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China’s Five-Year National Water Security Plan

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China’s Five-Year National Water Security Plan

How does China’s first five-year plan for national water security attempt to tackle the country’s most pressing water challenges?

China’s Five-Year National Water Security Plan

Agricultural lands abut the Yellow River, just outside of Touzha in Pingluo County, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China.

Credit: Planet Labs inc.

In January 2022, China released a plan to improve the country’s capability to safeguard its water security during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-2025).  The plan, jointly released by the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Water Resources, is the first five-year plan (FYP) for water security to be implemented nationally. With an overall aim of significantly strengthening China’s national water security capability by 2025, this comprehensive water plan responds to China’s significant national water challenges. As China Water Risk notes, it is an “umbrella plan” for all previous significant water policies, such as the water resource tax.

How the Water Security Plan Responds to China’s Significant Water Challenges 

In response to China’s significant water challenges, the FYP sets out an “overall comprehensive plan” for modern water governance in China for the next five years. This plan aims to significantly enhance China’s national water security capability by addressing water concerns through four main goals: improving the ability to prevent floods and droughts; improving the ability to conserve water resources; improving water resources and optimizing allocation capacity; and strengthening the ecological protection and governance of large rivers and lakes.

The first goal – improving the ability to prevent floods and droughts – is unsurprising given the increasing climate insecurity China, like other countries, faces. China’s previous main policy adjustments and traditional engineering-focused approach to water issues are now facing new threats due to increasing climate insecurity and vulnerability to water scarcity. As such, the water security FYP emphasizes the importance of a strong flood and drought disaster forecasting and management system. The FYP notes that China has made significant efforts to prevent and resolve major water safety incident risks and will continue to do so.

The plan also emphasizes the need to increase water conservation. China’s water scarcity concerns affect both rural and urban areas. Beijing, unsurprisingly, is keen to improve the country’s ability to save water resources and ensure a continued water supply through various methods.

Under the water security FYP, China aims to implement water-saving actions, promote water-saving lifestyles, and ensure that water conservation is incorporated into all aspects of urban planning and management. For instance, the construction of sponge cities, where conditions permit, will be encouraged.

Further, China will seek to significantly reduce non-revenue water (NRW), a key measure of water loss and leakage in the distribution network, by improving the leak detection systems of the water supply pipe networks alongside other measures. For example, Chinese cities will have improved urban water supply pipe networks and sewage recycling facilities. In public buildings and households, water-saving appliances will be encouraged.

China will implement water conservation activities and educational programs in the national education curriculum to support these efforts, as well as continuing publicity activities (such as China Water Week and National Urban Water Conservation Publicity Week).

The water security FYP also makes suggestions for reducing agricultural water use. Agriculture has long been the biggest consumer of China’s water resources. According to the World Bank, agriculture is responsible for around 65 percent of China’s water consumption, a decline from 88 percent in 1982.  Under the FYP, water consumption efficiency in agricultural production will be increased through high-efficiency water-saving irrigation in different regions, greater use of technologies (such as sprinkler irrigation and micro-irrigation), and the production of crops with low water requirements and new varieties of drought-resistant crops.

The water security FYP encourages the implementation of various water-saving measures within industry. These include promoting water conservation in water-intensive sectors, creating water consumption thresholds for industrial projects, and establishing water-saving benchmarks.

Both the uneven spatio-temporal distribution and availability of water resources in China remain significant barriers to safeguarding the country’s water security. Decades ago, Chairman Mao Zedong acknowledged these challenges, pointing out, “The South has plenty of water, and the North lacks it, so, if possible, why not borrow some?” Despite holding under 6 percent of the world’s water resources and being one of the top five countries in terms of freshwater resources, on a per capita basis, China faces severe water shortages due to water resources that are unevenly distributed across the country. Water-abundant southern China is prone to severe floods; in contrast, northern China, home to the country’s agricultural center, is arid and prone to severe water shortages.

In response, China will strengthen the management of water abstraction permits and reduce the quantity of water used in water-intensive industries. China will also strictly control the amount of water withdrawn from river basins and implement water-use quotas. Moreover, new water permits in water-scarce regions will not be issued due to the over-exploitation of water resources. Instead, the FYP encourages water rights trading to help meet additional water demands. Doing so will avoid adding more pressure to local water resources.

In response to the limitations of using conventional water resources to meet future needs amid a changing climate, the FYP recommends using unconventional water sources, such as reclaimed wastewater, brackish water, and harvested rainwater. This suggests that China will promote the greater utilization of alternative water supply systems for non-drinking water supply, and potentially drinking water supplies, to reduce water scarcity concerns. In addition, water-intensive consumption industries and industrial parks in coastal areas are encouraged to use desalinated water.

