Books: the complex world of big-dam politics

Andrew Mertha, in China’s Water Warriors, says hydropower decision-making is becoming increasingly pluralised as new voices insist on being heard. But, writes Kristen McDonald, vested local interests still have the most clout.
China’s Water Warriors – Citizen Action and Policy Change


Andrew C Mertha

Cornell University Press, 2008

China’s Water Warriors, by Andrew C Mertha, brings theory of Chinese politics into the contentious world of China’s current dam boom. An exposé of three very different campaigns to oppose big dams in China’s southwest, this terse volume weaves together fresh field research with political science theory to explain why some campaigns succeed while others fail.

The three sites of contention that Mertha investigates are the Nu River dam cascade in Yunnan, the Pubugou dam on Sichuan’s Dadu River and the Yangliuhu dam, also in Sichuan. Each case is remarkable in its own way; but taken as a whole, they provide a window onto the complex and increasingly pluralised world of dam politics in China. At a time when water resource management has never been more critical to the country’s stability, these cases provide a needed perspective on the kinds of decision-making processes that together shape China’s development path.

Mertha argues that struggles over dams are evidence of a changing “policy sphere” in China, in which “actors hitherto relegated to passive recipients of policy outputs” are now “influential players within the policy process”. For example, dam development is no longer the domain of any single ruler, as during the “hydraulic society” times of Confucius or Mao. Rather, dams have become “a lighting rod of bureaucratic infighting, societal opposition and even open protest”.

The intensive hydropower development region of southwest China is not a blank landscape upon which dam engineers and top government dam proponents have full reign. Instead, local governments, local communities, non-governmental organisations and journalists are able to take part in an expanded sphere of hydropower decision-making.
According to Mertha, two key factors determine whether or not actors opposed to a dam project will succeed. The first is “policy entrepreneurship,” or the act of pushing for a new idea, often in the face of a massive inertia. People like Dr Yu Xiaogang of China Green Watershed, who has led opponents of the Nu project, are policy entrepreneurs, but so are others: academics, journalists and even government officials.

The second factor Mertha suggests influences the success or failure of a campaign is “issue framing.” For example, local officials who opposed the Yangliuhu Dam argued that by inundating part of the 2,000-year-old Dujiangyan irrigation project, the new dam would destroy “China’s cultural heritage.” Mertha argues that the presence of policy entrepreneurs (in this case, local government officials) and their use of a frame that resonated with a broader population, helped stop the dam.

While policy entrepreneurs and issue framing do play a role in Chinese hydropower politics, at times Mertha overstates the strength of all anti-dam “policy entrepreneurs” in China. Opposition to the Nu River project, with which this reviewer is most familiar, has been less the work of “a critical mass of NGOs” based in Yunnan than a handful of well-connected NGO leaders, based mostly in Beijing. And as Mertha rightly points out, the Nu River project has been delayed by intra-governmental conflict as much as popular opposition. In fact, those who oppose dams in China have had so little success that it is hard to imagine that they will “constrain China further in the choice of energy resources for future development” any time soon, as Mertha suggests.

Still, Mertha is right to sense that contention around dams, if not outright opposition, is on the rise, and that China’s fragmented authoritarian structure is increasingly welcoming of new actors. Two recent events in China lend support to Mertha’s arguments.

First, the Sichuan earthquake has cast doubt on the wisdom of past policies that ignored seismic risks associated with dams. A group of entrepreneurial “dam experts” (including journalists, academics and NGO staff) submitted a widely publicised letter to the Beijing authorities calling for a suspension of new projects in earthquake-prone areas (such as the upper Yangtze River and the Nu River).

Even more recently, and more surprisingly, “Lisu youth” from the Nu River valley sent a letter to UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation — stating that the Nu River dams will destroy their ethnic heritage. Clearly, new fissures have opened, previously silenced voices can now speak out, and these voices are growing louder.

The fact that dams like Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Yangtze River and Yangliuhu have not been built does demonstrate that dam politics are changing in China. But to understand exactly how they are changing, it may be worthwhile to examine more closely how the decisions not to build these dams actually came about.

In both cases, local governments have strong alternative interests connected to the river segments at stake, as well as the mandate to decide their ultimate fate. At Yangliuhu, as Mertha points out, the local government receives significant revenue from the Dujiangyan World Heritage Site, which was threatened by the dam. Mertha’s case studies actually suggest, though he does not say it, that some actors in this expanded sphere of dam politics have more clout than others. The fact that tens of thousands of peasants occupied the Pubugou dam site for days and ultimately were overpowered by vested interests in the local government is testimony to that fact.

On the Nu River, Mertha shows how local community members are kept in the dark about the local government’s dam plans; in fact, opponents of the project have been bullied by prefecture and provincial officials. One could argue that the real “water warriors” of Mertha’s book are the local officials, who increasingly must contend with the grassroots as well as with Beijing, but who often are able to ignore their claims.

Kristen McDonald, PhD, is a recent graduate of the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the US director of the China Rivers Project.