Forget it, Jake—it’s Chinatown

China has a water problem. A BIG water problem. Are the media underestimating just how big it is because they live in wet places?

The New York times had an terrific story by Edward Wong yesterday on China’s hare-brained scheme to water the northern half of the country by building three huge canals from the southern half—in spite of what seem like insuperable problems involving pollution, population displacement, and the small fact that the South, too, has long faced a water shortage. China is pursuing the plan anyway because, in Wong’s blunt words, “Northern China is dying,” through chronic drought and Yellow River pollution so severe that its water is no longer potable.  Wong has another story today on how poorly-planned existing irrigation schemes in the South have already caused lakes to dry up and forced a whole city to ration running water to five hours a day.

This whole line of reporting seems neglected.  We hear a lot about “pollution” in China, which gives an impression of huge but essentially survivable (and reversible) problems like air made dirty by coal dust. But if government incompetence leads fresh water to disappear for hundreds of millions, that’s a whole different order of problem. No water, no human life (and certainly no continued economic growth).

I blame geography. If you grow up in California (or the West and Southwest generally), you hear one cliché after another about how water is everything. California history is largely the history of water; our mythology, a set of stories about the serious business of stealing acquiring water. When someone says “whiskey is for drinking” you’re primed to reply “water is for fighting over” (though Mark Twain may not have coined that). But if you live, as our cultural and political elites do, on the Eastern Seaboard, this is all abstract. From there, water no doubt seems to be by nature a minor, manageable problem. As a result, a long-brewing catastrophe seems new to them, and therefore to us.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

18 thoughts on “Forget it, Jake—it’s Chinatown”

  1. I guess we need all gang up on Friedman again for getting it wrong.
    It’s “five moon shots” ya big palooka…
    Not “four”…

    China is doing moon shots. Yes, that’s plural. When I say “moon shots” I mean big, multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing investments. China has at least four going now: one is building a network of ultramodern airports; another is building a web of high-speed trains connecting major cities; a third is in bioscience, where the Beijing Genomics Institute this year ordered 128 DNA sequencers — from America — giving China the largest number in the world in one institute to launch its own stem cell/genetic engineering industry; and, finally, Beijing just announced that it was providing $15 billion in seed money for the country’s leading auto and battery companies to create an electric car industry, starting in 20 pilot cities. In essence, China Inc. just named its dream team of 16-state-owned enterprises to move China off oil and into the next industrial growth engine: electric cars. Not to worry. America today also has its own multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing moon shot: fixing Afghanistan.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/26/opinion/26friedman.html

  2. “I blame geography.”

    Feh, why not place the blame where it belongs: With a command economy. You get environmental disasters everywhere people like that rule, it’s not because they’ve all got problems with geography.

  3. Yawning ignorance of ecology notwithstanding, this is yet another indicator of desperate measures. We are incapable of solving ecological overshoot. IMHO, and many others’ HO as well.

  4. You may think that NY Times article is “terrific”. I found it pretty much useless.

    It mostly offers random opinions (“the government should instead be limiting the population in the northern cities”) and human-interest stories (“a hunched woman hobbling to her new concrete home clutching a sickle and a bundle of dry sticks for firewood”). Even the most-plodding reporter can find a range of such opinions, and such such stories, about any sizable project … from re-building the World Trade Center site to closing a military base.

    The article offers no insight about why North China has a water shortage. No explanation of the alternative(s) to the diversion project. No description of the economic or political interests driving the project. No definition of the possible actions that might alleviate the project’s problems. No projection of the project’s overall effects on North or South China, much less any net assessment.

  5. Sniff, sniff: …why not place the blame where it belongs: With a command economy…

    Quoth the climate denying American two months distant from the ignominy of national bankruptcy….

  6. Command and control did not cause US rivers to catch on fire.
    Command and control does not solely cause Chinatown style water wars.
    Command and control did not put lead into gas, but did get it out.

  7. I was kind of interested in that whole Eastern Seaboard mentality thing. I’ve heard people lecture about how Los Angeles should not even be a city, because it is in a desert (kinda sorta), but Los Angeles “acquired” plenty of water a century ago, and manages quite nicely an enormously extensive system (three cheers for command economy thinking!) that includes some the longest aqueducts and largest storage reservoirs in the world. And, L.A., despite continuing population growth, hasn’t seen any increase in total water usage in a generation.

    The major American city, which has come closest to suffering catastrophic consequences from a dearth of command economy thinking water shortages is Atlanta, in Republican Georgia, near the water-abundant East Coast.

  8. The article offers no insight about why North China has a water shortage.

    An intrepid commenter here, with a…erm…”command” of the ecological scholarship, would tell you in large measure it is ecological overshoot in the arid north: too much grazing and grain growing on marginal land naturally lacking in water, and now the Koreas and Japan must wear dust masks until about now, due to the desertification lifting soil into the air and to points east. Northern China is by no means the only place where this is happening.

