Before matriculating at MIT Sloan, I spent a number of years living in China. Nevertheless, the speed and scale at which Asia is investing in water infrastructure projects continue to amaze me. Before we left for Asia, my co-organizers invited Jim Donnell, CEO of Poseidon Resources, to speak to our class about his company’s experience trying to build the largest desalination in the U.S. Poseidon Resources has been trying to build a desalination plant in Carlsbad, California since 1998. The project has been delayed numerous times by problems getting permits and over a dozen lawsuits from environmental groups, such as Surfrider Foundation and San Diego Coastkeeper and Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation. Posideon Resources is hoping to open its desalination plant by 2013. By comparison, as my classmate Jon Fitzsimmons points out in his blog posting, Hyflux had the SingSpring Desalination Plant we visited in Singapore up and running in two years.
One of the reasons why certain parts of Asia, such as China or Singapore, have been able to move faster than the U.S. is because the political system there brooks less dissent. While we were in Beijing, we visited the South-North Water Diversion Project. The project has taken longer than expected to complete because the Chinese government had to resettle 330,000 people living along the Danjiangkou reservoir in Hubei and Henan provinces. Because the state owns the land in China, the government can force villagers living on that land for generations to resettle elsewhere (with compensation, of course). Even if these 330,000 Chinese didn’t want to move, I’m not too sure what recourse they would have. Would the police allow them to protest the construction of the world’s largest aqueduct? Would the state-owned media publish their stories? If they sued the Chinese government, would a court hear their case? On the other hand, if the U.S. federal government tried to build a similar project diverting water from the Mississippi River or Colorado River to Washington D.C.? Check, check & check.
I’m not saying one way is better than the other. Singapore and China are arguably facing much more serious challenges with providing enough potable water for their citizens. Maybe their governments need to take more drastic measures. Because the Communist Party of China and People’s Action Party in China and Singapore, do not face serious threats when they “run” for election, they are able to approach these problems from a longer-term perspective. As my classmate Neheet Trivedi points out in his blog posting about the Economic Development Board, Singapore is looking forward, not just to the next decade, but the rest of the century. At the same time, subjecting the governments in Singapore and China to more public criticism about some decisions, like investing $62 billion of taxpayers’ money into the South-North Water Diversion Project, may not be such a bad thing either.