Geography Reference
In-Depth Information
The Moral Economy Revisited
T HE ABILITY to regulate the flow of rivers—for irrigation, for flood control, and, more re-
cently, for hydropower—has long been a fundamental part of the story of human develop-
ment. In this regard, the recent boom of hydropower expansion in China, which has seen
the construction of approximately half of the world's 50,000 large dams, can be viewed as a
change in scale rather than a change in course. China has a history of large, state-sponsored
river-engineering projects that stretches more than 2,000 years into the past; such projects
have been fundamental to political expansion and human well-being there ever since. At the
same time, the large dams under way on the Lancang and Nu Rivers, along with scores of
the complex questions at stake: water is simultaneously a resource that is central to people's
livelihoods, a kinetic force capable of producing renewable energy, and a medium through
which social and political relations are negotiated—sometimes in contentious ways.
Chinese leaders are cognizant of the unsustainability of continued reliance on fossil fuels,
especially coal, for the vast majority of the country's energy needs. Although such depend-
ence will by necessity continue for the foreseeable future, the nation is making strides to-
ward alternatives, which policy makers refer to as “clean energy” ( qingjie nengyuan ) or
“green energy” ( lüse nengyuan ), with the long-term goal of promoting a “low-carbon eco-
nomy” ( ditan jingji ). The national capacity for research and development as well as con-
struction of wind-, solar-, and hydropower facilities is outstripping that of many advanced
industrial economies, including the United States. And these energy programs are a funda-
mental part of the rise of a nation that is far more prosperous than it was a generation ago.
Making general predictions about China's development path can be pure folly, but I will
hazard one. Twenty or thirty years from now, air quality in Chinese cities will be markedly
better than the “unhealthy” or “hazardous” ratings common today. And these improvements
will have been driven bythe demands ofanincreasingly affluent middle class weary ofdeal-
ing with the environmental and health consequences of fossil fuels as well as by large-scale
public and private investment in renewable energy projects of various kinds.
On the Lancang River, where the total hydropower capacity is estimated to be 31,980
megawatts, nearly one-third of that total has been developed so far: the Manwan,
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