McNally, A., Magee, D., & Wolf, A. (2009). Hydropower and sustainability: resilience and vulnerability in China’s powersheds. Journal of Environmental Management, 90 Suppl 3, S286–93.

This article explores the application of resilience and vulnerability concepts to water resources management institutions in China, with a focus on large-scale hydropower development projects. The framework of a ‘powershed’ (Mcgee 2006) is used to geographically frame the regions that politically and economically benefit from the energy produced, as well as to assess the basin that is being socio-ecologically impacted (287). Using a powershed as a framework of analysis allows the researchers and audience to explore not just the physical structure of the dam as the point of analysis, but those regions also affected (positively and negatively), as well as the relations between actors being affected by the dam (the politics of cooperation and conflict) (287).

This narrative on conflict and cooperation crosses with the literature on the importance of institutions to shared river basins. The authors argue that “positive political relations and institutional agreements among political entities decrease the likelihood of conflicts” (287) and especially in relation to dam development on a shared river, which, if built unilaterally, holds potential for increased contention between riparian states. As Wolf et al. (2003 cited in this article) argue, as the rate of change in a basin exceeds the ability of an institutional arrangement to absorb it, conflict will become more likely (287). Therefore, both the physical (i.e. increased floods and droughts) as well as the socio-economic environments change, the role of institutions as arbitrators of cooperation between riparian states becomes more pronounced, and indeed, critical. A failure of the institutions to absorb and adapt to such changes holds the potential for water conflict. River Basin Organizations (RBOs), technical working groups, treaties, information sharing are imperative to establishing a cooperative regime to address changes from floods and droughts (and other physical changes) on shared rivers.

This article argues the importance of institutions on rivers where hydropower-led development is occuring is two-fold. First, institutions are critical to addressing grievances or conflicts at the sub-national level that arise from development schemes that fail to take into consideration livelihoods and ecological demands on a river. Second, on a shared river, institutions can provide certainty to agreements (especially informal agreements) in situations where there is potential for rapid changes in the political relations between countries (290). In this sense, institutions can provide assurances to compliance of shared and agreed upon rules and procedures on the shared river. 

This article provided an interesting take on dam development in China, and the use of the framework of a powershed to explore how impacts and benefits from dam development extend beyond the physical infrastructure itself, but also encompasses recipients of the electricity (often urban centres far from the dam), but also those communities affected by the building of the dam who might have to relocate to new locations. 

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