    The path the planet is on now is not the path to sustainability, resilience, or solutions to our problems. A contributor here will tell you that the starving farmers will simply pack up and migrate to more habitable climes, where people who resist immigration are more than willing to sell their productive farmland, so as to move on to other more productive lands, arising out of the fairy dust created, presumably, by the dust in the air from desertification.

  9. > I’ve heard people lecture about how Los Angeles should not even be a city,
    > because it is in a desert (kinda sorta), but Los Angeles “acquired” plenty
    > of water a century ago, and manages quite nicely an enormously extensive
    > system (three cheers for command economy thinking!) that includes some the
    > longest aqueducts and largest storage reservoirs in the world. And, L.A.,
    > despite continuing population growth, hasn’t seen any increase in
    > total water usage in a generation.

    Unfortunately, it is becoming increasing unclear to people in, e.g., Denver why they should be prohibited from watering their flower gardens due to deals cut by 1920s Los Angeles mobsters and robber barons. I don’t think those “longest aqueducts in the world” are necessarily going to remain filled with water from remote locations for another 90 years.

    Cranky

  10. Brett: “You get environmental disasters everywhere people like that rule.” Compare the environment in the the two halves of Hispaniola, starting with an identical Carib/Spanish legacy. Both have been generally run by thugs; but the Dominican Republic by green-tinted thugs. So it still has forests, unlike Haiti. And does Cuba have major environmental problems? I suggest that green policy is basically independent of a ruler’s position on a conventionsl left/right axis.

  11. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasing unclear to people in, e.g., Denver why they should be prohibited from watering their flower gardens due to deals cut by 1920s Los Angeles mobsters and robber barons. I don’t think those “longest aqueducts in the world” are necessarily going to remain filled with water from remote locations for another 90 years.

    Denver is semiarid high plains. There is no need for English Cottage Gardens here. The single-digit humidity and winds gusting in the 30s-40s four times a week make mincemeat out of such plantings. There are enough water transfers from across the Continental Divide today for hundreds of thousands more people if they restrain themselves from thinking they need turfgrass and non-xeric flowerbeds.

  12. > Denver is semiarid high plains. There is no need for English Cottage
    > Gardens here. The single-digit humidity and winds gusting in the
    > 30s-40s four times a week make mincemeat out of such plantings.
    > There are enough water transfers from across the Continental
    > Divide today for hundreds of thousands more people if they
    > restrain themselves from thinking they need turfgrass and non-xeric flowerbeds.

    That may well all be true in some absolute sense, although the question of who “needs”, e.g. roses in Pasadena isn’t quite a clear cut as you make it even to someone fully dedicated to sustainable ecological practices.

    But it wasn’t my point, which is that under current practice as codified in various federal laws just about every drop of water in the southern half of the State of Colorado “belongs” to Los Angeles, and it is becoming increasingly unclear to Coloradoans (of whom I am not one) why this should be so. Los Angeles “secured” its water supply in the 1920s in large part by draining it away from people/regions with less political clout to points east (in some cases, far distant points east), and as I said I don’t think that will continue for another 90 years.

    Cranky

  13. The dust bowl was created by a command economy? So America had a command economy in 1930? Good to know. And London in 1854 when more than 10,000 people died because of pollution on the Thames? Command economy then too? Good to know.

    See this is why I call Brett a troll. Obviously troll bait.

  14. under current practice as codified in various federal laws just about every drop of water in the southern half of the State of Colorado “belongs” to Los Angeles, and it is becoming increasingly unclear to Coloradoans (of whom I am not one) why this should be so.

    Yes, and perhaps I was unclear on why I wrote that, Cranky, but my point was there is a ton of waste at the residential level: half of Colo’s residential water use is on the landscape. My fair town has some excellent water analysts, and they wrote an interesting paper after our big drought in the early naughties about people’s response to signaling – the water purveyor installed some smart meters for some and tiered pricing for others and looked at response. It has led to a tiered rate structure and others are doing it now. (One interesting finding was that the rich didn’t respond to pricing penalties, but responded to the metering feedback).

    Nonetheless, a couple years ago I spent an entire mind-numbing day in seminars on CO water law and The Compact and delivery. I can assure you lots is being done to move water around, including a new fee on my water bill for a modern treatment facility and new pipeline, to the tune of several $thsnd/af. Seemingly weekly there is a news story about another meeting of water managers and how much money it will take for new water, but The Compact isn’t seriously being considered to be broken.

  15. And don’t forget that California itself has amazing, extensive plumbing system to get water from the Sierra and Trinity mountains, down into the agricultural lands of the Central valley. All this dams, canals pipes and pumps done by the “command economy” State and Feds.
    Much was done during the governorship of Pat Brown, the father of the present (and past) current governor.

    If course the central valley is a Republican-voting area. Stands to reason, doesn’t it.

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