Manipulating Water in China

Chinese academics and officials argue that the country must store water to overcome seasonal fluctuations and move water to rebalance regional differences in supply and demand. As well as supplying water, however, such projects protect the political and economic status of powerful municipalities, stimulate Chinese economic growth, and proclaim the power and administrative capacity of the state. Underpinning Promethean water management is a hidden ‘empire’—China’s water machine—that assembles the capacities of corporations and institutions in an international network that facilitates state schemes. Yet, fixed infrastructure and their deterministic projections collide against shifting water demands and political interests and require subtle reconciliation of competing interests.

A Water, it is said, comes in three modes: too much, too little, or too dirty. China’s floods, droughts, and high levels of pollution reflect this adage. More than 11 per cent of the country is subject to floods—an area that includes one-third of its farmland and two-thirds of its population (Ma et al. 2010). On average in the 2000s, drought affected more than 24.5 million hectares of China’s land area annually, which is roughly equivalent to the total land area of the United Kingdom and more than double the area so affected in the 1950s (Wang et al. 2012). In South China, 20 per cent of the monitored sections in the Yangtze and Pearl River basins have poor water quality; in northern China, all major river basins have experienced water quality degradation, and the proportion of monitored water sections that are ranked poor ranges from 50 per cent in the Yellow River Basin to 78 per cent in the Hai River Basin (Jiang 2009).

Figure 1: Existing and planned routes of the South North Water Transfer Project.

For thousands of years, China’s rulers and its people have attempted to control floods and to drought-proof crops through irrigation. They have paid less attention to controlling pollution (and so shall this essay). Dams, canals, and tunnels are concrete manifestations in the landscape of human attempts to manipulate the flow of water—Promethean re-makings of the Earth’s waterscape. They are regularly lauded as the greatest feats of the societies that launched them, moving water from where it is abundant (or overabundant) to where governments want it. Within China, the official view is that the country must store water to overcome seasonal fluctuations and move water to rebalance regional differences in supply and demand. This view has driven a rapid expansion in the number of dams in China and the beginnings of a scheme to develop a water network for the whole country. In 2015 and in the period covered by the Thirteenth Five-Year Plan (2016–20), 172 key water resource projects were identified, with at least 16 of these being interbasin transfers. According to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, China must divert even more water to its arid north and invest in even more water infrastructure; opening more canals to deliver water northwards will ‘support economic and social development and optimize China’s national development strategy’ (Reuters 2019). In July 2020, the State Council announced that 150 major water resource projects would be promoted, at a cost of RMB1.29 trillion.

China is not alone in constructing such huge projects. In 2018, researchers identified 34 existing water transfer megaprojects, 26 under construction and another 50 planned, on every continent except Antarctica (Shumilova et al 2018). These projects would together transfer more than twice the annual discharge of the Yangtze River. The world—not just China—is on a water transfer building spree that promises to re-engineer the global hydrological network. An eco-modernising agenda would raise the efficiency with which water is used, through ever smarter ways of saving water, increasing acceptance of water reuse, and continued investment in desalinisation. In contrast, these projects represent Prometheanism, re-engineering the world of water to suit human desires.

Virtually all Chinese academic writing about interbasin water transfer projects explicitly or implicitly regards them as obvious ways of resolving spatial discrepancies between water supply and demand. This ‘obvious necessity’ is perhaps clearest in the case of the South–North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP, 南水北调工程), the two existing routes of which carry water from the Yangtze River north to Hebei and Shandong provinces, Beijing, and Tianjin. Writers explain that ecological protection and economic and social development in the Yellow River Basin and the North China Plain depend on water resources (a review of such writing is provided in Webber et al. 2021). However, the Yellow River and other principal rivers are said to be short of water, which severely constrains economic and population carrying capacity.

China’s per capita water resources are only one-quarter of the world average, while the per capita water resources of the North China Plain are only one-quarter of the China-wide average, which is interpreted to mean that the Plain suffers from severe ‘resource-based’ water scarcity.

