Articles

Ghosts in the shell: The promises of water users' associations and the double life of Elinor Ostrom's design principles in rural China

Author: Andrea Enrico Pia orcid logo (LSE)

  • Ghosts in the shell: The promises of water users' associations and the double life of Elinor Ostrom's design principles in rural China

    Articles

    Ghosts in the shell: The promises of water users' associations and the double life of Elinor Ostrom's design principles in rural China

    Author:

Abstract

Water is a matter of great concern for the PRC, especially for its agricultural sector, besieged by shortage, soil degradation, and raising production costs. Because of this, Water Users' Associations (WUA) are garnering domestic attention as a cost-effective solution for growth-compatible sustainability. These associations are inspired by Elinor Ostrom's design principles for the management of common resources. Through long-term ethnography among various stakeholders of the Yunnanese water sector, this article challenges the notion that the implementation of Ostrom-inspired WUAs in the Chinese countryside is fulfilling the associations' accompanying promises of sustainable growth. Instead, this study finds that Chinese WUAs proliferate thanks to pre-existing promises of collective prosperity. North-eastern Yunnan is rich in social arrangements for sustainable water management that predate the introduction of WUAs and make their ordinary operations possible. WUAs proponents conveniently blame the failure they see in Ostrom-inspired organisations on said arrangements while retaining faith in Ostrom's design principles. An ethnography of Ostrom-inspired associations can salvage Ostrom's intellectual project from the prescriptive readings of development planners and her critics. Yet, it also shows that alternative sustainable arrangements in human projects for the environment may become less plausible once captured by the prescriptive episteme of development planners.

Keywords: China, Ostrom, water, sustainability, development, WUA

How to Cite:

Pia, A. E., (2023) “Ghosts in the shell: The promises of water users' associations and the double life of Elinor Ostrom's design principles in rural China”, Journal of Political Ecology 30(1), 62–82. doi: https://doi.org/10.2458/jpe.5147

Funding

  • Chiang Ching- Kuo Foundation (grant DD018-U-13)
  • Chinese Scholarship Council
  • Jack Wright Memorial Trust
  • LSE Research Infrastructure and Investment Funds
  • LSE Rosemary and Raymond Firth Award
  • Universities' China Committee in London

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Published on
13 Feb 2023
Peer Reviewed