Last April, Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Upper San Leandro treatment plant in Oakland, her Californian hometown. The American Jobs Plan, she told her constituency, will deliver over a hundred billion dollars for the upgrade of U.S. water supply infrastructure. In truth, the investment plan, one of the largest in a generation, is far more ambitious than that. Across all proposed expenditures, it includes not just the upgrade of all water piping, but also remediation, flood protection, ecosystem restoration, and the climate proofing of economic activities. All these initiatives place water at the heart of recovery and resilience.
The significance of the administration’s efforts may well exceed domestic politics. Under President Biden’s leadership, the G7 just announced it will engage in a “Build Back Better World” plan, an investment in infrastructure to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As climate change makes the hydrological cycle less predictable, threatening the water supply and food production of many countries, water infrastructure will inevitably be a significant part of this ambitious international plan, just as it already is for the BRI.
Seen through this lens, the domestic and international efforts of the United States appear to be heralding a new “sustainable” modernization project, whose ambitions of scale and scope could match those of the 20 th century hydraulic engineering that transformed America and inspired a replumbing of the world. It is therefore crucial to be clear-eyed about the legacy of those experiences and what their relationship to the present is.
Countless large hydraulic projects-from Hoover Dam to California’s own water system, including the Upper Leandro that the vice president chose for her announcement-are the conspicuous infrastructural legacy of federal underwriting since the Progressive Era, a legacy that has ensured the region’s water security, at least to date. But they also committed the American West to a false sense of security, cementing a resource inefficiency that is proving problematic as expensive engineering reaches its limits in an increasingly dry region.
Proponents of the American Jobs Plan often draw inspiration from the rhetoric of the New Deal. Indeed, Roosevelt embraced water as the fuel of his own modernist vision. His archetype was the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a river blueprint for modernization, electrifying communities and industry thanks to its hydropower, accommodating flood management, delivering clean water and sanitation, and providing the framework for all infrastructure development in one economically efficient package.
But the TVA’s positivist framing and managerial approach became an obstacle to its domestic replication. The TVA was endowed with extraordinary executive powers, the first such purpose-built institution to become a vehicle for the delivery of political objectives. As a model of regional development, it worked. As a political answer to civic governance of natural resources, its results were mixed. Despite Roosevelt’s enthusiasm, the model was never repeated, sunk by complaints of federal over-reach and interventionism.
The United States’ determination to project power internationally proved to be fertile ground for American modernism. In particular, the TVA spread like wildfire abroad, a modernist development theory, ready-made to solve intractable water challenges. Truman’s inaugural Point Four strategy encouraged its dissemination, as did U.S. agencies’ imperialist ambitions and the interests of American contractors looking for international business.
Its problematic legacy is everywhere on the planet. The Helmand Valley Authority in Afghanistan, for example, which today waters heroin-producing poppy fields, was intended as the flagship of American modernization in central Asia. The high Aswan Dam, Nasser’s monumental infrastructure, was the design of Adrien Daninos, a Greek-Egyptian engineer inspired by the TVA. Even the Ethiopian “Renaissance” dam on the Blue Nile, currently straining relationships with Egypt, is the indirect legacy of a 1970s TVA-like plan.
The list is long and it includes some of the most consequential centers of geopolitical tension in the world. Attempts to export the TVA to the Mekong, for example, left an enduring legacy in the Mekong River Commission, including the Cold War exclusion of upper-riparian China, which is now busy developing hydropower cascades of its own on the Lancang River (the Mekong’s name in China), threatening downstream flow.
Eisenhower’s special envoy Eric Johnston devised a TVA-like plan to share the Jordan River between Israel and the riparian Arab states, a fragment of which still survives in the Jordan Valley Authority. And the TVA was the seed from which negotiations for the Indus Water Treaty began, the agreement that regulates use of the Indus between Pakistan and India. Today, that treaty is under unprecedented strain over the development of the Kashmir headwaters.
The legacy extends to China’s own BRI. When Sun Yat-Sen, the father of the Chinese Republic, first suggested a vast hydropower dam on the Yangtze, he was inspired by the water infrastructure of the American Progressive era. His vision was translated into a plan by John Lucian Savage, chief designing engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation during the New Deal. His was the first project plan for the biggest dam in the world during Chiang Kai-shek’s regime. Mao Zedong kept the idea of a Three Gorges Dam alive through the revolution, until Prime Minister Li Peng finally launched its construction in the nineties.
Three Gorges Dam is China’s flagship experience. It gave the nation confidence to project its technical capabilities across the world, standing as a model for many developing countries hoping to pursue similar water-led development. It ultimately contributed to the BRI. It is ironic that China’s global reach, which has so unsettled the United States and its allies, was partly inspired by a modernist vision that originated in America almost a century ago.
American 20 thcentury modernism was a theory of development based on investments in the landscape. It transformed the planet. It also left a stream of unintended consequences, the long tail effects of which persist today. “Build Back Better” has similarly transformative ambitions, both in the United States and abroad. The need to address resilience and climate change will ensure that water management is a substantial part of the transformation.
America’s emergent new vision for development still lacks a theory. It will no doubt emerge through implementation. Its success will depend on embracing a profound challenge: to provide the world renewed inspiration that democracies can promote sustainable prosperity amidst a changing climate, while at the same time overcoming a modernist legacy singularly focused on universal solutions. If it succeeds, it may well redefine economic and landscape development in the 21 stcentury, resetting expectations as to what democratic republics can do to tackle the contemporary environmental crisis.
Giulio Boccaletti is the author of Water: A Biography, Pantheon Books. He has held leadership positions in the private and not-for-profit sectors and is an Honorary Research Associate at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford. Sources: Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.