China’s Water Challenges: Q&A with Environmental Historian Kenneth Pomeranz

Jeffrey Wasserstrom talks to fellow China Beat founder Kenneth Pomeranz about China’s water woes, the limits of central power and the unpredictable effects of climate change. The interview concludes with a list of recommended reading.

JW: You’ve been interviewed a lot lately by journalists. Do you feel you get asked the right kinds of questions about the water situation? Or, to put it another way, is there a question you wish you’d be asked–or asked more often?

KP: I think journalists have generally asked me the right questions, but of course they almost never have space to print the whole interview (if “print” is even the right verb these days), and I’m sometimes surprised by which parts of it they think are most worth using. If it were up to me, I think I’d focus more on the link between water problems and rural/urban issues, the connections between water shortages and poor enforcement of environmental regulations, and the ways that both of these are related to tensions between different levels of government. Probably most of the water savings that you could achieve without greatly reducing economic output are in agriculture, where a lot of irrigation is very inefficient (and not just in China); in fact, I think there’s a good case to be made that if you put anything like the cost of the South-North water diversion project into fixing a million leaky faucets, lining a million unlined irrigation ditches, enforcing existing wastewater treatment standards (allowing more water to be re-used), etc., etc., you could do more to alleviate the problem (and more safely) than the diversion project will do. But for Beijing there are at least two problems with that.

First, a huge construction project like the diversion is something they can oversee directly; making sure a million pipes get fixed and rules get enforced requires a lot more reliance on local government, and they can’t necessarily count on that …. Second, one way to strongly encourage local compliance in saving water is to make water more expensive – but this would hit farmers hardest, and the government is genuinely concerned about how far farmers’ incomes lag behind most other people’s already. Do you really want to increase that gap further …?

Good journalists certainly know that China’s central government is much more limited than most Westerners realize, but I think they don’t emphasize that often enough – it’s a hard idea for people to shake, so maybe you have to push the point even harder than a particular individual story really requires. But if the cumulative effect of emphasizing that again and again were to break more people of the idea that Beijing is an all-powerful juggernaut, this would be of tremendous benefit to public understanding of China. Focusing on the mega-projects themselves, on the other hand, tends to reinforce the idea of an enormous concentration of power at the center.

One such mega-project, reported yesterday on CDT, is the proposed diversion of billions of cubic metres of water from the Yarlung Zangbo/Brahmaputra river upstream of the Indian border. But Chinese authorities have denied any intention of executing the scheme. From The Hindu:

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said in response to a question on India’s concerns about a diversion plan that China adopted “a responsible attitude towards the development of cross border water resources.”

“We adopt a policy that protection goes together with development, and take into full consideration the interests of downstream countries,” Mr. Hong said.

Recent media reports in India suggested China was considering a plan to divert the river’s waters, citing comments from Wang Guangqian, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

But other experts The Hindu spoke to said the government had not considered Mr. Wang’s – and others’ – proposals to divert the waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo, as the Brahmaputra is known in Tibet, citing the heavy costs involved and technical difficulties of such a project.

They stressed Mr. Wang’s proposal was not new — he had proposed a diversion plan as early as in 2001.

The article notes, however, “there is growing consensus for developing hydropower [as opposed to diversion] projects in the upper reaches.”