China: A Watershed Moment for Water Governance

Effective management of water resources is central to China’s economic prosperity. Despite significant investments in water management and infrastructure, more tangible innovative policies and incentives are required to strengthen and better integrate water management at both national and regional levels. Providing more water for environmental uses, expanding the use of market mechanisms to driver water efficiency and adopting transformational approaches to fight water pollutions are among the key tasks for the rapidly growing economy. In facing these challenges, the Chinese experience will make important contributions to the global discourse, says a new a report jointly launched by the World Bank and the Development Research Center (DRC) of China’s State Council today.

The joint study Watershed: A New Era of Water Governance in China closely examines the key water management issues in the context of China’s rapid development and recommends a new approach to the governance of water. This is aligned with the goals of the ecological civilization and its aims to balance economic growth against increasing water demand under conditions of water scarcity.

“China’s water governance faces a rapidly changing context with increasingly serious challenges, with more complicated problems and more ambitious goals,” said Wang Yiming, Vice Minister of the Development Research Center. “The study makes an important contribution to enhancing the framework for China’s water management and provides a practical set of tools and policy guidance. We believe these recommendations will be substantially helpful to further enhance the level and capacity of China’s water governance.”

 “Water is key to the realization of China’s sustainable development. This study leverages the Chinese experience to combine with the Bank’s global knowledge in providing a framework for enhancing water governance in support of sustainable social and economic development,” said Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Vice President for East Asia and the Pacific. “The Chinese experience in managing the development of water resources also has important lessons for other transitioning economies and informing efforts to address global risks to economic progress, poverty eradication, peace and security, and sustainable development.”

Despite being the world’s second-largest economy and being home to 21 percent of the global population, China has only 6 percent of the world’s freshwater resources. In the past 50 years, China has made significant investments in water management and infrastructure, which has led to significant achievements in water supply, irrigation, flood control and hydropower generation. However, the country is still facing acute challenges with respect to both water quantity and quality. Rapid urbanization is driving increasing demand for water from all sectors. Water pollution poses significant risks to human health. Ecosystem services are under severe pressure from urbanization and growing water demands. Drought and local water scarcity affects large parts of the country due to the uneven distribution of water resources and variable rainfall. Small and medium sized cities and rural areas remain unevenly served by water supply, sanitation, and flood protection infrastructure.

China has implemented a series of reforms and pilots in recent years. These have been designed to address the many water-related challenges, including water scarcity, water pollution, ecological degradation, and increased risks and impacts of floods and droughts. The Strictest Water Resources Management System established three major control objectives, known as the Three Red Lines Three Red Lines, and the construction of an “ecological civilization” has become one of the government’s highest policy priorities. The 19th Party Congress in October 2017 further highlighted the goal of building a “beautiful China” to meet increasing public demand for improved environmental quality.

As China pursues a new growth model within the context of an ecological civilization, the report recommends a new water governance strategy that built around five key water governance reform priorities:

Enhance the legislative foundation for water governance. The Water Law, which was last revised in 2002, should be updated to reflect the new principles and challenges. China has established many water quality standards but more work is needed for enforcement and addressing cross jurisdictional issues. The market has an important role to play. As one of the world’s most important and active arenas for public-private partnerships (PPPs) in the water sector, China would benefit from further strengthening and codifying the existing regulations concerning PPPs.

Strengthen national and basin water governance. Reflecting the cross-sectoral nature of water, China could consider creating a high-level, inter-agency mechanism with representatives from the primary ministries concerned with different aspects of water governance. This would help contribute to coordinated policy efforts, reach consensus, identify national strategic priorities and provide guidance to river basin planning. The river basin agencies provide an integrated management for water resources, water ecological environment and the catchment landscape, and should be given enhanced authority and clarity in the key areas of planning, coordination, implementation, enforcement, and financing. Formally linking provincial River and Lake Chiefs with the river basin agencies will help to institutionalize the River and Lake Chief System.

Improve and optimize economic policy instruments. The further development and implementation of economic instruments, such as water pricing and water rights trading, will promote more sustainable and efficient water use. More empirical evidence is also needed to assess the effectiveness of these instruments and adapt. The report suggests four ways to improve target setting of the Three Red Lines to strengthen the effectiveness of China’s Most Stringent System for Water Resource Management. Innovative financing mechanisms can also be better aligned to help sub-national areas meet national targets.

Strengthen adaptive capacity to climate and environmental change. Already faced with scarce water resources, the prospects of global climate change increase the sense of urgency in implementation. China should expand the use of green infrastructure approaches for flood management and experiment with water pollutant discharge permit trading. The report highlights the need to sharpen policy focus on non-point source pollution and explore alternative financial mechanisms, and suggests to explore the development of the Red Line targets for ecological water flows.

Improve data collection and information sharing. The establishment of a national water information sharing platform will help to foster coordination and collaboration including water resources and water ecological environment across agencies and support entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery in the water sector. The report calls for a greater role of public awareness and participation, which will not only help ease the task of monitoring water quality but also contribute to the goal of a “water-saving society”.

The study was jointly produced by World Bank and the Development Research Center of the State Council, with active involvement of domestic and international research institutions and great support from the relevant government ministries.

Read the Policy Brief of Watershed: A New Era of Water Governance in China