By Julian Wong Jan.30.2009
In: agriculture, water
6 comments

Understanding Northern China's Water Crisis

Christine E. Boyle talked about the Northern China’s water crisis at a Beijing Energy & Environment Roundtable (BEER) last week on Jan 21.

Christine (pictured right) is a doctoral candidate in University of North Carolina’s program in environmental planning and policy and recently completed a Fulbright Fellowship at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy. Her doctoral dissertation examines the changing nature of irrigation governance in northern China.  Her expertise is broad, covering sustainable rural development, the fiscal policy of urban and rural water distribution, and strategies to mitigate the impacts of municipal and industrial development on local water quality.  Christine can be reached at cboyle [at] email.unc.edu

Here are her slides and synopsis of her presentation:

A synopsis, by Christine:

Falling water supply plus rising water demand in northern China is resulting in a water shortage with potential far ranging impact on agricultural production and livelihoods. Despite agricultural water use utilizing 65% of annual water withdrawals in China, it is estimated that only 45% of this water allocation ever reaches the farm plots. Given this low rate of irrigation efficiency, and increasing water constraints due to growing demand by municipal and industrial sectors, how are the government and water users responding to water shortages?

This presentation focuses on three aspects of northern China’s current water crisis, in reference to the agricultural sector. First getting the facts right on water allocation, current usage and water use behavior, in order to establish a sound understanding of the status quo water use situation.  Second, analysis of responses to the water crisis, from both the government, and farmers.  Third, I lay out 2 analytical frameworks, one from the economics perspective, and one from the institutional perspective to make clear the challenges facing reform efforts in China’s water sector.  Lastly, I offer a set of recommendations to progress toward a more sustainable irrigation water use future, step-by-step.

At this point in time, one observes two startling trends in China’s irrigation sector. First, many of the government reforms related to irrigation district reforms (participatory management, contracting, adoption of water-savings technology cost recovery fiscal reform) have failed to achieve intended results in water savings. Second, farmers’ response to decreasing water availability has been the widespread development of private groundwater markets that are pumping water at highly unsustainable rates. Without addressing confounding local interests to exploit local water resources to further local economic development, the water scarcity situation will worsen and threaten agricultural livelihoods. Recommended steps to improve the water use situation include: establishing water rights, training local agriculturists in sustainable agriculture practices, and establishing more rational water pricing principles. The bright side is that with such low present levels of water use efficiency, room for gains in water conservation are large and achieving conservation goals will certainly help quell northern China’s thirst for additional water sources.


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  1. Great Doctoral Student Slideshow/ Powerpoint on Northern China’s Water Crisis (GreenLeapForward) - LeakBird Jan.31.2009@9:03 am Reply

    [...] are her slides and synopsis of her presentation: Understanding Northern China’s Water Crisis (Original Article / Slide Show Here) Tags: china, doctoral student, leakbird, northern, powerpoint, report, slideshow, student, Water [...]

  2. The Green Leap Forward 绿跃进 » Green Hops: Drought, Cars and International Partnerships Feb.12.2009@5:36 pm Reply

    [...] River valleys.  The water scarcity woes of northern China have been well described on this blog by Christine Boyle.  The World Bank also chimes in with its own comprehensive list of policy recommendation to [...]

  3. The Green Leap Forward 绿跃进 » China’s New Water Efficiency Targets (and Implications for Food and Energy) Feb.17.2009@9:37 pm Reply

    [...] and especially so for the agricultural sector:  According to statistics in 2000 (see slide 6 of this slide presentation), water prices to urban and industrial customers were US$0.15 and $0.16, respectively, while those [...]

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