Bryan Tilt is Associate Professor of Anthopology at Oregon State University. He talked with Carly Lettero about his recent book Dams and Development in China: The Moral Economy of Water and Power (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015) in August 2016.
How did you start working in China? What recommendations do you have for students who are thinking about international projects?
I’ve never taken a straight path to get anywhere, and my research is no exception. I lived in South Korea for more than two years during college as an exchange student and English teacher. When I started graduate school in anthropology, I intended to keep going down that path and do research in Korea. But my department at the University of Washington was full of China scholars, and their influence encouraged me to undertake a project a China. Of course, this entailed several years of language training, but I made the switch and never looked back.
My recommendation to students thinking about international projects is to find something that instills in you enough passion to persevere through the inevitable ups and downs. International research can involve some frustrations, including language difficulties, bureaucratic hurdles, and health and safety concerns, so it’s important to be committed enough to see it through. I also think it’s important to find good local collaborators, people who share your interests, and then create a win-win situation where everyone gets something out of the partnership. Perhaps you can publish papers together, or work on a translation project together, or offer some other skill in exchange for a local collaborator’s help. This usually goes a long way toward making your project feasible. I’ve been fortunate to have many strong collaborative relationships with Chinese colleagues over the years, and these relationships have been as important and rewarding as the work itself.
Bryan Tilt conducting an interview in rural Yunnan, China.
Dams and Development in China is a highly interdisciplinary book. You braid anthropology, river geomorphology, conservation biology and ecology, development economics, and domestic and international water policy. You write that you approached this interdisciplinary engagement as more of a student than a scholar. What did you learn about interdisciplinary projects? What advice do you have for students as they envision and work on their interdisciplinary projects?
I find interdisciplinary projects rewarding for several reasons. First, it seems practical to approach complex problems from an interdisciplinary perspective. How many truly significant challenges in the modern world are one-dimensional? Second, I end up learning a great deal myself when I collaborate with other scholars—ecologists, geographers, engineers, economists and the like. That’s not to say that everyone should be a generalist. I think becoming a specialist in some field is a necessary and worthwhile thing to do, but then we also need to learn to work with others. This is inevitably a humbling process, which is the reason that I feel like a student when I’m engaged in this kind of work. My colleagues and I have often joked that we lack a common language—not English or Chinese, but a means of cutting through jargon and communicating across disciplines.
Dams are a wicked problem—one that is difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. On one hand dams provide reliable irrigation for crops, make rivers easier to navigate, and of course, produce hydropower, which could reduce China’s dependence on fossil fuels. On the other hand, the dams you write about will displace entire communities, devastate river ecosystems, and change the geomorphology of rivers forever. One of the lenses you use to examine this wicked problem is “moral economy.” What do you mean by “moral economy,” and how does it help us understand this wicked problem?
The “moral economy” idea goes back to the historical work of E.P. Thompson in the 1970s. The basic premise is that contemporary economic and political interactions in society are shaped by norms with much deeper cultural and historical roots. In the most fundamental sense, the moral economy is about what people consider to be right, proper or just behavior. Using the moral economy as a lens through which to view hydropower development made a lot of sense to me, because water is such a crucial part of people’s economic, social and cultural lives; the choices we make about water management say a lot about who we are and what we value.
In the book, I use the moral economy concept as an analytical framework not to advance a particular agenda or advocate for certain policy outcomes, but to take a close look at the normative choices that must be made when various important objectives—economic development, energy production, biodiversity conservation, and the protection of the rights of vulnerable people—come into conflict. In China, this is a story that involves a range of groups such as policymakers, rural villagers, conservation NGOs, and hydropower corporations, each of which has a unique vision of how water resources should be managed. Difficult tradeoffs must be made, and the “right answers” are not always clear.
When the book was published last year, the best estimate was that 50,000 people would be displaced if all 13 dams that were proposed in the Lancang River and Nu River watersheds were built. You wrote that energy and water politics changed almost daily as you worked on this project. What has happened to the dam projects since the book was published? What about the communities you write about?
That’s one of the key challenges of working on this topic: it’s a moving target. My focus is on two watersheds in Yunnan Province, in China’s southwest region, which is one of the most biologically and culturally diverse regions in the world. The Lancang River is the upstream portion of the Mekong, which begins on the Tibetan Plateau and continues southward through Southeast Asia. The Nu River, known in Burma and Thailand as the Salween, was billed as “Asia’s last free-flowing river” before a series of dams became part of the regional development plan. Right now there are 6 dams on the Lancang River, with several more under construction. None of the Nu River dams has been built, in part because of political pressure from conservation NGOs as well as concerns about potential seismic risks. Most experts think that at least a few of the Nu River dams will be built within the next ten years.
For the communities who are being displaced by dams, the effects are mixed. Losing access to farmland and ancestral territory can be economically damaging and can threaten the long-term viability of ethnic and cultural minorities. On the other hand, China’s compensation policies have improved greatly in recent years, which means that resettled villagers today receive much more money—to replace their homes and invest in businesses—than their counterparts a generation ago.
You wrote Dams and Development in China at a crucial time. The decisions that China makes about hydropower will shape the landscape and the culture for generations to come. What are you working on next, and how has it been inspired or informed by your last project?
It’s true that this is a critical time in terms of energy development in China. There are more large hydropower dams there than anyplace on earth, and the demand for energy—for manufacturing, industry and household consumption—continues to climb. Most of China’s energy currently comes from coal, with obvious implications for air pollution and climate change, so there is a real push to develop alternative energy sources.
I’m now working on a larger scale project called the “Dam Impacts Database,” with the goal of compiling information about hundreds of hydropower dams around the world. The idea for this project developed gradually, as colleagues kept asking me what the research in China might tell us about hydropower development elsewhere in the world. At that point, I realized that most of the research on the social impacts of dams was based on case studies, which could give us a lot of detailed information about specific places, but couldn’t necessarily tell us about broad, macro-level trends in this industry. I’m working with Chinese colleagues and American colleagues at The Nature Conservancy to compile data on population displacement and other impacts from hydropower development over the past half century. The goal is to answer several types of questions, such as:
1) Geographic: Are resettlement outcomes different in different countries or regions?
2) Temporal: Are resettlement outcomes getting better or worse over time?
3) Institutional: Are resettlement outcomes different under different types of organizations, for example The World Bank or domestic government agencies?
As with most projects, this one has been two steps forward, one step backward. We’ve encountered all kinds of difficulties in getting the data we need, formatting it appropriately, and developing a web-based interface that will allow other scholars and the general public to use the data. But I’m optimistic about the future of this effort. I recently returned from a trip to Nanjing, China, where I gave a presentation about the database to China’s National Research Center on Resettlement. Colleagues there expressed interest in using the data and also contributing data of their own, and it’s nice to see other researchers finding value in this work.
Villagers cross the Nu River by zipline.