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Water Supply in a Mega-City

A Political Ecology Analysis of Shanghai

Michael Webber, Jon Barnett, Brian Finlayson and Mark Wang

With the increasing threat of depleted and contaminated water supplies around the world, this book provides a timely and much needed analysis of how cities should manage this precious resource. Integrating the environmental, economic, political and socio-cultural dimensions of water management, the authors outline how future mega-city systems can maintain a high quality of life for its residents.
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Chapter 1: Assembling water

Michael Webber, Jon Barnett, Brian Finlayson and Mark Wang

‘I dare not drink cold tap water’, said a 29-year-old Shanghai woman in 2016.1 As the World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) annually reminds us, different places have widely differing attitudes towards, and behaviour with respect to, water. Some provide clean drinking water for flushing toilets, while in others people worry about showering in contaminated water. Some provide abundant clean water out of taps, while others offer standpipes and wells, or leave people to collect water from rivers and ponds in which animals bathe and defecate. In some societies, houses in a desert are lush with green lawns while in others watering grass is regarded as a social sin. Some places protect catchments with bans on any form of use, others pollute freely. In some, lots of households maintain rainwater tanks, others have none. Why these differences? And why, in so many places – including Shanghai – is water undrinkable?

It is widely understood that the supply of clean water is not simply a technical problem; the World Water Development Reports and such historical overviews as Brown et al. (2009) and Feldman (2017) are good evidence of this. The corollary of this proposition is that in important ways the supply of clean water does depend on appropriate forms of management and governance. To the government of Bolivia, this means seeking to realise a human right to water (Baer 2015). Some writers advocate that societies find an appropriate mixture of network, hierarchical and market governance instruments (van de Meene et al. 2011). Others urge societies to build institutions that can sustain the delivery of water services rather than simply building water supply projects (Kang and Campbell 2013). International development institutions implore societies above all else to set appropriate prices for the use of water in order to encourage expansions in supply that are matched by efficiencies in use (ADB 2003; Ugolik 2017; World Bank 2001, 2002). Yet other writers are more philosophical, arguing less about how water should be managed and more about the political struggles that are involved in establishing how it is actually managed and distributed (Jacobs 2012).

Intriguing as the question and these approaches are, they are misguided. ‘Society’ as commonly understood, is a collection of things – people, households, institutions of different kinds – an object of the mind, not an actor. So, societies are not real, existing objects; they cannot act. Chinese ‘society’ cannot do anything: rather, the people and institutions within a society act – Chinese corporations use water, Chinese central government departments make decisions, local bureaucracies implement laws, people boil water. ‘Water’, too, is not a simple object: this glass of ‘water’ from my tap is different from the ‘water’ in the nearby river, which in turn is different from the ‘water’ in the ocean off the coast. It is possible to construct ‘pure’ water, H2O, through distillation, but every other instance of water is different from that. Evidently, we need to rethink what we mean by such commonly accepted terms as ‘society’ and ‘water’.

Consider the simplest form of a society – a household. This household consists of a number of people, usually residing in the same accommodation, together with the physical structure of the house (or apartment) and perhaps with some outdoor space, such as a balcony or backyard. The house itself is an ecosystem, which people seek to regulate by excluding snakes, spiders, mosquitoes, mice and so on. The yard is another regulated ecosystem, with some planted vegetation such as trees, bushes and vegetables, and a variety of animals. A household, in other words, consists of three kinds of entities: the people; the physical structure of bricks, water, wires and pipes; and plants, animals and ecosystems. All these entities interact, producing a particular form of being for each of them. The needs and desires of the people modify the physical structure – they add a wireless network or paint a room. They also modify the ecosystem – by growing particular kinds of vegetables or neglecting to clean in cupboards. The ecosystem affects both the behaviour of people (giving rise to allergies or enabling them to enjoy fresh vegetables) and the physical structure (plants growing up the walls cause deterioration in the brickwork). And the physical structure conditions how people interact (fewer separated rooms implies a higher degree of communal living) and the ecosystem (casting shadows over the vegetable patch or compressing the ground).

In other words, a household is not simply a group of people living together. It is also the physical structure in which they reside and the immediate environment that encloses them. Nor is the household self-contained. People work outside the home, bringing in money and with it food, clothes and other items. Air, water, natural gas, information all flow in and out. Birds fly in and out of the backyard, and rain falls. Laws affect the people (you cannot make loud noises at night), the physical structure (but you must maintain the facade in a certain style) and the ecosystem (you are not allowed to keep chickens in the backyard). And households interact with other households – talking, casting shadows, spreading weeds.

