The South-North Water Transfer and the Technopolitics of Megaprojects


Global Affairs Review, November 2017

By DeLaine Mayer

China has committed to large-scale infrastructure development as part of its national identity, development trajectory, and resource management policy. This paper will examine the technopolitical system in China as it relates to large-scale water engineering projects, specifically the South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP). The SNWTP’s goal is to bring water to northern China, where water scarcity concerns affect development, industry, and strategic planning. The project is part of a larger development trajectory in which modern technology represents the power of the centralized state to mask anthropogenic sources of environmental stress; this prioritizes supply-side innovation over demand-side management.

In China, megaprojects, especially water projects, have historically served political and social functions beyond their explicit design. The examination of China’s political system and development history through a technopolitical lens is an exploration of the relationship of the central state to the natural environment. Analyzing environmental and geological features of the country alongside localized impacts of specific development projects contributes to understanding the top-down approach of the government in designing national development strategies. This paper will argue that technopolitics has been a crucial component of China’s national vision and strategy for development. It has deep roots in imperial top-down systems management, which, in the 20th and 21st centuries, informed Maoist programs to subordinate nature and later incorporated applications of Western technology. The “SNWTP reflects a powerful, technocratic, and controlling central government, but one capable of employing a variety of strategies, persuasive as well as coercive, to pursue its objectives;” consolidation of state power has been the priority of megaproject development throughout Chinese history (Barnett et al., 2015).

Governments of rising middle-income states are increasingly developing water infrastructure megaprojects. New access to technology, new financing opportunities, and greater political ambition have made large-scale infrastructure an attractive programming option for governments gaining wealth and stability (Pohlner, 2016). Megaprojects provide visual cues of modernity and growth, national connectedness, and political prowess. In China, these are as important to SNWTP’s development as the physical transfer of water. By focusing on an “engineering-heavy approach to water management” (Webber et al., 2017), Chinese water arrangements overemphasize supply-side development, creating an overreliance on technological development to address issues of resource scarcity and availability, while strengthening the Communist Party’s hold on political power through national-visioning and mega-development.


Water-Related Goals of the South-North Water Transfer Project

The North China Plain’s GDP accounts for over 26% of the country’s growth, though the area has less than 5 percent of the country’s water resources and exceeds renewable water withdrawal rates by 23 percent (Zhang et al., 2017). The North China Plain is a key component of China’s industrialization and economic growth, but it is concurrently facing and contributing to a water crisis that is felt across the country. The SNWTP was conceptualized in the 1950s, but the first phase of the project was not completed until 2014. Designed to address the imbalance of water supply in South and North China, the project transfers water (and with it, development and growth opportunities) northward.

The North China Plain includes the most densely populated parts of the country, and concurrently faces great water scarcity due to high groundwater depletion rates and low precipitation levels. The “visible” water transfer of the SNWTP includes tens of billions m3 freshwater transferred over 600 miles per year, connecting “four major river basins, three megacities, six provinces, and hundreds of millions of water users and polluters” in two completed routes (Webber et al., 2017). The current cost of the project is estimated to be US$79.4 billion, not including the cost of evicting and resettling over 300,000 people near the Danjiangkou Reservoir, at the base of the SNWTP’s Central Route (Webber et al., 2017).

The SNWTP also transfers “hidden” or “virtual” water used for production, manufacturing, and industrialization. Virtual water includes the trading of goods and services, highlighting “the relationship between economic activities and use of natural resources” (Zhang et al., 2017). Agricultural products from elsewhere in China dominate virtual water imports into the North China Plain, while virtual water exports from this area are dominated by manufacturing to other countries. The SNWTP contributes to virtual and real water transfer to one of the main economic hubs in China, attempting to secure balanced development for the nation (Zhang et al., 2017).

Environmental impacts, which add economic costs and risks to local maintenance, are also transferred through the SNWTP. Water transfer at this scale changes natural flows of connected estuaries, including the Yangtze River, which can lead to seawater intrusion and contamination of the diverted freshwater. The constructed expressways that divert massive amounts of water also connect non-native species to new environments, potentially accelerating “the processes of biological invasion” (Zhang et al., 2017). Rising groundwater levels is another concern, as salinization can lead to soil degradation along the canals. These challenges, as with other resource management issues, are coupled with heavier technological and top-down management solutions. The management at this scale replicates power structures that, in the absence of democratic processes, can contribute to strengthening of centralized authority and greater local disempowerment.


