Issue Brief: Water Resource Issues, Policy and Politics in China


This Issue Brief describes the root causes of China’s water resource challenge, assesses the Chinese government’s policy response to date, and finally offers recommendations to increase the effectiveness of these policies. (Brookings Institution)

Among the many challenges to China’s current economic development trajectory, water resource constraints are among the most worrisome. According to Barry Naughton, one of the foremost experts on the Chinese economy, “China’s greatest development challenges…are in the areas where a dense population pushes up against the limits of water and what the land can provide.” The water resource challenge to China’s development is exceptionally complex, encompassing a blend of geographical, political, economic, and social dimensions. This Issue Brief describes the root causes of China’s water resource challenge, assesses the Chinese government’s policy response to date, and finally offers recommendations to increase the effectiveness of these policies.

In short, China’s water resource challenge consists of both water quantity and quality issues, each of which present distinctive challenges for Chinese policy. Although the Chinese government is implementing perhaps the world’s most ambitious water resource management strategy, its efforts risk being undermined by inter-governmental rivalries, corruption, and incentives that favor economic development over sustainable resource use. In particular, inter-jurisdictional conflicts over water resources threaten to undermine policies to address water scarcity, while mis-matched incentives between pollution control and economic development at local levels of government threaten to undermine water quality control objectives.

Plenty of water, in all the wrong places

The Chinese government has adopted two basic policy responses to the water scarcity problem. First, it has continued to finance the gigantic South-North Water Transfer Project, or SNWTP (Nanshui beidiao gongcheng 南水北调工程). The SNWTP eventually aims to transfer some 45 billion cubic meters of water per year from central and southwest China to augment the flow of the Yellow River and meet urban water demand in the Beijing-Tianjin region. The Project envisions eastern, central, and western routes, of which the first is under construction and the second in a stage of advanced planning. All three routes pose enormous technical challenges: the eastern and central routes will be channeled under the Yellow River, while the western route entails pumping water at elevations of 10-16,000 feet above sea level over part of the Himalayan mountain range.

In 2010, China’s Communist Party Central Committee and State Council promulgated a “three red lines” (santiao hongxian 三条红线) policy intended to establish clear and binding limits on water quantity usage, efficiency, and quality. In early 2012, the State Council announced that the “three red lines” policy would limit total national water consumption to less than 700 billion cubic meters per year, amounting to approximately three-quarters of China’s total annual exploitable freshwater resources. In addition, the policy attempts to increase irrigation use efficiency to 60% by 2030. These headline policies are augmented by increased investment, including 1.8 trillion RMB in 2011-2015, primarily for irrigation infrastructure improvements, rural clean water delivery, and reservoir enhancements.

In combination, these policies seek to redress China’s regional imbalance in water availability, while making overall water use sustainable. However, they are likely to be undermined by conflict between regions which are asked to bear the costs of storing and transferring water, and those which benefit as a result. The dynamics of these conflicts is illustrated by the case of a dam, first proposed in 1954, intended to be built on the upper reaches of the Yellow River in order to provide water to poor farmers in Ningxia. Gansu Province, claiming that the dam would inundate some of its best farmland, has managed to prevent construction of the dam by lobbying different elements of the central government than those which had supported the dam. The dispute remains unresolved; in 2010, Ningxia’s representatives to the China People’s Political Consultative Conference (zhengzhi xie shanghuiyi 政治协商会议) took the unusual step of presenting a petition to the full Conference to build the dam.

A crisis of water quality

Water quality is arguably an even more serious problem than is water shortage. In rural areas, where less than half the population has access to purified water, agricultural run-off is the dominant pollution source, while in urban areas human and industrial waste are left largely untreated, contaminating both surface and underground water supplies. Recent reports from China’s environmental protection authorities indicate that in the country as a whole, less than half of China’s water can be treated to the point where it is safe for drinking, and a quarter of surface waters are so polluted that they are unfit even for industrial use. Independent estimates are even more pessimistic.

