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Below the Surface: Linking water, power and development in China’s South-North Water Transfer Project
Despite significant social, ecological, and economic trade-offs, the Chinese government has moved forward with constructing and operationalizing the world’s largest interbasin water transfer project to date, the South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP). While it is fundamentally linked to a broader technopolitical agenda within the context of China’s post-Mao development, the SNWTP is frequently discussed in apolitical terms. I argue in this talk that the government discourses surrounding this project work to present it as politically neutral to serve the government’s ultimate goal of maintaining the consistent economic growth rates that underpin its continued legitimacy. These “discourses of deflection” replace concerns with human-exacerbated water stress with naturalized narratives about water scarcity and the ecological benefits of water transfer, work to deflect attention away from anthropogenic sources of water stress and serve as apolitical justifications for pursuing a short-term supply-side approach to regional water stress rather than the more politically challenging and longer-term course of dealing with the underlying drivers of the issue. This mega project, imbued with politics, both masks and reinforces social inequalities and ecological stress across China by marshaling ideals of national identity and technologically driven progress. The brand of development exemplified by the South-North Water Transfer Project is increasingly relevant outside of China as the country continues to expand its resource reach into Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Dr. Britt Crow-Miller is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and School of the Environment at Portland State University. Her research focuses on the question of how power, politics, and technologies work to shape and constrain development pathways and their socio-environmental impacts in China, the Western U.S., and around the world. She received her Ph.D. in Geography from UCLA, holds an M.A. from Harvard University in Regional Studies-East Asia, and a B.A. from Bard College.