A place with households in it thus has two kinds of entities – the individual persons, plants, animals and bits of stuff that comprise it on the one hand (the ‘parts’), and the household (the ‘whole’) on the other. Both parts and the whole act in their own right. Individual people can do things, like work at a job. Plants grow and provide fruit. The birds that nest in the tree have their own individual lives. Even the wires connecting the household to the web have their own ways of being. The ‘parts’ of a household, then, have their own individual being. But the household can act as an entity, too. The whole entity produces its carbon waste to add to the atmosphere’s carbon load; the whole occupies a block of a town’s or city’s land; as a whole, the household absorbs some rainfall, lets other rain runoff into drains, and consumes water delivered through pipes. The household and its components or members are both actors.

The household itself and its members belong to other organisations – neighbourhoods or villages, towns or cities, provinces, states. A village, for example, is composed of several households, each with a slightly different composition. Some households have lots of members, others have few; some contain children, others do not; some are apartments, others are houses. The households, then, all differ to a greater or lesser extent. They are united by a common living space and by the demands for social interaction that come with proximity: the people work together, the dogs run in packs, the trees cross-fertilise, the runoff from one household drains into another, and one internet connection links several households. The households are also united by contributing to – or being at the receiving end of – particular forms of political organisation, that set boundaries for other forms of behaviour.

But the household changes over time. Some members die; the children leave home; the tree grows into a flowering plum; and the roof crumbles. As a consequence, the behaviour of the household and its members changes – the yard is less well-maintained than it was; the tree attracts more insects; the roof lets rain in. Yet the household is recognised as having a certain continuity; it’s still ‘the Zhang household’.

This approach – entities as comprising interacting parts in which both the whole entities and their parts have agency – is the approach that frames this book, as we examine the provision of drinking water in Shanghai.2 This city of some 25 million people is already one of the world’s important metropolises; it has ambitions to be one of the world’s great mega-cities. It lies at the mouth of one of the world’s greatest rivers. Yet Shanghai’s water is undrinkable and people worry that the city is liable to run out of water. This paradox is the starting point for our analysis.

A place like Shanghai has these same characters as a household, only on a grander scale and with greater complexity. Shanghai is first of all a territory – an assemblage of hydro-geologic actors, infrastructures of transport, communication, housing and river management, government organisations at various levels, corporations, villages, households and individuals – all located at different parts of this territory – and united by lying within the sphere of operation of the municipal government. But not all the actors that operate in Shanghai are located within it: some are located outside – the national media or the central Ministries of Water Resources and of Environmental Planning, for example; others are diffuse, such as the networks and non-government organisations that agitate for labour rights or environmental protection; and yet others are both within and outside the region, including the mighty Changjiang (长江, Yangtze River).3 So the municipality is far from sovereign, as it is not comprised solely of actors within its territory.

Equally Shanghai is itself a member of the assemblage that is China – as are the actors that make up Shanghai – and is subject to the power of State Council as well as to competition from other (sometimes more powerful) socio-environmental regions. Formally, Shanghai is a municipality directly under the State Council, as are Beijing, Chongqing and Tianjin; it has approximately the same powers as those municipalities and the 29 provinces and autonomous regions. Also directly under the State Council are the national ministries, such as the Ministry of Water Resources, which the State Council delegates to act in certain policy arenas. These ministries have in general the same bureaucratic rank as China’s municipalities, provinces and autonomous regions.4 In the Chinese political system, these formalities broadly translate into two precepts. First, the central government decides on policies and the directions in which it wants change to occur, whereas the provincial level authorities then decide on the way in which those policies are to be implemented. However, provincial level authorities do take decisions that are not explicitly authorised by the central government – there is scope for local policy innovation, in directions that are not expressly forbidden. Second, authority flows downwards not sideways, so functional units at the same level as areal units cannot dictate policy or action to those areal units – ministries cannot tell municipalities what to do. However, ministries at times can call on a higher authority (such as the powerful National Reform and Development Commission or even the State Council) to enforce their wishes.

The flow of authority is ensured by the loyalties of provincial and sub-provincial level officials. Within the government structure, the top-most officials at provincial level (including both the Mayor or Governor and the Municipal or Provincial Party Secretary) are appointed by the Organisation Department of the Communist Party of China.5 At the next level down, the heads of government departments and the party secretaries for those departments are appointed by the Shanghai Party branch’s Organisation Department (after being selected by the senior leaders of the Shanghai government). And so on down within each department. Employees of the Municipal Water Authority have vertical obligations and their performance evaluations are conducted by next-level-up officials. Yet they have also horizontal obligations, for their task is to administer portfolios within the Shanghai municipal government, which means cooperating to some degree with officials within other portfolios to achieve the goals set out by the municipal government.

