Water Rights and Local Justice: A case study of the South-to-North Water Transfer Project in Shaanxi, China

Authors: Zelin Wang*, Xi'an Jiaotong University and Purdue University, Zhao Ma, Purdue University, Rebecca Nixon, Purdue University
Topics: Asia
Keywords: South-to-North Water Transfer Project, Socio-cultural impacts, environmental justice, Local communities,
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Delaware A, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The South-to-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP), as a supply-driven “solution” designed and implemented by the Chinese government, transfers water from the Yangtze River Basin in southern China to locations across northern China through three canal systems; the project’s middle route alone supplies an annual water transfer capacity of 9.5 billion m3. Thus, it is thought that SNWTP will be tremendously beneficial for northern China’s economic development. However, the social-ecological-economic impacts to southern China seem to be largely understated by the project proponents. So far, studies have documented reductions in river flows, changing geographical landscapes, and a large number of displaced local residents as results of the SNWTP, with significant detrimental impacts on traditional livelihoods of communities in the water source areas. Using an analytical framework of environmental justice and ecological politics, we examine the socio-cultural impacts, particularly unintended consequences, of the SNWTP policies and implementation in local communities in southern Shaanxi, and we also explore how the concept and content of water rights are manifested on the ground in the midst of a multi-decade mega water infrastructure and transfer project. Specifically, we discuss four possible strategies and the associated considerations for strengthening local communities’ water rights: expanding ecological compensation schemes, increasing public participation in local decision making, enhancing local residents’ environmental education and awareness, and strengthening collaborative governance.

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