A recent report on Bloomberg.com, featuring research done by the Berkeley-based International Rivers Network, indicates that China’s “engineering and manufacturing giants have recently completed or are participating in at least $9.3 billion of hydropower projects” in Africa.  China’s promotion of hydropower projects in Africa is just part of the deepening economic ties between Africa and China.  A somewhat related report in the Guardian focuses on the problems of resettlement associated with the huge South-to-North Water Transfer Project.  Some 345,000 people are being resettled to make way for the canals and pipelines that will bring water from the Chang Jiang to the drought-prone North China Plain.   “Between 1949 and 1999, 17.5 million people – twice the population of London – were relocated for dams. Since then, the pace has accelerated thanks to mega-projects like the Three Gorges dam, which has forced the relocation of 1.5 million people, and the South-North diversion.”  For an overview of the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, see this New York Times report by Edward Wong, from June 1st, 2011.  He notes that the project

is China’s most ambitious attempt to subjugate nature. It would be like channeling water from the Mississippi River to meet the drinking needs of Boston, New York and Washington. Its $62 billion price tag is twice that of the Three Gorges Dam, which is the world’s largest hydroelectric project. And not unlike that project, which Chinese officials last month admitted had “urgent problems,” the water diversion scheme is increasingly mired in concerns about its cost, its environmental impact and the sacrifices poor people in the provinces are told to make for those in richer cities.

Here’s a map of the project:

Wong also has a blog entry on the project, on the Times’ Green Blog.  Here, Wong discusses some of the environmental challenges posed by the project, as well as featuring some of the efforts by local environmental activists to protect the Han River, one of the project’s major feeders, pollution-free.

UPDATE 9/11/11:  Here’s a report from the Telegraph on Qinglongshan Village in Heilongjiang, which was resettled in 1998 to make way for a new reservoir near the city of Harbin:

In December 1998 bulldozers demolished their homes to make way for a reservoir to supply drinking water to the rapidly expanding tourist centre of Harbin, but when the local government failed to give adequate compensation, the villagers decided to move back in.

“We returned to the village on April 10 [1999] and at first it was very hard,” recalled Yu Liyou, one of the original returnees, speaking under the watchful gaze of Chairman Mao Zedong whose beatifically smiling portraits are still found in rural homes in China.

“We all lived together in a simple collective house and divided into four work brigades to rebuild the village. It was just like the production teams in the old days.” And so began a decade-long stand-off against the local authorities that continues to this day and has become a national example of how the nameless, numberless casualties of China’s economic progress can sometimes stand up for themselves.

This is actually a fairly common story around China, where the chief complaint about forced resettlement is not necessarily the problem of eviction itself, but of the government’s failure to provide adequate compensation.

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One Response to Water politics and China

  1. Pingback: Drought in Guizhou | geography3822

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