Water and Power

The Middle Route of the SNWTP forced over 300,000 people living near the Danjiangkou Reservoir to relocate. These communities were offered new land, but reports of lower quality soil and smaller plot sizes have colored the forced resettlement process (Webber et al., 2017). This relocation also highlights a crucial force in infrastructural design and power consolidation: water supply infrastructure “can perpetuate physical and institutional realities that support old forms of authority and divisions of power” (Wilson, 2014). “As a physical expression of past policy choices, infrastructure shapes options for dealing with current problems and is the point of departure for future management challenges” (Wilson, 2014). Projects are built according to pre-existing power structures, top-down authoritative policy-making in the Chinese context, and a prioritization of large-scale growth and economic gains over social and environmental considerations. This “techno-social system” distributes water as power, organizing water and power flows across physical spaces, to reinforce divisions of social power (Pohlner, 2016).

This is a form of cognitive technological lock-in that highlights the co-evolutionary power of technology and development: technology co-evolves with social, institutional, cultural, and political systems. Power, then, co-evolves with technology. As Cairns argues, “configurations of artifacts and technologies (as well as routines, practices, and paradigmatic ways of thinking) typically reflect the needs, preferences, normativities and interests of rather restricted social groups, with the result being that the diversity and direction of technological change … has historically been constrained by powerful socioeconomic and institutional-political pressures” (Cairns, 2014). The social control function of technology is apparent in China’s technocratic system, through which elitist technocrats are given the national strategic power to force change in many local systems for the benefit of the centralized state.

A Historical Perspective of Water Projects and Technological Lock-In

The SNWTP began as a comment made by Mao Zedong in 1952: “The South has plenty of water and the North lacks it, so it should be alright for the North to borrow some water from the South if possible” (Lin, 2017). Mao’s conceptualization that “man must conquer nature,” idealized the power of the masses to mobilize and change the world. In this context, the SNWTP became a project designed to address resource challenges through technological innovation and application. The SNWTP broke ground in the 1960s along with other social and infrastructural megaprojects, including the Great Leap Forward, the national railway network, and governmental land reclamation. These projects were designed to contribute to Mao’s political legitimization and showcase the need for long-term planning which could only be accomplished by one ruler and one political party (Lin, 2017). Nevertheless, water projects as forms of power consolidation have a much older legacy in China.

Crow-Miller, Webber, and Rogers examined the institutional and technological lock-in of big water control and engineering historically. During the Imperial period, water management symbolized people-environment relations, with Confucian writings underscoring the role of humans in altering the land, particularly for economic activity, including agriculture. Daoism, on the other hand, explored harmony and continuity (Crow-Miller et al., 2017). Chinese water management also embodied top-down systems development, with the central state making decisions that were carried out at the local level, but economically, environmentally, and socially impactful across society at multiple levels. Stabilizing food supplies by building out irrigation systems, preventing floods, and draining swamps were methods to maintain “imperial rule through water control” (Crow-Miller et al., 2017). Further, national-level development projects like the Grand Canal, which recognized the “natural comparative advantage of the south in food production,” linked economic and social development across the country (Crow-Miller et al., 2017).

These early centuries of Chinese development demonstrate technological lock-in in social and economic development. For example, dikes, once built, had to be reinforced to prevent flooding along rivers. The government needed to maintain economically productive water systems in the water-scarce North China Plain; by transferring water from the south, food supply levels, especially grain levels, would remain consistent. Changing these water and production systems meant exercising state power over peoples’ daily lives and livelihoods, thus, risking political and social unrest that could threaten state control. Knowing this, the state maintained and expanded water management systems throughout centuries and dynasties. Both the end of the imperial state and the adoption of Western technologies in the early 1900s allowed the central government to integrate multipurpose water systems with new technological innovation and power consolidation. “Top-down technology-based basin planning” continued China’s institutional lock-in to water management systems, characterized under Mao’s reign by reliance on the skills of engineers and technocrats, state desire to increase agricultural output, and “use and overuse of groundwater resources” (Crow-Miller et al., 2017).

Science and technology offered China a path to modernity during the reform period of the late 1970s and 1980s. The socio-economic changes of China’s reform era reflect this emphasis on technology, with “technological development [serving] as a platform from which national leaders [could] renegotiate national identity.” Technology was positioned as a tool for the reexamination of China’s internal and external political structures (Crow-Miller et al., 2017). It should be no surprise that the Communist Party has turned to solving modern problems with more technology. As of 2000, over 50 percent of top Party members held technical or engineering degrees. Plus, “three of the last four Presidents of the People’s Republic of China since the early 1990s and three of the last four Premiers in office since the late 1980s were trained as engineers” (Crow-Miller et al., 2017).