The actors within Shanghai change. The bureaucratic organisation of government departments and bureaus changes over time, as some departments are merged and others split, and as the powers of different departments wax or wane over time; for example, the sub-ministerial level State Environmental Protection Administration became a ministry (though relatively weak) in 2008, and in 2000 the Shanghai government merged several water-related functions into the Municipal Water Authority (Shanghai Municipal Ocean Bureau). Networks and non-governmental organisations emerge and then dissipate; and they may include members from outside the municipality and outside the country (Chan and Zhou 2014). Informal networks between government officials in central ministries and Shanghai on the one side, and corporations on the other, evolve as interests change and individuals rotate through administrative positions. Hydro-geologic conditions change seasonally, annually and over longer spans. The central and Shanghai governments invest in road, rail and air links across the municipality, adding to the infrastructures within it and changing the positionality of places, people and organisations.

Nor are actors within the municipality simply human or social. Environmental actors have agency. Precipitation falls or not, setting terms of existence for Shanghai’s families and conditioning important aspects of urban life. Typhoons bring their seasonal disruptions to life. Hydro-geological conditions (large discharges and low elevations) mean that floods are frequent. Rivers also bring water to downstream living organisms and social groups, sustaining ecosystems. Levees, dams and training structures constrain the behaviour of rivers, bringing power, navigation and safety to some social groups, and disadvantaging others. Whatever governments do to the Changjiang will provoke unanticipated responses from the river, just as the Three Gorges Dam did (Tullos 2009).

Thus, Shanghai, despite its precisely defined territorial boundary, is a diffuse, changing socio-environmental assemblage. Adapting Allen and Cochrane (2007), political authority within Shanghai is wielded by a tangle of organisations, within and without the municipality, the capacities of which depend on interactions between organisations that are sometimes competitive and sometimes cooperative – and on the interaction of organisations with biophysical actors, networks of individuals and social groups. The outcome of these, sometimes conflictual, interactions is a specific history of events in the management of water within Shanghai, a history in which the membership, characteristics and capacities of Shanghai change according to the dialectical interplay of human and environmental components (see also Sheppard 2008).

In other words, our opening question – ‘Why do societies use water the way they do?’ – needs to be modified. It is not: ‘Why do societies use water the way they do?’ Rather we must ask: ‘How do places come to be constructed the way they are?’6 Each place is a unique but changing assemblage of hydro-geologic actors, infrastructures, institutions, social groups and individuals located within them, together with outside influential actors, and subject to the conditions of membership of larger-scale places (such as the country). How did Shanghai get to be a place in which you cannot drink the tap water? The inability of China’s governments to provide safe drinking water through the public supply system is a critical, daily reminder to people of the plight of water management in China.

However, the plight of water management in China actually comprises many stories. There’s the story of the big dams that now populate virtually all of China’s major rivers. There’s the story of irrigation and groundwater depletion on the North China Plain, the result of huge apparent shortages of surface water there. The story of pollution and the many attempts to control it needs also to be told. There’s the historic struggle against famine and the ongoing struggle against drought. Many of these stories are linked by a recent and spectacular project – the construction of the South–North Water Transfer Project, which brings water from the Changjiang to the cities of the North China Plain. These stories are linked, and their daily expression is the stuff that comes out of people’s taps.

The forms of water that come out of people’s taps are produced by a myriad of interacting processes. They are the bastard child of biophysical and human processes, the precise contours of which are themselves the product of a long series of political choices made in the face of imperfectly understood and regionally specific environmental systems, in the light of historically changing technical capacities, and implemented by bureaucracies that were – to regionally and historically varying degrees – united and capable. A book that seeks to understand how that water is produced must therefore examine the biophysical processes that underpin the supply of water to Shanghai and the local environmental conditions within the delta on which Shanghai has been built. In addition, it must examine the technical choices about water supply systems, the bureaucratic structures that are emplaced to manage the supply of water and the political choices about controls over the use of that water. The actors in this story are thus the rivers that supply water (including the geologic and climatic conditions that act on the rivers); the governments that regulate the use of water; the technologies and structures that are used to manage rivers and waters; and the people and institutions who use water that has been supplied by the rivers, after regulation by other users. These actors interact; or better, they have interacted over a long period of time to produce the characteristic forms of behaviour that are Shanghai. The principal places and actors in this assemblage, or acting on it, are identified in Figure 1.1.