Groundwater has been used to maintain the region’s development, which has led to environmental problems such as ground subsidence and secondary soil salinisation. The common view—and the view of many of China’s governments—is that China must rely on interbasin transfers to solve the constraint of this imbalance between north and south (Xinhua 2014). In the words of prominent Chinese geographer Liu Changming, as reported by state news agency Xinhua (2014):

China’s per capita water resources are low—only one-quarter of the world average. A special characteristic is uneven spatial and temporal distribution, with much agricultural land but little water in the north and little agricultural land but more water in the south. In addition, the water resources are concentrated in the summer. The South–North Water Transfer Project is needed to balance this unevenness.

Figure 2: View from pumping station on the eastern route of the SNWTP, mid 2017. Note the fences to keep people out. PC: Sarah Rogers.

In its current configuration, China’s SNWTP has the capacity to transfer 25–30 billion cubic metres of water per annum over 1,150 kilometres (eastern route) and 1,260 kilometres (central route). It binds into a single network four major river basins, six provinces, three megacities, myriad bureaucracies, and more than 700 million people. These routes were operating by 2014. The eastern route takes water from the Yangtze River upstream of Shanghai and diverts it north via a network of pumping stations, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and canals, including the historic Grand Canal. It can supply 15 billion cubic metres of water per annum to the provinces of Jiangsu, Anhui, Shandong, and Hebei, and the City of Tianjin. The central route takes 10 billion cubic metres of water per annum from the Danjiangkou Reservoir on the Han River (a tributary of the Yangtze) through (and supplying) Hubei, Henan, and Hebei provinces to Beijing and Tianjin.

The level of the Danjiangkou Reservoir was raised 13 metres to increase its storage capacity and to enable the water in the canal to flow by gravity—a task that involved the resettlement of at least 340,000 people and major land-use changes in the catchment to improve water quality. Plans are being developed by the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR) to nearly double this volume of transferred water through a western route that would extract water from rivers in southwestern China, including the Yarlung Zangbo/Brahmaputra, Lancang/Mekong, and Nu/Salween rivers, and deliver it into the Yellow River. The basic rationale of the entire project is to transfer some of the relatively more abundant water in the Yangtze River Basin to northern regions where water is less abundant. The same logic is used to justify the ‘Red Flag Project’, which would divert up to 200 billion cubic metres of water annually from the same rivers into Xinjiang (Zhang 2020). It is argued to be a fundamental component of the sustainable development of the Chinese nation—one of the truly stupendous ideas for manipulating nature in China.

Nova Roma

As Liu Changming explains in the quote above, the official justification for such projects is that they move water to where it is needed. They apparently offer the possibility of continued growth and increased prosperity in northern China, a region that has been plagued by water shortages even as its relative shares of China’s population and gross domestic product (GDP) have increased over the past 50 years. Though much of the water shortage in China is a matter of the quality of water rather than its quantity, dams, canals, and tunnels do move water into places where demand is high.

But megaprojects meet many more demands within China than simply the supply of water. First, they protect the political and economic status of the Beijing municipality. In the face of arguments that the capital of China should be moved south to places where there is more water, the Beijing municipality has lobbied strongly for, and invested heavily in, such infrastructure as the SNWTP. Second, projects such as this, but also those for flood mitigation and irrigation, are an important component of the infrastructure spending that stimulates Chinese economic growth. Spending on water infrastructure currently amounts to about RMB800 billion per annum, which, according to Wei Shanzhong, Vice-Minister of Water Resources, contributes 1.2 percentage points to the growth of GDP and creates 3.9 million new jobs (Hou 2022).

Such projects also proclaim the power and administrative capacity of the state. Zheng (2019), in what can only be interpreted as a metaphor for current Chinese water infrastructure investment, argued that in the Roman Empire, large-scale water conservancy projects certainly provided water resources to the citizens; but they also met the political needs of the Roman rulers in proclaiming the power of the state. Large water supply projects demonstrated the administrative legitimacy and obligations of the Roman Empire and revealed the generosity of the empire and city managers to its subjects: the empire constructed its ideological power through water. Abundant clean water became identified as an essential feature of Roman life: aqueducts, public baths, flush toilets, and fountains transplanted the Roman cultural model to conquered lands, opening a gap between the cultures of Rome and those of other nations. Whereas Prometheus stole fire to ignite civilisation, Rome—and now China—used water to mark and sustain it. The supply of clean water was—and remains—a source of ideological power.

