Tackling water issues with innovation

By Leong Ching and Qian Jiwei
0 CommentsPrint E-mail China Daily, May 17, 2011
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At the start of the year, after having weathered some devastating floods and droughts, China focused its attention on water governance. Investment in water infrastructure and management is now one of the most important commitments of the central government, which is reflected in its No 1 document this year.

The document says 4 trillion yuan ($614 billion) will be invested in water infrastructure projects over the next decade, and the funds will come from central and local governments both.

The amount may appear huge, but some experts say the country needs another 3 trillion yuan, which may take another 10 years to realize.

Water has hogged the headlines in recent times with the drought in Shandong province threatening to be the worst in 200 years. And wheat production is likely to drop causing hardships for millions of people.

In the midst of the water challenge, however, there are success stories. The case of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region teaches us two important lessons:

First, the government does not have to be the only one footing the water bill. A big part of that money can come from the private sector, as long as it gets returns. From 1999 to 2005, the central government invested 32.83 million yuan in water infrastructure projects in Erdos city in Inner Mongolia. But over the next three years, the local government invested 701.84 million yuan in Erdos' two large irrigation areas. On average, the central government invested 5.4 million yuan each year - which means that the local annual investment was nearly 40 times that of the central government.

The local government could do so because it charges industries that want to use water. It transfers the amount then to water infrastructure projects. Officially, this is called "water rights transfer". But in reality, it is an economic price paid by the private sector for doing businesses. So if more money is needed, the government need not be the only one paying it.

Second, money is not all there is to the water story. To make investments count, public support is vital. The government can raise money for large infrastructure projects, and could meet all its short-term investment targets. But water conservancy requires constant vigilance, and infrastructure requires careful husbandry, and both require public support.

Take farmer Liu Gaoqi, 61, for example. He would have stayed home in the heart of Inner Mongolia, playing a game or two of luck, and waited for spring to work his land. But this winter, he watched his plants growing in temperature-controlled tents, and enjoyed the fresh tomatoes from his farms.

The difference, he says, comes from the investment in new high technology farms, which use drip irrigation and controlled temperatures to make sure that farms continue to be productive even in winter in Erdos, where temperatures can plunge to -32 C. "We would have never been able to afford this sort of equipment on our own. It's thanks to this exchange we have with industry," he says.

Some distance away, as the wind howls around the Dalate Power Plant, Deputy director Liang Xi is watching every drop of water he has, because he is on a strict quota. Each year, the Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC) sets a quota of 44 million cubic meters.

"In 2005, we had a traditional water cooling system which consumed more than 40 million cubic meters of water. In recent years, air-cooling systems have replaced them managing the job within the given the quota."

The water is precious because it is transferred from farms, and paid for by the plant - not just in tariffs, but also in money to build waterproof canals and import technology and know-how and material like the tents which farmer Liu oversees.

Fourteen thirsty industrial projects in Erdos have taken part in such innovative exchanges. The net gain from them is estimated to be 26.6 billion yuan after deducting all the investments they needed to ensure that farms got enough water, so that they could transfer it to them.

It is a win-win situation because farmers gain in terms of increased harvests and improved technology, industry gains because it gets enough water, without which its economic activities would be severely curtailed.

A survey we conducted jointly with Tsinghua University showed that many people who lived in the nine provinces through which the Yellow River flows support its rejuvenation efforts. The majority, 79 percent, of the more than 200 respondents said they knew the Yellow River had run dry, while 73 percent said they were willing to make some sacrifice to ensure the health of the river. A sense of optimism was evident among them, too.

But surprisingly, there is very little knowledge about the current efforts to address the problem of water. For example, the pivotal role of the YRCC does not appear to be well known. In fact, 36 percent of the respondents did not even know about the existence of YRCC, and about 59 percent were indifferent to or felt negatively about the governance of the Yellow River.

This is a gap we think must be filled. We must build upon the successes of places such as Erdos, and let the people know that seemingly insurmountable problems have been solved. Moreover, people should be told that they were solved through the joint efforts of the community.

The battle to build dams, reservoirs and a network of pipes is likely to succeed but that victory will be in vain if similar efforts are not made to build community support, change people's habits, and create greater awareness that success against even the greatest odds is possible.

Leong Ching is a research scholar in water policies at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore (NUS). Qian Jiwei is a research associate at the East Asian Institute of NUS.

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