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Arguments - Intervention Possibilities
China's water situation is especially serious for two reasons. First, the distribution of people and arable land does not match the distribution of water resources. Whereas some 44% of the population and some 58% of the cultivated land are in Northern and Northeastern China, only 14.4% of the total water resources (surface runoff and groundwater) can be found in those regions (see Table 1). Second, water use efficiency is very low in all sectors, but particularly in irrigation. Experts have estimated that up to 60% of irrigation water is wasted through the traditional methods of flooding irrigation. There are also significant water losses due to outdated water supply infrastructure, particularly the large network of open irrigation canals. Maintenance of the water infrastructure and water management practices could also be improved. Surface Water Run-off and Water Availability by Population & Cultivated Land
Table 1
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) Water conservation and resource management
Obvious possibilities for improving China's water supply are the introduction of better technology, better management, stronger economic incentives to save water, and a more efficient resource development and distribution policy. China has water legislation concerning development, utilization, protection, management, and flood control, and there are also legal acts to deal with the prevention and control of water pollution. However, these measures so far have failed to significantly improve the situation, primarily due to inconsistent implementation, corruption, and weak enforcement. China could also introduce more powerful economic measures to promote rational use of water. Currently, a water resource fee is collected by some 16 provinces. In 1994 the collected fees amounted to some 450 million Yuan, a small fraction of the real value of the resource. There are many exceptions: farmers, for instance, do usually not have to pay a fee for irrigation water.
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) Inter-basin water transfer
While water conservation and better management of water rescues should have priority - because they can improve the situation in the short run - a water transfer from the south to the north is the only realistic solution for the scarcity of water resources in northern China. Large-scale projects have already been designed for this inter-basin water transfer, such as a canal between the Yangtze and the Yellow river. For China's economic development a sufficient and stable water supply to the major population and industrial centers in the north is absolutely essential. There are numerous examples from around the world - from California to the Persian Gulf states - which show that a well developed water supply infrastructure, often including long-distance water pipelines, is essential for economic development.
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) Spatial development plans
In the long run, it also makes sense to concentrate (water-intensive) industries and urban development projects in the south. The population density in China's southern and south-central provinces is significantly lower than in the northern provinces. As people move from the agricultural to the industrial and service sectors, they no longer have to live in areas with arable land. They could migrate to urban-industrial conglomerates in south China, where water availability is not a problem. 
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) Flood mitigation
Sometimes certain regions in China do not have a deficit, but a serious excess of water. A lot can be done to reduce this flooding risk. Basically two strategies are available:
(a) One can use natural flood plains, lakes or specifically designated lowland areas to take up excess water. These areas, such as the Jingjiang-Polder in Shashi, which was build in 1992, can be flooded intentionally as a preventive measure to protect cities, towns and valuable cropland downstream.
(b) The other strategy is to contain the flooded rivers in their beds by dams, which are continuously improved and defended in case of flooding.
Obviously, both strategies can be used simultaneously. However, in recent years China has increasingly applied the second strategy, because many polders and flood plains have been used for crop cultivation and settlements. With the increase in rural population density it will become more and more difficult for the authorities to devastate the fields and property of people in some rural areas by intentional flooding, just to protect wealthy cities downstream. Especially during the great flood of 1998 farmers strongly protested against the mitigation measure of large-scale flooding.
Some observers have argued that land reclamation - most seriously around the Dongting and Poyang lakes - have reduced the buffer capacity of lakes and flood plains and thus increased the risk of floods in China. However, numbers indicate, that dam-based flood mitigation can be at least as successful as the traditional use of polders and flood plains: In 1931 a flood killed some 145,000 people in China; 142,000 people drowned in 1935; and the death toll of a flood in 1954 was 33,000. However, the largest flood in recent years - the massive flooding of 1998 at the middle reaches of the Yangtze and along the Songhua in north-eastern China - "only" killed 3,000 people (Kron, W. 1998).
China's water shortage is not only a resource problem, but also a technical, economic, and political problem that could be solved (or at least greatly ameliorated) by adequate economic, administrative, and political measures. However, it is clear that these measures would require not only strong political initiatives, but also large amounts of investment capital.
Another problem is that some of these measures (such as more efficient pollution control) work against other development objectives, such as the industrial development. If China really wants to prevent its rivers and lakes from becoming waste dumps, clear political priorities have to be defined and a more active environmental policy and more powerful control agencies are necessary.
China has organized water supply and wastewater treatment tasks on the principle of communal self-reliance. Villages, towns, and cities are responsible for developing their own drinking water supply and sewage systems. The technical, administrative, and financial skills of the local administrations are not always sufficient to plan and implement large-scale systems. Typically, various branches of local administrations are involved, sometimes fighting against one another. It might help to give responsibility and planning authority for water resource development and wastewater treatment projects to specialized agencies at the prefecture or even at provincial level.
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Related Arguments

Water Resources:   Trends     Impact    Data Quality    Prediction Error    Intervention Possibilities    Intervention Costs

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Revision 2.0 (First revision published in 1999)  - Copyright 2011 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved. (First revision: Copyright 1999 by IIASA.)