Underpinning China’s entire approach to water management—and especially the construction of expensive, concrete-heavy infrastructure like the SNWTP—is a network of Chinese and non-Chinese government and business organisations that Han Xiao and I have termed the ‘Chinese water machine’ (Webber and Han 2017). This machine comprises state-owned enterprises (SOEs) such as Power China and Energy China, research institutions like the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, the MWR, key universities (including Hohai and Tsinghua), domestic and foreign water-supply companies (such as Beijing Capital Group and Suez), provincial governments, international development banks, foreign contractors, and equipment manufacturers, as well as international organisations like the International Commission of Irrigation and Drainage, the International Water Resources Association, the World Water Council, and the International Hydropower Association.

The linkages between these enterprises, ministries, universities, and foreign organisations emerged through personnel transfers and flows of money, materials, and plans during the construction of huge projects like the Three Gorges Dam, and they are supplemented by interactions within water-related international forums. The time and energy invested in data flows, conversations, material and monetary flows, construction, training, and sponsorships of conferences enable the Chinese water machine to draw on global and multinational sources to set the conditions for human–water interactions in the country. The water machine is the institutional means through which the preference for large infrastructure rather than improvements to management is perpetuated to resolve China’s water dilemmas. The machine creates a vision of a managed water system that demands investment and other resources, feeding the growth requirements of corporations. Codes of conduct set standards for planning, construction, and resettlement (as well as creating work for sustainability assessors). The water machine’s activities thus expand members’ capacities and enable them to perform the tasks of water management.

Figure 3: Outlet from Danjiangkou Reservoir, the starting point of the central route. Note the fenced off pristine landscaping a modern vision of China. The big sign reads ‘South North Water Transfer: Benefits the Country, Benefits the People’. PC: Zhao Yue.

The existence and operations of this China water machine mean that the interaction of governments and corporations is not one of master and servant, of corporations doing governments’ bidding or governments responding to corporate needs. Water management in China is an enterprise in which governments, corporations, and commercial and university interests are brought into alignment in an approach that is agreed on within the machine, subject to the opposing interests of other actors. Likewise, the overseas activities of the machine and its members are not to be understood in terms of government-promoted national champion SOEs being encouraged to invest abroad in strategically important regions like Africa. They are instead the outcome of a network of interacting actors mutually influencing one another’s actions. Furthermore, Chinese water management and its preference for large-scale infrastructure are not simply a matter of Chinese preferences and action; instead, Chinese corporations, like Chinese governments at different levels, are enrolled in a global web of relations, in which the idea for a project might be developed with an international consulting firm, some finance is provided by an international development bank or a sovereign fund, critical components are supplied by European or US manufacturers, and environmental and social impacts are assessed by a panel of Chinese and international consultants.

Figure 4: What I have previously called the ‘universal truth’: interbasin transfers increase the supply of water in the recipient region, but that supply creates the conditions for further development, which, in turn, raises demand. As demand continues to grow, scarcity reappears.

Certainly, the supply of water through dams, canals, and tunnels is a source of ideological power, marking places as civilised or, in modern language, ‘developed’ (Zheng 2019). Throughout history, it has helped sustain empires and regimes. But in contemporary China that supply is underpinned by another, hidden ‘empire’ that makes such megaprojects possible: the Chinese water machine assembles the capacities of its members in an international network that enables the state to demonstrate its power and concern about citizens’ wellbeing.

Prometheus Interrupted

Despite—or perhaps because of—the large number of interests that are enrolled in large-scale infrastructure schemes in China, such projects are not without their difficulties. Dams, irrigation schemes, and interbasin transfers are conceived of as projects—things in themselves. Yet, from the point of view of supplying water to users, such projects do not exist in isolation, but must be integrated into an overall water management plan that provides a regional overview of the total water supply system. Such an overview must be provided by river basin commissions that are responsible for integrated water resource management (and by provincial and lower-level governments, which are responsible for implementing central government policies and actually providing the water to users). So, the operators of the SNWTP, for example, have only to extract water from sources and deliver it along canals; provincial governments must combine SNWTP water with water from other sources to supply the different demands of multiple users who are scattered over a landscape.

