Water management in China - challenges and Government interventions

The report: Growing water scarcity, food security and government responses in China (Global Food Security January 2017 by Jinxia Wanga,b,, Yanrong Lia,c, Jikun Huanga,b, Tingting Yand, Tianhe Suna,) Contains a lot of useful points about the situation in China relating to the challenges around water and how the Government is seeking to address these. It contains a lot of excellent figures on which business cases could be built.

This post consists of a summary/extracts from the report.

Abstract: China's food production depends highly on irrigation, but irrigated agriculture has been threatened by increasing water scarcity. As such, the overall goal of this study is to provide a better understanding of the changing trends in water supply and demand balance, their impacts on food production, and government policy responses. The results show that water scarcity in China is a regional issue, mainly in northern areas. This is reflected in the limited and uneven distribution of water resources, decline of surface water resources, depletion of groundwater resources, degradation of water quality and increasing water demand. Climate change has further aggravated water scarcity in several river basins in northern China, resulting in the reduction of irrigated areas and a fall in food production. Consequently, the Chinese government has tried to control total water withdrawal, improve water use efficiency, and control water pollution. While these policy responses are encouraging, their effectiveness in resolving the growing water scarcity in China needs to be examined.

This article makes clear that China has reached a point where urgent new actions is needed to resolve its growing water crisis.

Challenges associated with water

China's total water resources rank sixth in the world; per capita water availability is only a fourth of the global average. China’s Ministry of Water Resources (MWR) predicts that China will consume 750 billion m3 of water a year by 2030, about 90% of total usable water resources in the country. By 2050, China's total water deficit could reach 400 billion m3 (roughly 80% of the current annual capacity of approximately 500 billion m3).

Water is not evenly distributed geographically, as 81% of water resources are concentrated in southern China. Despite only having 19% of water endowment, northern China supports more than 65% of national cultivated land, 50% of grain production and over 45% of national GDP.

Over the past decades river runoff in six large river basins presented a declining trend: four (Hai, Yellow, Liao, and Songhua) in northern China, and two (Yangtze and Pearl) in southern China.

China’s highly variable rainfall results in frequent droughts and floods, particularly in northern China.

In China, near 75% of irrigated grain production came from the river basins that experienced the reduction of river runoff in the past 60 years. For Hai and Yellow river basins having the most obvious reduction of river runoff, their contribution to national irrigated grain crop production reached near 40%. Over the past two decades, water scarcity has resulted in an annual grain production loss of more than 27 million tons in China. With the decline of surface water resources, farmers have turned towards groundwater resources. As a result, groundwater extraction increased was over 112 km3 in 2014. A recent study found that 83% of cultivated land in six provinces in northern China depended on groundwater irrigation. In southern China, the share of groundwater irrigated areas in three provinces (Jiangxi, Guangdong, and Yunnan) reached 58%.

Since the late 1990s, groundwater overdraft has become one of China's most serious resource problems. Presently, there are 400 regions whose groundwater overdraft exceeds their sustainable capacity, and the total area of these regions is 11% of plain areas in China. In the Hai river basin, 91% of plain areas belong to overdraft regions. Consequently, the groundwater table of many regions presents a decreasing trend. For example, shallow groundwater tables in the Hai river basin have dropped by as much as 1m per year between 1974 and 2000, and the annual drop rate in deep groundwater table has even exceeded 2m. Even in southern China, a drop in the groundwater table can be observed in some regions. Moreover, over-drafting groundwater has caused land subsidence, the intrusion of seawater into fresh water aquifers, and desertification.

Based on MWR's monitoring data, the percentage of monitored surface water sections with poor quality that were not suitable for drinking reached 44% in 1998, while 16% were not suitable for any use - the percentage of poor quality surface water sections was still as high as near 30% in 2013 and 2014;

Water pollution is worst northern China. The percentage of poor quality surface water sections was as high as 65% in both Hai and Huai river basins, and 51% and 44% in Songhua and Yellow river basins, respectively. In 2015, 80% of tubewells had polluted groundwater.

Chinese Government actions and initiatives

Traditionally, China's government relies on supply side management to resolve the water scarcity issue, that is, meeting the demand for water by increasing the supply. Eg substantial investments since the 1950s in irrigation infrastructure construction to deliver water from surface or groundwater resources. To date, over 70% of the national grain output, 80% of the national cotton output, and more than 90% of the national vegetable output comes from irrigated land. By 2014, the total irrigated area in China was 65 million ha and agricultural water withdrawal reached 387 billion m3.

The government has also invested in projects to explore the local water resources, attempted water transfer projects to overcome the uneven spatial distribution of water. It has now been concluded that exploring local water resources has become almost impossible in many regions of China.

More recently, China's government has tried to change the water management strategies from supply side to demand side to ensure water security and promote sustainable socioeconomic development.

Chinese government has recently begun to emphasize the importance of managing water demand and promote one of the strictest systems of water resource management in the world. This policy is called the “Three Red Lines” policy, created to establish clear and binding limits on water withdrawal, water use efficiency, and quality standard. This will require the application of market oriented policy instruments to adjust the behaviour of water users.

Since the mid-1990s, China's government began to reform irrigation management with an aim to increase irrigation efficiency and promote the sustainable development of agricultural production through farmers’ participation in water management. The major pattern of the reform is to establish Water User Associations (WUA). To date, studies found little evidence of real impact since only about 20% of reforms establish water saving incentives, and farmers’ participation in the WUA is also limited. The WUAs also lack the funds needed to support their operation.

In the past 30 years, China's government has invested in water saving technologies in agricultural, industrial, and domestic sectors. In order to improve the condition of water conservancy projects in rural areas, the central government requires local governments to allocate 10% of land transfer revenue for water conservancy projects. This requires that 80% of revenues should be used for constructing small-scale irrigation infrastructure and developing water saving irrigation and 20% for their operation and maintenance. The central government has also set up a special subsidy fund to facilitate the operation and maintenance of water conservancy projects in central and western China, and other poor regions. Water price reforms are needed to increase the likelihood of farmers adopting suitable water saving technologies.

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 Nick Rousseau -  International Collaboration Consultant: Assisting strategic innovation projects.