Saturday, October 22, 2011

Postcard from China 4

From a water culture perspective one of the most interesting aspects of our trip was a visit to Dujiangyan, in Sichuan Province.  Established in 256 BC during the Qin Dynasty this is now a World Heritage site.  It is regarded as one of the three outstanding hydraulic engineering feats of the Qin dynasty (along with with the Zhengguo Canal in Shaanxi Province and the Lingqu Canal in Guangxi Province). It is particularly interesting because 'unlike contemporary dams where the water is blocked with a huge wall, Dujiangyan still lets water go through naturally. Modern dams do not let fish go through very well, since each dam is a wall and the water levels are different' (see wikipedia).
I found what was said and observed by the majority of our group, as well as our local hosts and staff of  CTGPC, to be fascinating.  Almost all, including the content of the talk given by the guide in the associated museum, focused on the technology. For them it was the fact that the technology and its different elements had been conserved for over 2000 years that was the main achievement.  Certainly the elegance of the technology is impressive.  But in contrast what interested me was how, as a sociotechnical system, the governance arrangements had been conserved as operationally effective through wars, earthquakes, many dynasties etc.  It took some perserverance to have satisfactory answers and I suspect there is more to be said on the matter.  One reason it has been conserved , it would seem, is to do with the strategic importance of the irrigation system in that part of central China. The emperor (or would-be ruler) who commanded this irrigation system with security of food supply had one of the keys to ruling China.  Food availability is central to political power in China.  For this reason all rulers invested in the management and upkeep of the irrigation system.  I imagine there have been other institutions invented over the 2260 years that have helped.
The rebuilding of nearby Dujiangjan City, following the effects of the 2008 earthquake were impressive.  I hope also that new technologies have been incorporated into the rebuilding that make them more secure in future.

Visiting Dujiangan City invies a reflection on how sustainability can be understood as a structurally coupled social-biophysical system.  Dujiangan survives and functions effectively because the coupling between the social and the biophysical has remained viable for over 2000 years.  From a long-term perspective it is hard to imagine that major dams will achieve the same longevity. In my previous email I adressed the complexities of upstream management that have to be addressed in the Yangtze.  And despite the short and medium term social benefits through flood mitigation we know that in the long-term the fertility of the whole lower Yangtze flood plain will be diminished by preventing regular flooding and associated silt deposition.

In some ways it could be claimed that Dujiangan survives because it is in systemic harmony with its context.  China, along with the rest of the world  faces a great challenge to innovate in ways that produce systemic harmony.  According to the Global Times (October 13) China will invest 4 trillion Yuan (US$628 billion) in water conservation in the next decade.  But as the article notes, how the money is spent will determine how effective it will be.   I will go further and claim that how effective it will be will entirely depend on the type of thinking that informs the decision making. Unfortunately I doubt if systems thinking and practice (see the OU STiP program) will be the driving force.  According to the article 20 percent of future expenditure will be on farmland irrigation projects, 38 percent on flood control and disaster prevention, 35 percent on water supply projects and the rest for water and soil conservation as well as 'ecological construction'.

The underpinning discourse in the Global Times article is  one of business as usual, in an attempt to gain ever more control. It says 'China aims to harness more than 5000 rivers...reinforce 5,400 reservoirs...'   On our visit we even heard of a proposal (perhaps entirely fanciful, perhaps not) to reduce the height of the Himalayas so that China could get more rain from the 'Indian' monsoon.  In this commitment to technical and scientific modernism China, along with many other countries, demonstrates a commitment to a way of thinking and acting that whilst necessary,  is certainly not sufficient for today's circumstances.

In the Global Times of October 14 news that 'China will make grass-roots work  experience [of 2 years] a requirement for civil service hopefuls eyeing central and provincial-level posts..' seems to be the out-of-the-box thinking that is required.  It is certainly something that could be emulated in Australia, and extended to Parliamentary advisors!  Impetus for the change comes from the Chinese Academy of Governance.

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