We seek in this book to tell this story of the role of water in assembling Shanghai as it is today. We explain how Shanghai has come to be constructed in this way and, through this example, develop our conception of socio-environmental regions. We open with a chapter about the cycling of water through the municipality – Shanghai’s hydrological cycle; this chapter examines the history of the past 30 years of water intake from rivers and lakes, consumption, and then the return of water to those rivers and lakes (and ocean). Shanghai is said to be a city threatened with water shortages: in what sense is this true? There follow chapters about each of three principal actors in the story – the Changjiang itself (Chapter 3), the political structures that seek to manage the river and provide the water (Chapter 4), and the infrastructures that have been constructed to contain water (Chapter 5). We treat each of them as actors within the assemblage, rather than consigning the river to the role of environment and infrastructures to the role of consequences: all three act. Of course, in any story about interacting parts, the history of one part cannot be neatly separated from that of other parts; so there is necessarily more overlap between these chapters than this simple listing indicates. Chapter 6 then explicitly examines one of the interactions between these actors – the interaction between infrastructures and the river. Chapter 7 brings onto the stage the fourth set of actors – people – and examines the interactions between them, the political structures and the water that is supplied within the municipality: how do people react to the quality of water that is supplied to them? In Chapter 8 we bring all these characterisations together to create a vision of the Changjiang basin and Shanghai that summarises how we conceive of the history of this assemblage and its possible futures. Chapter 9 briefly draws some lessons from this investigation.

Let us be absolutely clear: this is not a claim that the characteristics of water supply depend on the social and political characteristics of a place. That is the claim made by Turton and Ohlsson (1999) in their concept of a hydrosocial contract, which is the term they use to describe the implicit and explicit agreements between governments, communities and business about how water should be managed. Instead we do claim that the analytical distinction between water and society is spurious, as if water bodies do not act but society does act. There are only actors within socio-environmental regions. In this book, we focus on four of those groups of actors – water bodies, governments, infrastructures and people. The capacities and properties of this region are formed through the interaction of its constituent members. One of those properties is the nature of its water supply. In other words, understanding the modes and qualities of water supply in a city really means understanding how that city came into being and now operates.

Figure 1.1  Principal water sources and actors in the Shanghai assemblage

Our claim has an important implication. It is the task of a whole socio-environmental region to supply clean drinking water in adequate quantities. Resolving problems of water supply therefore means revising styles of being that respect the properties and capacities of all the actors in the region – its flowing waters, plants and animals, households, corporations and infrastructures. In this sense, Turton and Ohlsson (1999) are right – there are implicit or explicit agreements between the actors (but those actors include the region’s water bodies). Likewise, human rights and equity are important, as are governance institutions and political struggles. But our underpinning theoretical claim tells us that these insights are, of themselves, inadequate. Water supply is a capacity of the entire assemblage, so a change in the quality and quantity of water supply implies a change in the capacities and forms of interaction of the assemblage’s members; but a change in the behaviour of one member implies – through interaction – a change in the behaviour of other members. For example, it is not possible to change governance institutions in isolation: the capacity to make this change must be developed and other actors will consequently change their behaviour too. A similar argument applies to other ‘one-factor’ remedies to the problems of water supply. Therefore, there are no simple, quick fixes for an inadequate supply of clean water, no remedies like regulating pollution more rigorously, or building water storages on a river, or controlling the abstractions of water from a lake. There are no styles of governance or management that can be identified from recipes; much less are solutions easily found by getting the prices right.


1.  Recounted by Nahui Zhen.
2.  The notion of assemblage as a philosophy about the ways of being of things in the world comes from Deleuze and Guattari (1987); we follow de Landa’s (2006) reinterpretation of this text. See also de Landa (2002) and Bonta and Protevi (2004). An introduction was provided by Shapiro (2007). In the terms of Brenner et al. (2011), we are ontological assemblage thinkers – assemblage is the way of being of things in the world. Assemblages are collections of parts that have relations of exteriority: a part could be detached from an assemblage to join a different one in which its interactions are different. Assemblages can be taken apart. In assemblage thinking, a hydrologically informed account of a place does not depend on the organismic assumption of relations of interiority; the properties of a whole are not the result of an aggregation of its parts’ properties but of the exercise of their capacities, which depend on the properties of other interacting entities. This creation of capacities through interaction with other entities is the origin of nonlinear causality and unpredictability.
3.  A note on nomenclature. Changjiang translates as Long River, so the word ‘River’ is not appended to Changjiang. Likewise, we later encounter Taihu (Lake Tai), and again, it is therefore not Taihu Lake.
4.  Approximately, because the bureaucratic ranks of areal units of government and of functional units of government are not precisely tied to their status as ministries, commissions, bureaus, provinces, and the like. And always, in China as elsewhere, personal ties between municipal governments and central government officials can provide power outside this formal structure.
5.  Actually, the Organisation Department (组织部 zuzhibu) provides the top leaders in the central government with background information about potential candidates. Those leaders then select the mayor and party secretary, after which officials from the Organisation Department publicly announce the appointment.
6.  A nice introduction to the similar notion of hydrosocial territories is provided in Boelens et al. (2016).