Late last month, the Chinese government announced that it would invest four trillion renminbi (US$600 billion) over the next ten years to protect and improve water. The policy was spelled out in this year’s No. 1 document – the central government’s first policy document of the year, setting top priorities – released on January 29, and it comes as a severe and sustained drought hits northern China , which is a threat to winter wheat crops.
The Chinese government is right to highlight the sustainable use of water resources as critical to China’s food, economic, ecological and even national security.
The proposed measures include control over total water consumption, improved irrigation efficiency, restricted groundwater pumping, less water pollution and guaranteed funding for water conservation projects. Such a national policy can go a long way in protecting and protecting China’s waters. However, how to put the policy into practice remains challenging.
Since the 1950s, China has built 86,000 reservoirs, drilled more than 4 million wells, and developed 58 million hectares of irrigated land, generating 70% of the country’s total grain production. Water conservation efforts have lagged far behind. The biggest threat to sustainable water supply in China is the growing geographical mismatch between agricultural development and water resources.
The center of grain production in China has moved from a humid south to a water-scarce north over the past 30 years, as the southern crop is built on land and more land is irrigated further north.
As the north has become drier, the increase in food production there is largely dependent on the continued overuse of local water resources, particularly groundwater. Poor irrigation infrastructure, poorly managed water use, as well as rapid industrialization and urbanization have led to severe depletion of groundwater aquifers, loss of natural habitats, and water pollution.
To deal with water issues in China, one problem that must be addressed is the division of power among various agencies. Currently, major rivers are managed by the Ministry of Water Resources, while local governments control smaller water courses.
Water supply, agricultural land irrigation, groundwater, water pollution, and weather forecasting, respectively, by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Land and Resources, the Ministry of Environment Protection, and the State Meteorological Administration.
Data on rainfall, river runoff, groundwater, land use, pollution and water use is not shared between government agencies, or made accessible to the public. Without breaking these bureaucratic barriers, it would be difficult to implement the overall policy set out in the No. 1 document.
As a starting point, China needs to build an integrated network to monitor surface and groundwater and use it to assess and determine water policies through an integrated water-resource management system. And for that to happen, China needs a law that sets clear policies on data sharing and penalties for non-compliance.
Other laws are also needed. A water law introduced in 1988 and amended in 2002 is too vague to apply in practice, and confusion remains over the rights of individuals to water, such as whether to grant them on the basis of land ownership or use.
As political attention to water increases, a new, fair water law based on transparent decisions is needed to protect citizens’ rights and prevent corruption. Low-income farmers will suffer a lot due to rising water prices. To protect them, and therefore the food supply, China must keep irrigation costs low.
Clear measures will also be needed to better integrate food production with water availability. Without regulation to increase food production in the South, it would be difficult to maintain food security, even if water-use efficiency improves in the North.
Certain areas identified in the document require more attention. Despite growing concern about the effects of climate change on the availability and suitability of water resources, the document does not specifically define adaptation to climate impacts. It is also unclear how the departments of water resources and environmental protection should cooperate on the planned new limits on water pollutants.
Ecological water use is mentioned, but the document does not outline the specific measures that would be needed to protect the ecosystem’s water supply against the conflicting demands of economic activity. The role of ecosystems in the availability of water should be clearly taken into account.
How will the money be raised to fulfill the government’s promises on water? The document demands that local governments reserve 10% of the annual proceeds from the sale of land (currently 70 billion renminbi) for the development of real estate to be used for water projects.