Accepted paper:

Water Management and Conflict in the Chinese Countryside: an ethnography of a looming crisis


Andrea Enrico Pia (London School of Economics)

Paper short abstract:

China is experiencing a dramatic pressure on its water resources. The introduction in the countryside of a new framework for water management has dwarfed the role of the state in the management of water and deteriorated its overall quality, thus heightening the hostilities among different users.

Paper long abstract:

The length and occurrence of droughts in China have increased considerably in the last few years. The ensuing water crisis, which now affects the whole country, will loom large over the future prospects of the Chinese economy. Moreover, the lack of water experienced by many people in China has not failed to cause social unrest. In the last decade the confrontation between the farmers and the local administration around water allocations has risen, leading often to overt violence. As a way to tackle this multifaceted crisis, China amended its Water Law in 2002, thereby introducing a new framework for water management. This shift in governance has produced the adoption of a set of principles emphasizing the need for increased participation of users in water management, and the implementation of water conservation technologies. New inequalities are thus created: while urban dwellers are increasingly being protected from the effects of the shortage, rural communities are facing the contradiction of an imposed economic development agenda under mounting environmental constraints and diminishing state intervention. This paper, drawing from two different ethnographic studies conducted in rural China between 2007 and 2013, explores how drought and the politics of water management are played out in the Chinese rural countryside. In particular it discusses how mistrust between farmers and the many institutions supervising water management in the communities impact the water reform and its effectiveness. In this process feelings of dependency, care and betrayal are generated, pushing often local farmers and the state to violent confrontations.

panel PE53
Anthropology of crises and disasters