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Securing rights to water in China

Across China competition for water is growing (Roger Calow)
Across China competition for water is growing
Roger Calow

Water stress is currently one of the severest environmental problems facing China. In addition to growing competition for water between agricultural and urban users, over-exploitation and pollution of water resources, coupled with the impacts of climate change, have led to growing concerns over how to conserve and reallocate water. In response, China has begun to implement a number of policies designed to improve water management whilst supporting the livelihoods of rural farmers by providing them with an assured right to water resources.

Developing a water rights system

In 2002 China's Water Law was revised, marking a policy shift that, for the first time, created a system for the allocation of water rights giving more emphasis to local management, farmer participation and water conservation. Under the new law, all water abstractions require a permit, which for large irrigation districts (IDs) are held by a government agency. Rather than holding formal and legally defensible rights, farmers are then granted an entitlement to water under an ID permit.

Implementation of the revised law is more advanced in northern China, where it is drier and water scarcity is more of a problem. In the Yellow River Basin, a water allocation system has been implemented and tightly enforced. Water rights are allocated to provinces and regions according to a Water Resources Allocation Plan drawn up by the basin commission, which calculates the volume of water available for abstraction during a year, according to the supply available. Major water extractors, including IDs, then require an abstraction permit. After consultation with farmers through Water User Associations (WUA), IDs supply water through annual and seasonal agreements. The WUAs then take responsibility for allocating water to individual farmers.

Water savings from the channel lining in Hangjin irrigation district on the Yellow River have been transferred to downstream industries (Roger Calow)
Water savings from the channel lining in Hangjin irrigation district on the Yellow River have been transferred to downstream industries
Roger Calow

In some areas, farmers are given water certificates that identify their share of the water available under a WUA entitlement. This is often combined with a ticketing and pre-payment system that allows farmers to purchase water tickets up to a prescribed limit. According to Roger Calow, programme leader for the Water Policy programme at the Overseas Development Institute, this system is relatively popular, ensuring revenues for the IDs, reducing conflict at village level and providing a direct link between irrigation charging and service delivery for farmers, according to locally agreed plans.

Tackling groundwater extraction

When it comes to the allocation of rights to water extracted from wells and boreholes, the government often has less influence. A recent survey across 400 villages in six provinces revealed that less than ten per cent of well owners had a permit, and that the number of privately-owned wells had risen dramatically since the 1980s. But several municipalities are experimenting with ways to better control water extraction.

In order to stabilise groundwater levels in the worst affected regions, local authorities in Wuwei municipality in Gansu province, for example, have sealed some wells and by 2010 are aiming to reduce irrigation quotas and the number of permitted wells. In return, local authorities will introduce subsidised greenhouses on a large scale in order to help farmers make more productive use of the water available.

Wuwei municipality is also utilising intelligent card (IC) technology in order to more closely regulate the volume of groundwater extracted from wells and boreholes. IC card systems are currently fitted to boreholes, limiting the amount of water that can be extracted to the combined total of borehole users' entitlements. It seems that some farmers would prefer to have individual IC cards relating to their own entitlement because many have land in different areas, served by several wells or boreholes. However, this is currently considered too complex to implement and manage.

Balancing supply and demand

Rapid expansion of groundwater irrigation supports vegetable production on the Bashang Plateau in northern Hebei (Roger Calow)
Rapid expansion of groundwater irrigation supports vegetable production on the Bashang Plateau in northern Hebei
Roger Calow

Calow suggests that the development of a modern water rights system in China is vital to ensure that water conservation and reallocation objectives are met in a fair and transparent way. "But at the same time," Calow says, "farmers need clearly defined rights to encourage investments in agriculture and to provide a secure water supply." In addition, protecting groundwater resources from pollution and over-extraction has become a growing priority, especially in northern China where groundwater supports both grain production and urban supply, and provides a crucial 'buffer' against climate variability.

"In order to rebalance water supply and water demand, China's government has to substantially improve water use efficiency, both in agricultural and industrial sectors," explains Jinxia Wang from the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy. "Fortunately, the government has embarked on major reforms that will help manage demand and mediate between the claims of competing uses - including the environment," Calow adds. "Whether these go far enough remains to be seen, but a willingness to experiment with different approaches and 'learn by doing' certainly offers lessons for other countries."

Date published: November 2009


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