The regulation driving action on water in China



China is undertaking wide-ranging reforms in the way it manages water, at the same time committing huge sums to implement improvements. Keith Hayward looks at some of the key pieces of recent legislation that are being used to drive this effort across the country.

Chinese flags flying © Shutterstock / crystal51
Chinese flags flying © Shutterstock / crystal51

The most important driver for China’s ongoing efforts to improve the management of water across the country is the China No.1 Policy Document 2011 on water resources reform.

Release of this document represented a commitment to water reforms made at the highest level. Normally the first policy document issued by the leadership of the country each year deals with food security and agricultural reform, but for the 2011 document the process was adapted to focus on water resources.

The No.1 water resources document is even more significant because it is the first such policy document to cover a ten year timeframe. China’s whole development process is structured around five year plans. The No.1 document spans the 2011-2015 and 2016-2020 plans, committing an expenditure of some 4000 billion Yuan ($650 billion) on water infrastructure over this period.

The No.1 document set the principles and initial framework for the water reform, with other guidance and regulations subsequently adding further detail. One of the overall aims is to create what can be translated as the ‘Strictest Water Resources Management System’.

At the start of 2012, China’s central authorities announced one of the most important aspects of the reforms: the formulation of three ‘Red Lines’ as the water resource management objectives. The first Red Line set water quatity objectives for surface water and groundwater, requiring control of the total quantity of water abstracted. The second Red Line set water use efficiency objectives with the aim of capping water use in different industries and agriculture. The third Red Line set water quality objectives, requiring the control of the total pollution load discharged.

These three Red Lines operate alongside the introduction of Water Function Zones to apply the objectives on a geographical basis.

The targets for the three Red Lines were taken from China’s 2010-2030 National Comprehensive Plan for Water Resources. This aims to keep the total volume of water consumed nationally to within 700 billion cubic metres by 2030, the date when China’s population, and so water use, is expected to peak. In terms of water use efficiency, the aim is for industry to reduce the volume of water used per RMB10,000 of industrial value added to less than 40m3 and for agricultural irrigation water to be used more efficiently. The aim for pollution is for water quality compliance in the water function areas to be more than 95% by 2030.

Interim targets were set. Total national water consumption was to be below 635 billion m3 by 2015 and below 670 billion m3 by 2020. Industry had to reduce by 30% the amount of water used per RMB10,000 of industrial value added by 2015 compared to 2010. By 2020 industrial water use has to be less than 65m3. Interim targets were set also for agricultural water use efficiency (the effective water use coefficient of agricultural water had to achieve 0.53 by 2015 and 0.55 by 2020, compared to the target of 0.6 for 2020). For water quality compliance key water function areas of rivers and lakes had to be over 60% by 2015, and over 80% by 2020, in addition to which the water quality compliance rate for water supply in urban and rural areas has to reach 100% by 2020.

The 2011-2015 Five Year Plan, the country’s 12th plan, included a dedicated water development plan. This set out, for example, to boost investment in municipal wastewater treatment. This included an aim of equipping some 300 cities who lacked such plants, as well as improving the standard of treatment provided.

In February 2014, the government issued its work plan for assessing implementation of the Strictest Water Resources Management System. This made the assessment results an important indicator of evaluating leaders of provincial governments. The work plan stated that priority in future projects will be given to provinces with an outstanding performance, while provinces failing the assessment would have one month to submit in writing to the State Council their plans to correct things.

China’s State Council announced this January plans to put in place a reformed agricultural water price mechanism over the next ten years. Initial measures such as improving measuring facilities and managing agricultural demand will provide a foundation for this reform. The State Council urged regionals to try to achieve the reform in three to five years, where possible. One expected impact of the reform is that advanced water-saving technology will be promoted.

Most recently, the country’s 13th Five Year Plan, for 2016-2020, was approved in March. According to the plan, the aim for the next five years will be to implement the Strictest Water Resources Management System, including establishing a national monitoring system for groundwater.


Action on industry

Alongside all of this, one of China’s most recent ambitious measures to further drive forward action on water was the introduction in April last year of what is known as the Water Ten Plan. The State Council issued the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Plan, coordinating input from more than 12 ministries and government departments.

Tackling the discharge of pollutants was first in the list of the ten measures set out, with industry appearing first in the list of causes.

The plan brings with it tough measures for industry in particular. The major polluting industries targeted are: pulp and paper; coking; nitrogen fertiliser; textile dyeing and finishing; food production and processing; pharmaceutical production; leather; pesticides; electroplating; and non-ferrous metals. These industries will need to upgrade to reduce pollution emissions and achieve clean production.

Small factories are targeted also, in a similar list of sectors: pulp and paper; leather; textile dyeing; dye production; coking; sulphur and arsenic smelting; oil refineries; electroplating; and pesticides. These face the prospect of having to implement rapid reforms or be closed down.


A commitment on cities

The country is also undertaking important changes for cities. In February, the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council together issued new guidelines on urban development. With cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing each having populations of more than 20 million, the aim of the guidelines is to prevent cities from growing beyond the capacity of their natural resources and environment. According to the guidelines, factors such as resource and energy conservation and environmental protection should be taken into account as part of urban design and construction.

One of the most ambitious initiatives in China as far as urban water is concerned is the country’s efforts to create ‘sponge cities’, featuring in particular green infrastructure to better cope with the threat of flooding. Over the coming few years it will be piloting the approach in 16 urban districts around the country. According to a report in The Guardian, up to 600 million Yuan will be provided to each city, and the ultimate plan is to manage 60% of the rainwater falling on cities in this way.

In February the State Council approved its plan for Xiamen city up to 2020. The plan aims to limit the population of the city, in Fuijian province, in the southeast of the country, to five million permanent residents. Under the plan, Xiamen will become a sponge city, in addition to which extra efforts will be made to protect areas with special ecological functions, including wetlands and water resources.

The development plan for the next five years for Guangzhou city was also approved in February. This requires the Guangzhou government to limit the permanent population of the city to 18 million, and to take measures to build an energy-saving and environmentally-friendly city.

It also approved the development plan for the Harbin-Changchun megalopolis in Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces, in the northeast of the country. Again, the aim of the plan is to create a green region with an improved urban environment. The Council also approved the creation of a new district in Changchun city, the capital of Jilin province. Development of the new district is intended to help revitalise the region. The provincial government is required by the State Council to devise a master plan in is in line with the regulations covering aspects such as environmental protection and water resource planning.


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