Thus, since it began to operate in 2013, the eastern route has faced many challenges. In Shandong Province, for example, these include failures to achieve planned water use quotas, difficulties in constructing local auxiliary projects, high prices, and high charges imposed on cities. The implementation of this project in Shandong reveals an acute divergence of interests between the central government, the provincial government, and individual cities. The story of the SNWTP in Shandong is one of a piece of fixed infrastructure and its deterministic projections bumping up against the fluidity of water demand and local political economy—a seemingly technical, rational project suddenly requiring all manner of politically inflected choices to be made and competing interests to be reconciled.

However, the story of water management in China is not merely a tale of concrete and its limitations. In the past 20 years, the MWR has put a lot of effort into developing a framework for managing water that involves two hands: the hand of government with its centrally directed, concrete-heavy, supply-focused approach, and the hand of the market, in which more local, demand, and efficiency-focused modes of management become important. The Water Law of 2002 promised a national water plan and China now has a national water rights framework that specifies that rights to water are not ownership rights but use rights. Current regulations specify abstraction permits, which are administrative management tools that are not legally recognised assets. These permits are granted by the MWR (or its delegates, the river basin commissions) to provinces and municipalities, which in turn grant abstraction permits to prefectures and cities, and so on all the way down to corporations, water user associations, irrigation districts, water companies, local autonomous groups, or individuals.

Figure 5: The state of irrigation canals on the North China Plain, early 2010s. The new system
of transferable water permits allows governments and corporations to pay to upgrade such
irrigation infrastructure to conserve the water that would otherwise seep ‘wastefully’ into the
ground. In return for their investment, the governments or corporations are allowed to acquire
the water that is saved. PC: Michael Webber.

The MWR has now laid out a framework within which governments and markets together manage the country’s water resources (DRCMWR 2019). Governments, it says, should protect the interests of agricultural irrigation water users to avoid excessive conversion of agricultural water to other industries. The government is also the spokesperson of the river basin or regional environment and leads the allocation of regional water quantity indicators. Local governments, the MWR emphasises, must meet the needs of water for the environment. Under the long-term policy of ‘Building a Water-Saving Society’ (建设节水型社会), the government must control total water consumption; within these constraints, water rights, prices, and markets can, the MWR argues, optimise the allocation of water resources so that the external effects of water use can be reflected in costs and the market mechanism can be used to motivate people to save water and protect the water environment.

In other words, China’s central water management agency visualises a complementary rather than competing role for both governments and markets, for both central direction and allocation by price. The political power of the north of China, the central government’s continuing fixation with infrastructure investment, and the organisational strength of the Chinese water machine together ensure, however, that this sophisticated framework for water management means that more, not less, concrete will be laid to constrain the country’s rivers or to divert them in the future. In the first half of 2022 alone, China began the construction of 22 major water conservancy projects, expected to cost RMB176.9 billion (roughly US$25 billion). Premier Li claimed in a speech to the seventh World Conservation Congress on 3 September 2021 that China respects, conforms to, and protects nature, and upholds the concept of an ecological civilisation; nevertheless, the government’s actions imply that a Promethean manipulation of nature is understood to be compatible with this respect for, conformity to, and protection of nature.

Featured Image: Yangtze River near Yichang, Hubei. PC: Berd Taller (CC),



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Michael Webber

Michael Webber is Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of Melbourne. An economic geographer, his recent work has revolved around economic development in rural China (Making Capitalism in Rural China, Edward Elgar, 2012), most recently delving into the political economy of China’s water management. With Jon Barnett, Brian Finlayson, and Mark Wang, he published Water Supply in a Mega-City: A Political Ecology Analysis of Shanghai (Edward Elgar, 2018) and with them, Sarah Rogers, Ian Rutherfurd, Chen Dan, and a group of graduate students, is engaged in a large project entitled ‘The Technopolitics of China’s South–North Water Transfer Project’.

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