Backgrounder: Wet politics in China

China’s water crisis is crying out for better policy and politics, argues Lee Seungho.

Will China succeed in shifting its water policies onto a more sustainable basis? That really depends on its ability to make decisions on socio-economic and environmental grounds. By contrast, the Three Gorges Dam and the south-north water transfer project are examples of political considerations taking priority over the needs of water users and the environment.

The biggest debates on the south-north scheme have been about its huge expense. It is true that the central government has cleverly devised the financing structure so as to lay more of the burden on those local governments that benefit from the project. But doubts about its economic feasibility encourage the suspicion that it is being shaped by political factors.

Part of the problem is the involvement of too many players, at the national and local level. Within the national government, Water Resources is the principal ministry, but there is a real need to bring all the various bodies together and gain consensus – including the NDRC, SEPA and other relevant ministries such as construction, agriculture and forestry. At present, there’s a pretty diverse range of views. The water resources ministry, whose main goal is the management and development of those resources, sees Three Gorges as a big achievement, whereas SEPA has always been sceptical on environmental grounds.

As things stand, policy making and implementation are often incoherent, and there are overlaps in investment. And, although China does have a framework of laws on water management, they are not always properly enforced. This not only puts water assets in serious danger — it also raises questions about the state’s capacity to tackle the huge challenges it faces.

In the end, China’s allocation of so much scarce water to low-productivity agriculture is not sustainable. If it’s to tackle the grave dangers of water vulnerability, the leadership will have to abandon the myth of self-sufficiency in essential foods.

The author:
Dr Seungho Lee is a specialist in water policy at the Institute of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.

This article appears in “Greening the Dragon: China’s Sustainability Challenge”, a special supplement produced by Green Futures magazine, published in September 2006.

Homepage photo by Magalie L’Abbé