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Water pressure


Country needs to take the initiative to curb wastage of this vital resource

Despite the progress made in improving China's water conservation in recent years, water wastage in the industrial and agricultural sectors, as well as households remains a challenge, with problems also emerging for water use for ecological protection purposes. Such problems are largely attributable to inadequate awareness, systems, institutions, legal standards and infrastructure.

The agricultural sector accounts for about 60 percent of the total water usage in China. Even with the rising efficiency of water use in the sector in recent years, in general the efficiency of irrigation water still lags behind international standards. However, the irrigation efficiency in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin matches that of developed countries, which indicates that irrigation efficiency in China can be up to international standards.

The amount of water used by industry has declined steadily in recent years and it now accounts for 20 percent of the national total. Between 1997 and 2020, the amount of water used per 10,000 yuan ($1,480) of industrial added value dropped by 87 percent to 32.9 cubic meters. But the level is still far behind the advanced economies. This is due to the large proportion of high water-consuming sectors in the industrial structure.

Water consumption by households accounts for about 15 percent of the country's total water use. In recent years, water-saving facilities have been made increasingly popular, and public awareness of water conservation has been greatly enhanced. The water wastage of households generally takes more invisible forms. For example, the total amount of food wasted in the catering sector in China's urban areas has reached about 18 million metric tons each year, and the irrigation water required for the production of the wasted food alone amounts to 3.2 billion cubic meters.

Local authorities have attached stronger emphasis on replenishing water to the ecosystem, a phenomenon that should be commended. However, some northern cities, despite the severe water shortage they are facing, have used groundwater or water from the Yellow River to build artificial lakes, artificial wetlands, and artificial oases.

Behind the waste of water resources in China are some deep-seated factors. Some areas, especially regions in South China with an abundant water supply, lack the initiative to conserve water. The water-saving efforts in such areas have been mainly driven by assessment mechanisms such as a strict water resources management system and energy conservation and emissions reduction measures. Authorities in some areas, especially the water-stressed areas in North China, use the water saved to expand industrial and agricultural production.

The nation has not yet formulated special laws on water conservation for agricultural and industrial use, and for ecological purposes. Although over 20 provincial regions have come up with regulations or rules on water saving, there are still problems such as inconsistencies at the institutional level and the incompleteness of their contents, which has been a drag on efforts to restrict water wastage.

So far, high-efficiency irrigation projects only cover 30.3 percent of the entire irrigated areas in the agricultural sector, with some irrigated areas facing problems such as seriously aging and under-repaired facilities. There is also a need for systematic improvement of the technology control systems for urban water supply networks that prevent water leakage and the water leakage detection equipment.

Up to now, the average price of irrigation water is less than 10 cents per cubic meter, which is less than 40 percent of the supply cost. And the low price of industrial water is not providing sufficient impetus for businesses to conserve water. The development of a water rights trading market is slow. The trade of water rights across the nation, especially in the south, and its role in the allocation of water resources has been very limited.

There is also a lack of measures in the water resources assessment mechanism to hold officials accountable, a sharp contrast to mechanisms in air and water pollution prevention and control. Governments at different levels have generally failed to roll out incentive policies and specific implementation rules to encourage saving water. Businesses that have been commended for water saving are not subject to substantive rewards.

A solution to the water waste in China, including long-existing and emerging problems, would rely on measures in four aspects.

First, it is important to come up with detailed rules to encourage water saving in the agricultural sector, industries and households and for ecological protection purposes to enable joint efforts from different departments and areas and to reduce potential conflict between the conservation of water resources and grain production, energy security, urban development and industrial growth.

Second, it is important to continue renovating and modernizing water-saving facilities in large and medium-sized irrigation areas and to promote the large-scale development of high-efficiency water-saving irrigated agriculture. The upgrading of industries with high water consumption should be accelerated to replace outdated water-use processes, technologies and equipment. The collection and use of rainwater in urban areas and the development of facilities for the recycling of sewage must be strengthened. In water-stressed regions, water meters should be installed for all rural households with access to tap water.

Third, it is important to improve the mechanism for generating water prices and roll out better incentive policies. A targeted subsidy system and incentive mechanism for water-saving actions should be established. A tiered water price system must be enforced in urban and rural areas with access to tap water services. It is important to establish a system that charges different prices for water from different sources to encourage and support the use of recycled water.

Fourth, the system that assesses and evaluates water saving behaviors must be established and improved. The indicators that caps total water use must be refined to prevent and reduce overuse. The government can borrow from the practice in the assessment of energy-saving and emission cuts and roll out a plan that uses water saving as part of the broader assessment of the performance of local authorities and leading government officials. A system that holds officials accountable for failing to assume their duties in water conservation can be piloted in some areas first before being promoted nationwide.

The author is director of the resources policy research office of the Institute for Resources and Environmental Policies at the Development Research Center of the State Council. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn