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The Politics of Thirst

The Politics of Thirst

Managing Water Resources under Scarcity in the Yellow River Basin, People’s Republic of China

Discussion Paper

February 2014

Author: Scott Moore, Former Giorgio Ruffolo Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Sustainability Science Program/Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group, 2012–2014

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Energy Technology Innovation Policy; Environment and Natural Resources; Science, Technology, and Public Policy



Northern China, including the capital, Beijing, and the area’s major waterway, the Yellow River, is experiencing conditions of acute water scarcity, which has become an issue of growing concern to scholars, policymakers, and the public at large in both China and abroad. Most assessments of this water scarcity tend to emphasize ecological and economic aspects of the challenge, rather than the political actors, interests, and processes which decisively shape China’s response to water scarcity. Yet because of China’s distinctive political system, in which policymaking is highly centralized but implementation is largely delegated to provincial and local governments, these actors, interests, and processes are key to understanding China’s progress and prospects toward meeting the challenge of water scarcity. This Discussion Paper analyzes the current and future response of the Chinese government to conditions of water scarcity in the Yellow River Basin.

This Discussion Paper is divided into five sections. The Introduction highlights the major dimensions of water scarcity in the basin, focusing on the role of political relationships and institutions in determining who gets how much water. The first section describes the political and institutional actors responsible for water resource management and allocation in mainland China; the second reviews the economic, ecological, and political issues surrounding water scarcity in the Yellow River Basin; and the third section assesses the government’s responses to water scarcity. The Conclusion draws implications for the future of water resource management and allocation in both the Yellow River Basin and China at large. Throughout, particular emphasis is placed on implications for the energy sector and the development of new energy resources in the Yellow River Basin.


For more information about this publication please contact the ETIP Coordinator at 617-496-5584.

For Academic Citation:

Scott Moore. “The Politics of Thirst: Managing Water Resources under Scarcity in the Yellow River Basin, People’s Republic of China.” Discussion Paper 2013-08, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Sustainability Science Program, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University, December 2013.

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