The final goal of the national water security plan is to continue strengthening the ecological protection of large rivers and lakes. Notably, targets will be established to ensure the ecological flow of 282 key rivers and lakes. At the same time, new water intake permits will be suspended in water-stressed/scarce regions in the Yellow River basin. Cross-provincial eco-compensation mechanisms for key river basins will be created to support ecological protection.

To overcome existing groundwater overexploitation concerns, the FYP recommends reducing groundwater exploitation by increasing water supply through multiple channels. By 2025, China aims to have established a groundwater monitoring and management system and alleviated groundwater overexploitation across the country.  Specifically, the overexploitation of groundwater in key areas (such as Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei) should be reduced.

Challenges and Implications 

As the FYP demonstrates, water security is undoubtedly part of China’s national development strategy.  During the current five-year period, China will promote reforms in key areas of water conservation, improve the innovative development of water conservation, and modernize the water management system by implementing a national water-saving initiative and smart water network, as well as undertaking the construction of major water projects.

As part of this, there will be a strong emphasis on digitalizing and monitoring water resources. In addition to upgrading hydrological stations, a large internet of things (IoT) network will be constructed to monitor the country’s watersheds alongside various technological innovations. These include real-time online monitoring, remote sensing, 5G and Beidou satellites, unmanned ships, drones, and underwater robots.

Furthermore, China seeks to speed up the building of “digital watersheds” for all major bodies of water, like river basins. Currently, two digital watershed pilot programs are operating in the Huai and Hai rivers to monitor key flood control areas. China will implement this program in other regions to support flood defense systems as early warning systems while supporting water conservation information. As China Water Risk notes, the digital watersheds will support efforts to manage and monitor water resources more efficiently, including preventing and controlling pollution, improving water quality, and allocating water.

While the water security FYP does put forward more innovative and technological solutions, such as sponge cities and satellites, to address China’s water concerns, it also demonstrates continuity with Beijing’s engineering-focused solutions. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long used the construction of mega hydro-engineering infrastructure projects to address water challenges. The additional water conservation projects mentioned in the FYP and a recent report from the state-owned Global Times on China’s water conservation investment, alongside grand project proposals (such as the Red Flag River), further suggest that Beijing’s remains committed to engineering-focused solutions, despite their ecological, environmental, and hydrosocial impacts.

China’s water woes are well established and challenge socioeconomic development, especially as demand for fresh water is quickly increasing. Forecasts predict that by 2030, China’s water demand will surpass 800 billion cubic meters, putting further pressure on the country’s limited water supplies. Despite efforts to increase water availability, China still faces a water supply gap that some domestic scholars estimate could reach 25 percent by 2030.

Furthermore, China’s water supply and quality are severely undermined by worsening interlinked factors of water scarcity, rapid urbanization, population growth, pollution, climate change impacts, and competing water demands. These concerns have been acknowledged by China’s top officials, including President Xi Jinping. By addressing these critical areas of concern, the water security plan seeks to safeguard China’s water resources at the national level and enter a new era of “water management with Chinese characteristics.”

Nonetheless, this comes with significant challenges. Notably, shifting precipitation patterns and climate change impacts will continue to impact China’s water security. As China faces severe climate change impacts like glacial retreat in the Himalayas and a decrease in total volume in the country’s major river systems due to global warming, water is one of the most vulnerable sectors. China’s average annual temperature has increased faster than the global average, while regional and seasonal patterns have changed significantly across China.

Water will also be hit the hardest by the growing frequency and intensity of climate change-induced extreme weather events, costing China over $47 billion annually. Estimates suggest that 1 percent of China’s gross domestic product (GDP) is lost annually due to flooding impact, causing damage to agricultural production, infrastructure, and human lives.

The FYP also raises further questions. For instance, what kind of water infrastructure (such as large inter-basin transfer projects) is needed to ensure the goals outlined in the FYP can be met? What kind of financing is necessary to realize the water security plan, and who will provide it? Will public-private partnerships (PPPs) be used to achieve the FYP goals? What role may provincial and local governments play in carrying out the water conservation projects? What kind of research and development (R&D) should be undertaken to ensure that unconventional water sources can be used? Does the push for water conservation and improved management mean that every new city, planned or under construction, will be a “sponge city”?

While the length of time for this plan is only five years and many questions are yet to be answered, the national water security plan is undoubtedly a strong step in the right direction to better manage and safeguard China’s water resources. As Xi remarked in his 2022 New Year Speech last year, “If we do not fail nature, nature shall never fail us.”