The challenges of governing the South to North water transfer scheme — ASN Events

The challenges of governing the South to North water transfer scheme (12783)

Jon Barnett 1
  1. The University of Melbourne, The University Of Melbourne, VIC, Australia

When operational, China’s South to North water transfer scheme will be the world’s biggest interbasin water transfer system, taking water from the Yangzi River Basin north to supply users in the Hai, Huai and Huang river basins. Management of the scheme will require balancing the demands of at least four major river basins and their associated urban, industrial, agricultural and ecological needs. It also entails decisions that concern two major cities (Shanghai and Tianjin), four provinces, four basin scale water resources commissions, and all the provinces in these four basins (each of which consumes and pollutes). 

The magnitude of this governance challenge is vast, especially given existing difficulties in managing water within river basins in China, which are complicated by: fragmentation of and ambiguity regarding responsibilities, the promotion of economic growth targets ahead of environmental goals, inconsistent systems of water quality monitoring and enforcement, a culture of solving water problems through engineering solutions, and China’s fiscal federalism.

This paper explains these challenges through a political and economic geography lens, which juxtaposes the materialities of federalism in China with the normative ideals of Integrated River Basin Management. In doing so it suggests that the political economy of development determines decisions about water, with IRBM at best only able to influence decisions on the margins. Water does not only follow the laws of gravity, it also follows the operation of markets and jurisdictions with degrees of autonomy. Explaining the management of federal rivers is as much a matter of the (political geography of) state and (the economic geography) markets as it is of topography.