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Water, Power, and Development in Twenty-First Century China: The Case of the South-North Water Transfer Project


Through a mixed qualitative approach, this dissertation injects politics into an otherwise apolitical discussion of the largest water management project in human history, China's South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP). The SNWTP, which transfers water from south-central China to the country's political and economic heart on the North China Plain (NCP), is being pursued as a means to transforming water management into a space in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can assert its power, rather than a space in which that power may be undermined. I demonstrate how the SNWTP is fundamentally underpinned by the CCP's need to maintain continued economic growth in this critical water-stressed region, which serves as a key factor in its ability to maintain political legitimacy. In pursuing this ultimate goal, the government is presenting the SNWTP in apolitical terms by putting forth what I call "discourses of distraction," or alternative stories about an environmental controversy that serve a particular political agenda. These discourses, I argue, are being employed as a strategic tool to depoliticize the SNWTP, mask its social and ecological impacts, and deflect attention away from three major anthropogenic sources of water stress on the NCP, because to address them would undermine economic growth. In addition to demonstrating how discourse can serve as a political tool, the dissertation illustrates the utility of scalar constructions in political maneuvering around the South-North Water Transfer Project. It also illustrates the ways in which the SNWTP has necessitated a range of temporal, spatial, and sectoral trade-offs, which both reflect and reinforce existing power discrepancies and set in place a pattern of inequities that is likely to persist for decades.

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