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right times and in the right places to meet human demand without undermining the other
important ecological functions that water fulfills. After all, water may be a fungible com-
modity, but it is not a substitutable one. We may be able to shift our dependence from oil to
natural gas or some other fuel source, but in the portfolio of human needs nothing can take
the place of water. And the human uses of water must always be balanced against the many
other ecological services that water provides.
If we view water as a resource that is currently being used at or near its peak, the next
logical question is how to manage it sustainably into the future. Peter Gleick (2003) sug-
gests that various alternative management scenarios take either the “hard path” or the “soft
path.” The hard path comprises a one-size-fits-all model of large-scale hydrodevelopment
consisting of centrally planned infrastructure projects that provide a reliable water supply,
a source of power, and employment opportunities. The Tennessee Valley Authority, cre-
ated in the United States during the Great Depression to enhance irrigation capacity and
generate hydropower for a half-dozen states, is the epitome of such an approach, but it is
not unique. The hard path has been the dominant paradigm in water-resource development
around the world for about a century, promoted by government agencies and international
financial institutions such as the World Bank.
The “soft path,” by contrast, consists of improvements in the productivity and efficiency
of water use, the application of economic principles to encourage efficient and equitable
use, the development of new technologies of water management and distribution, and
the engagement and participation of water users, communities, and stakeholders in the
decision-making process. Practitioners of the soft-path approach seek to match the scale
and character of water-development projects with the user's needs, to involve individuals
and communities in important decisions about how water is used, and to balance environ-
mental and human needs (Palaniappan and Gleick 2009:14). In the soft-path approach, big-
ger is not always better.
The anthropologist Eric Wolf has suggested that “the arrangements of a society become
most visible when they are challenged by crisis” (1990:593). Such crises force people and
institutions alike to make decisions about what is most important to them. In the introduc-
tion to an edited volume on the cultural dimensions of water resources around the world,
Barbara Rose Johnston and John Donahue point out that the Chinese word for “crisis,”
weiji , is written with two characters: one that means danger or risk ( wei ) and another that
connotes opportunity ( ji ) (1998:3). This is an apt metaphor for understanding the lengthy
and complex story of water management in China, involving the acquisition, impounding,
and appropriation of a natural resource to accomplish various national objectives.
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