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Accepted Paper:

Destituted despotism: the reconfiguration of the Chinese hydraulic edifice in the age of sustainability  
Andrea Enrico Pia (London School of Economics)

Paper short abstract:

Karl Wittfogel's concept of hydraulic empire was based on the study of imperial China. One of the way in which contemporary China departs from its own past is in how modern projects of water control are redesigning local concepts of citizenships, participation and of the state in a age of shortage.

Paper long abstract:

This paper aims at bringing Karl Wittfogel's water-society nexus in dialogue with more recent interdisciplinary attempts at theorizing the mediating and constitutive effects that flows of water and their accompanying infrastructures have on social relationships and the shape of human collectives. Specifically, it draws on ideas of water as an "uncooperative commodity" (Bakker 2003) and as a "common" (Ostrom 1990) to explore what forms of hydro-society are engendered by contemporary Chinese water management practices. Based on long-term ethnography in various water agencies of a drought-prone area of rural Yunnan, this paper addresses the question of how contemporary Chinese notions of citizenship, entitlement and governance get shaped through China's often contradictory re-articulation of regressive projects of drinking water supply in the age of sustainability with water's own fluctuating patterns of flow and availability.

In Yunnan, where this research was conducted, efforts to distribute water equitably are currently being undermined by increasing socio-economic pressures and the demands for more efficient, environmentally sustainable water use. Looking at the everyday bureaucratic practices of water management, including processes of institutional divestment from rural infrastructures and investments into new regimes of institutional accountability and techno-legal devices of water governance, this papers show how Wittfogel's conceit of water as a vector of power still holds true for present day China. Differently from his view however, the Chinese recognition of impending water crisis is making such top-heavy projects of water control appearing much more tenuous and disputable to local users.

Panel P047
Water and social relations: Wittfogel's legacy and hydrosocial futures
  Session 1