BETWEEN FOOD SECURITY AND PROFITABILITY: A MULTILEVEL ANALYSIS OF THE AGRICULTURAL WATER CRISIS IN CHINA
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Why has the agricultural water system in China been slipping towards a crisis, despite its economy growing leaps and bounds in the past four decades (1978-2016)? This dissertation investigates the institutions of agricultural water use and various actors involved in the water system at national, local and community levels. It situates the crisis in the context of the country’s neoliberal shift in the post-reform period and argues that the agricultural water system has caught between a structural dilemma between profitability and food security. Guided by the relational-comparative method and layered analysis, the author collected rich archival, statistical and ethnographic data and conducted two county case studies: one county is located in Hunan Province and the other in Inner Mongolia. After analyzing water policy, water problems, changing patterns of water use and grain production, and the incentives and actions of local officials, farmers and agribusiness companies, the dissertation reaches three conclusions: First, the agricultural water crisis in China has its roots in the capitalist logic of profit maximization. In the post-reform period, state and non-state actors tend to allocate human, material and financial resources to sectors and activities that would generate greater economic returns, while neglecting the long-term sustainability of the agricultural water system. Second, although the concern over food security increased government funding in agricultural water, it has also facilitated the geographical movement of grain production from South to North, which exacerbates the mismatch between water resources and grain production. Finally, capitalist transformation and social differentiation in the countryside have undermined the capability of rural communities to take collective actions to solve water problems. Although the newly emerged large farms are able to invest more resources in agricultural water, their behavior is also based on profitability rather than the health of the agricultural water system. Additionally, the differentiation of the rural society has made the distribution of water resources increasingly unequal, favoring agribusiness and large farms over farming households.