Locals being rescued from last month’s flooding in Xingtai © VCG via Getty Images

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This summer, China has suffered its worst flooding of the century, killing more than 200 people and forcing hundreds of thousands to leave their homes in the centre of the country. With this, questions have been raised over why more effective precautions were not taken in a country that spends huge amounts on its infrastructure but far less on forestalling natural disasters or dealing with environmental problems. In the big city of Wuhan, on the middle Yangtze, where waist-high water lapped through the new underground railway system, a £1.3bn programme had been announced in 2013 to improve drainage; it was due to be finished this year but has been delayed until 2018, for reasons that remain unclear.

Floods, droughts and water management have been a key element in Chinese history ever since the creation myths featuring the virtuous Da Yü, who laboured selflessly for 13 years, carving water channels through mountain, dredging rivers and getting rid of dragons and snakes. In his excellent, smartly written new book, The Water Kingdom, British science writer Philip Ball identifies water as “one of the most constant, significant and illuminating themes” in China’s history and culture. He explores water’s multi-faceted role over the centuries, from the great Yellow and Yangtze rivers and the Grand Canal to the pioneering water system of Sichuan, from warfare on inland waterways to the far-flung voyages of the eunuch admiral, Zheng He, under the Ming.

Ball quotes the historian David Pietz, who wrote that “the sanctioning power of myths, adapted and retold to legitimise political authority, was expressed in a host of water-management projects throughout history”. Though the Marxist sinologist Karl Wittfogel’s depiction of China as a “hydraulic civilization” has come in for criticism by contemporary historians, it “has never gone away”, Ball writes, “because it acknowledges one indisputable fact about statecraft in China; water is vital to it and it has always been shaped by patterns of water management, control and access” from the days when floods or droughts could be taken as a sign that a dynasty had forfeited the Mandate of Heaven.

Along the way, the book punctures myths and draws illuminating connections. If it hardly charts a “secret” course as its subtitle claims, the amount of information is impressive, including a primer on relevant Chinese characters and quotations from a wide variety of sources.

Water has continued as a highly political theme for the People’s Republic since the communists won power in 1949. As part of his “war on nature” Mao Zedong had tens of thousands of rudimentary dams built by forced peasant labour, in the tradition of imperial water works. Thousands collapsed in the following years; in the worst disaster, in 1975, the breaching of a dam in Henan province is estimated to have caused more than 150,000 deaths through drowning, epidemics and famine. Meanwhile the huge wetlands along the middle Yangtze have been reclaimed for farmland in the past half-century, removing an important sponge for floodwaters pouring down on cities such as Wuhan.

Controversy continues to dog China’s hydroelectric and dam construction programme, including the mammoth Three Gorges project. Water wars with neighbouring countries hover over diversion of rivers fed from the Himalayas. But the main water crisis in China today is elsewhere — in shortage and pollution.

The Yellow River, the seedbed of the country’s civilisation but known in the past as “China’s Sorrow” for the way it has prone to break through its dykes, dried up for nearly 10 months in 2007. That was a dramatic warning sign of the price China is paying for the often short-sighted water management of the post-reform regime and its pursuit of economic growth to earn legitimacy not to mention the proliferation of thirsty golf courses.

While the south has plenty of rain and rivers, northern China is now seriously short of water. Agricultural use is poorly regulated and results in big wastage. The demands of factories and ever-expanding cities increase the pressure. The aquifers are drying up and the water table is falling. Uncontrolled dumping of industrial waste means that 80 per cent of water from wells is reckoned to be unsafe while rivers carrying pesticides and chemicals are poisoning farmland. Big lakes are contracting or are clogged with algae. “There are problems everywhere you look,” Ball writes.

Despite all the headline attention to China’s falling rate of growth, its huge debt problem and industrial excess capacity, the looming water crisis may be an even more serious challenge for the rulers of the People’s Republic — like air pollution and unsafe food, it affects the mass of citizens and could therefore threaten the stability the Communist party so prizes. Instead of pledging large amounts to create a 21st-century Silk Road or fund Britain’s nuclear industry, China’s money might be better spent on making schemes to move water from the south to the north of the country more effective, to install water purification on a major scale and to restore the Yellow River and Yangtze to their former state.

In his final chapter, which deals with the challenges of today, Ball looks to NGOs to stir up positive action and to “be the seeds of broader change in the relationship between the Chinese state and society”. But his book appears just as the leadership is conducting a relentless crackdown on independent organisations of all kinds. Environmental protection, as such, is not in the line of fire, but, in an age-old manifestation of top-down control, independence is.

The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China, by Philip Ball, The Bodley Head, RRP£25, 352 pages

Jonathan Fenby is author of ‘Will China Dominate the 21st Century?’ (Polity Press)

Photograph: VCG via Getty Images

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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