T HE METEORIC rise of the Chinese economy and with it the emergence of a robust
threads in one of the great economic stories of modern times. It is a story of exponential
growth that has lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty and transformed an
agrarian nation into a manufacturing powerhouse within the space of a few decades. But
economic growth is always constrained by biophysical limits, and water—a resource that
sustains all economic and cultural life—now represents one crucial point at which this eco-
nomic miracle appears to be running up against such limits. Like many developing nations
in which the demand for water has begun to outstrip supply, China faces a water crisis.
involves large-scale hydropower-development projects that are transforming China's rivers.
In this sense, water is not merely a precious resource in its own right but also a source of
kinetic energy that can be converted to electrical power and transported to fuel economic de-
velopment in commercial and manufacturing centers located thousands of kilometers away.
The transport of hydropower from west to east traverses political, ecological, geographic-
al, and cultural boundaries. Although there are many precedents in Chinese history for such
feats of hydraulic engineering, today's ambitious hydropower dam projects are on a scale
that has no equal in human history.
Balancing the economic benefits of hydropower with the ecological and social costs it
causes is a technical problem, but it is also a normative one. It is a question of the values and
worldviews that shape people's relationships with water and how all of these things change
over time. In the current era of market-oriented reform, China's water-management sector is
becoming increasingly fragmented and even privatized, a trend that entails a reconfiguration
of the relationship between state, society, and market.
AN APPETITE FOR ENERGY