Geography Reference
In-Depth Information
the feasibility of the Western Route, which traverses high-altitude, arid regions, remains
in question. 9 Leaders are also trying to address water shortages through new policy mech-
anisms. The Three Red Lines (San Tiao Hong Xian) Policy, passed by the State Council
in 2010, limits aggregate national water consumption to 700 billion cubic meters per year,
mandates improvements in irrigation efficiency, and allocates 1.8 trillion yuan 10 during the
Twelfth Five-Year Plan period (2011-2015) for investment in water delivery infrastructure
(State Council 2012).
Water-quality problems are no less pressing. Although China's environmental protection
laws, policies, and institutions are well developed, enforcement is notoriously lacking. The
MEP, which was elevated to full ministerial status in 2008, faces chronic shortages of fund-
ing and administrative weaknesses in comparison to agencies that drive the nation's eco-
nomy, such as the NDRC. One large-scale example of the failure of environmental over-
sight and its consequences for water quality is the 2005 Songhua River benzene spill. An
explosion at the Jilin Petrochemical Company, a subsidiary of the state-owned China Na-
tional Petroleum Corporation, spilled nearly 100 tons of benzene, a known carcinogen, into
the Songhua River in China's northeastern region of Manchuria. The spill necessitated the
shutdown of the municipal water supply of Harbin, a city of more than 5 million people,
and involved a government cover-up that resulted in the dismissal of the environmental
protection minister.
Because water is one of the most fundamental elements of nature, it is tempting to view
water problems—scarcity, quality, access, and distribution, among others—as equally nat-
ural. But a closer look reveals that water dilemmas, precisely because they involve such an
elemental resource, are anything but natural. They are social, economic, and cultural. As
Johnston and Donahue note, “Cultural notions, histories, economies, environmental condi-
tions, and power relations all play a role in establishing differential resource relations, and
this differential is a significant factor in ensuing conflicts and crises” (1998:5).
Like other kinds of water-engineering projects, dams have long been used by states and
bureaucrats as tools for economic development. In fact, the case can be made that the suc-
cessful rise of all large-scale civilizations depended to a great extent upon states' ability
to mobilize resources and labor for allocating water where it was most needed. In ancient
Mesopotamia, forexample, the practice ofsedentary farming and the eventual fluorescence
of Mesopotamian culture across a vast area were made possible by extensive irrigation
canal systems that required large-scale administrative coordination. The ancient Mesopot-
amiancityofMashkan-Shapir flourishedbecauseofalargenetworkofcanalsconnecting it
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