Managing Droughts and Water in the People's Republic of China

Article | 23 April 2012

A rise in droughts and an increasing demand for water across the People's Republic of China means the country needs a more integrated approach to manage its scarce water resources, says new ADB report "Drying Up: What to Do About Droughts in the People's Republic of China."

Farmers in western Guizhou province in the People's Republic of China (PRC) wake up early every morning to help dig wells 100 feet deep, hoping there will be enough water to maintain crops. There used to be water close to the surface, they say. But now, declining water levels in nearby lakes in the southwest region have not helped livelihoods cope with the prolonged droughts that used to be more common in the PRC's dry northern plains. Ironically, just a few kilometers downhill is a car wash where a man with a gushing hose assures visitors that water supply is not a problem.

The PRC has to take into account some important facts of nature: uneven distribution of water resources, uneven rainfall patterns, and a natural proclivity to droughts - all in addition to climate change and a degraded environment. - ADB. 2012. Drying Up: What to Do About Droughts in the People's Republic of China. Report. Manila.

This scenario has increasingly become common in the PRC. Finding a new approach to cope with the effects of severe drought is a challenge the country continues to face. Droughts have occurred more frequently in the past three years, destroying crops and affecting more than 1 million people, further showing that the country needs to shift from traditional supply-side management to a more integrated approach with focus on demand management.

While this may be proof that climate change and unsustainable water consumption habits combine to wreak havoc on poor communities and the livelihood of many, it gives rise to the issue of how the PRC manages these recurring problems and mitigates the risks that come with it.

The ADB report, "Drying Up: What to Do About Droughts in the People's Republic of China" explores how the country can achieve stricter demand management, mitigate risks and impacts of natural hazards and reduce economic losses through an integrated approach.

"The main message is that risk management is very critical. In the past, it was the engineering approach and the emergency response approach, but these are not adequate anymore," says Qingfeng Zhang, ADB's Lead Water Resources Specialist and one of the authors of the report.

Eco-system based approach

The report puts focus on the demand-side management of infrastructure, making sure that water resources are utilized properly and equitably for all sectors. One reason why there are rapid increases in demand for agricultural, industrial, and household water use was due to the PRC's brisk economic growth and social development. This rendered the environment without the minimal water amounts ecosystems need to thrive.

Zhang highlighted the importance of treating the ecosystem as a water user when allocating water. He also mentioned that local government may consider eco-compensation including the water trading scheme to increase the collaboration and cooperation between upstream and downstream stakeholders, particularly when dry conditions persist.

"An integrated approach is necessary to balance the supply. When the drought comes, there is really a need to prioritize drinking water for users over all other uses," Zhang says.

Zhang also believes agencies involved in water management need to coordinate more effectively in order to take coherent action toward reforms. Otherwise, overall objectives go down the drain whenever the drought comes as each agency merely looks after its own interests.