Dams and other water megaprojects are visible expressions of political power, money, and coordination. Development of the Three Gorges Dam in the 1980s “communicated to the world that China was now a modern nation,” while simultaneously displacing 1.13 million people, impacting natural environments and habitats, sedimentation and agricultural productivity, and earthquakes (Crow-Miller et al., 2017). Although the SNWTP claims to balances water between the water-scarce North China and water-rich South China, it fails to do so. Instead, it reinforces the early water management systems and technological lock-in developed in imperial China. “As a hybrid of technology and politics, the SNWTP can be read as a physical embodiment of the regime at a particular point in time, privileging concrete over management, favouring large-scale and capital-intensive projects, and pursuing supply-side water management approaches over alternatives that address underlying causes of water scarcity such as pollution (Webber et al., 2017). This development strategy ingrains the centrality of China’s political power system in technological design. “The SNWTP […] worked to create a new socioeconomic lock-in by reinforcing the political and economic primacy of Beijing and the North China Plain as a scalar unit. The SNWTP is not only reflecting the technological, socioeconomic, and institutional choices of the past, but is already producing a new set of constraints to be inherited by China’s future decision-makers” (Crow-Miller et al., 2017). These constraints, as well as the replications of traditional power and authoritative structures, pose interesting questions about China’s democratization processes and whether practical and possible opportunities exist for civil society and NGOs to engage more meaningfully with national development strategies.


Conclusions and Future Research Potential

As China moves forward with its reliance on technological solutions for natural and anthropogenic challenges, a stronger look at the role of civil society in technological planning will better inform systems design and localized impact. NGOs and civil society stakeholders must navigate new openings in the political landscape if they want to avoid a replication of traditional power and authority structures. China must recognize “the importance of social deliberation around the form and direction that technologies take, rather than simply making efforts to minimize impacts” (Cairns, 2014). The current Chinese strategy views technological development as something separate from society, but incorporating a more holistic techno-social approach to development may give localized stakeholders a more significant place at the table, mitigating negative social or environmental externalities as projects progress.

Future research on water-related megaprojects should also examine whether these externalities of displacement, forced migration, and heavy environmental impact are in fact just embedded features of extractive development. This poses interesting questions for a political party whose philosophical and ideological underpinnings – at least in theory – are rooted in communal ownership and prosperity.

Large-scale material development seamlessly impacts large-scale economic and social development, creating a visible rift between pre-modern and post-modern development with a technocratic preference for the post-modern. As historically non- or anti-capitalist governments explore this modernized development trajectory, greater questions about replication of power structures and exploitative capitalist and extractive features should be explored. There is potential for alternative technological development that does not rely on extraction and exploitation but is more systematically holistic under communist theory. There are great opportunities for China to explore this public-private balance within infrastructural programming, but it will require a deep look at the role of large-scale infrastructure and water as a form of power.


Works Cited

Cairns, Rose C. (2014). “Climate geoengineering: issues of path-dependence and socio-technical lock-in.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 5.5: 649-61.
Crow-Miller, B.; Webber, M. and Rogers, S. (2017). The techno-politics of big infrastructure and the Chinese water machine. Water Alternatives 10(2): 233-249
Barnett, J., Rogers, S., Webber, M., Finlayson, B., & Wang, M. (2015). Sustainability: Transfer project cannot meet China’s water needs. Nature, 527, 295–297. DOI:10.1038/527295a
Lin, George C. S. (2017,) Water, technology, society and the environment: interpreting the technopolitics of China’s South–North Water Transfer Project, Regional Studies, 51:3, 383-388, DOI: 10.1080/00343404.2016.1267339
Pohlner, Huw (2016). “Institutional change and the political economy of water megaprojects: China’s south-north water transfer.” Global Environmental Change 39: 180.
Webber, Michael, Britt Crow-Miller & Sarah Rogers (2017). The South–North Water Transfer Project: remaking the geography of China, Regional Studies, 51:3, 370-382, DOI: 10.1080/00343404.2016.1265647
Wilson, Patrick Impero (2015). The Politics of Concrete: Institutions, Infrastructure, and Water Policy, Society & Natural Resources, 28:1, 109-115, DOI: 10.1080/08941920.2014.948239
Zhang, Zhuoying, Hong Yang, and Minjun Shi (2017). “Alleviating Water Scarcity in the North China Plain: The Role of Virtual Water and Real Water Transfer.” The Chinese Economy 50.3: 205-19.

Keywords: China, South-North Water Transfer Project, SNWTP, infrastructure, water, technopolitics, scarcity, development, technological lock-in

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