This crisis of water quality has contributed to a serious environmental health crisis. Arsenic poisoning from contaminated groundwater is thought to be widespread, and in some areas high incidences of particular cancers have been linked to organic water pollution. The ecological impact of high pollution levels is also acute, dramatically reducing freshwater wild fish populations as well as driving larger animals like the baiji (白鱀豚), or Yangtze dolphin, to the very brink of extinction. Water pollution issues have, moreover, proved to be particularly politically contentious. In 2005, the accidental release of some 100 tons of carcinogenic chemicals into a river near China’s northeastern border with Russia produced a diplomatic crisis, and in 2001 pollution from dye factories in Suzhou provoked residents of downstream Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province to pool funds to buy old boats and sink them in the waterway, forming a dam that blocked up the polluted water into neighboring Jiangsu Province.

The Chinese government’s policy responses to water quality issues rely largely on strengthening monitoring capabilities and enforcement mechanisms. The 2008 Water Pollution Law attempted to strengthen earlier legislation by providing for increased penalties, including stiff fines for the executives of polluting enterprises. As part of a broader push to expand monitoring of pollution, Regional Supervision Centers were established throughout China to keep an eye on local enterprises, and water quality bureaus were set up within the MWR’s river basin commissions. This institutional expansion has been complemented by continuing regulatory reform. The “three red lines” policy introduced a new requirement that 95% of tested water must meet national water quality guidelines, which have recently been expanded and updated to cover a wide range of organic and microbial pollutants as well as concentrations of heavy metals. To help meet these standards, the government announced in late 2011 a five-year, 380 billion RMB investment plan to improve urban wastewater treatment facilities, as well as the establishment of some 14,000 monitoring stations throughout the country to continuously monitor water quality.

Water Scarcity and Pollution: Constraints on China’s future?

…Fully addressing water quantity and quality issues therefore entails some basic and systematic institutional and political reforms, all of which will require substantial political will. Nonetheless, if this can be mustered, five reforms would greatly aid China in addressing water resource quantity and quality issues.

  • First, the Party’s cadre evaluation system should be overhauled to emphasize environmental and water resource management metrics. Some reforms have already been undertaken, but economic and stability criteria remain of paramount importance. Although environmental outcomes are more difficult to measure than GDP growth, technologies like those employed in the Digital Yellow River system make it easier to hold cadres responsible for water quality and quantity issues within their jurisdictions.
  • Second, formalized mechanisms for inter-provincial consultation should be established at regional scales. In particular, provincial governments should be given formal representation on the Water Conservancy Commissions which manage China’s major river basins on behalf of MWR. Although the Commissions maintain extensive links with local governments, formalizing representation would improve stakeholder involvement and enhance policy buy-in.
  • Third, high-level encouragement should be given to inter-governmental cooperation on water resource issues, which are by nature inter-departmental. As part of this initiative, a high-level working group should be established under the State Council to coordinate policy implementation between MWR, MEP, and other relevant entities, and provide advice to decision-makers. This effort should be led by a senior leader, preferably at the Presidential or Prime Ministerial level, in order to ensure active participation by ministerial units.
  • Fourth, the central government should aim to strengthen the legal system to enable more effective water rights trading. Title and trading procedures should be clarified, special courts for dispute resolution created, and markets brought to a larger scale. Ideally this effort should be undertaken as part of a broader set of legal reforms which might aim to strengthen judicial independence and the rule of law more generally.
  • Fifth, both MEP and MWR should encourage the involvement of civil society groups in water pollution monitoring. Although the government is wary of such involvement, it can channel growing concern over water issues for constructive purposes by making civil society groups an adjunct to water pollution monitoring efforts.

The gravity of China’s water resource challenges cannot be overstated—in order to chart a sustainable development pathway in future decades China must use substantially less water much more efficiently, while also improving water quality. The government has built the foundations of a credible policy response, but these must be strengthened, expanded and built upon if China is to avoid a water resource constraint to its future growth and development.


Tagged , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: