Volume 36, Issue 4

July 2020
Special Issue on Innovative and Transformative Water Policies and Management in China

Research Article

Innovative and transformative water policy and management in China

Yahua Wanga, Xun Wub and Cecilia Tortajadac

aSchool of Public Policy and Management, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China; bDivision of Public Policy, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, China; cInstitute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Contact: Yahua Wang | Email: wangyahua@mail.tsinghua.edu.cn


China has made substantial progress in transforming water governance to respond to water crises and to support rapid socioeconomic development. We aim to critically and comprehensively analyze important innovations in managerial approaches, as well as new developments and associated challenges in water policies, by bringing together cutting-edge research and best practices on water resources management in contemporary China. The key lessons drawn from the transformation include improving relationships among government, market and civil society in terms of water governance, as well as introducing innovative solutions to water challenges according to the specific contexts.

Pages: 565–572


Research Article

A portfolio of China’s urban water governance sector: administrative system, coordination problems and policy evolution

Shaofeng Jiaa, Dalong Lia,b and Raymond Yu Wangc

aKey Laboratory of Water Cycle and Related Land Surface Processes/Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing; bSchool of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing; cCenter for Social Sciences, Southern University of Science and Technology, Shenzhen, China

Contact: Shaofeng Jia | Email: jiasf@igsnrr.ac.cn


Urban water governance in China has received increasing academic and policy attention owing to frequent urban water crises. Drawing on documentary analysis and field investigations, this article analyzes the administrative system and recent policy developments visà-vis urban water governance in China. It demonstrates the main problems of, and mechanisms for, interdepartmental and interjurisdictional coordination, and reviews new policy instruments addressing urgent urban water governance issues. The article argues that coordination mechanisms such as the river chief system are promising but their long-term effectiveness remains to be clarified, and more attention should be paid to policy enforcement and market mechanisms.

Pages: 573–589


Research Article

Water use control system in China

Dajun Shen, Ali Guna and Xiaodan He

School of Environment and Natural Resources, Renmin University of China, Beijing

Contact: Dajun Shen | Email: dajunshen@yahoo.com


China is developing a complicated three-aspect water use control system. Spatially, the system includes river basin, province, prefecture, county, permit, and individual users; temporally, it consists of annual average and annual/seasonal frameworks; and in terms of management objectives, it combines abstraction, consumption and use. Technical consistency is required in volume, space, timing, management and reliability. Application in the Yellow River basin reveals consistency problems in targets, indicators, timings and control periods. We suggest improving the system by addressing temporal and spatial inconsistencies, reforming management systems and procedures, strengthening research, and developing a water accounting system.

Pages: 590–609


Research Article

River chief system as a collaborative water governance approach in China

Yahua Wang and Xiangning Chen

School of Public Policy and Management, China Institute for Rural Studies, Tsinghua University, Beijing

Contact: Yahua Wang | Email: wangyahua@mail.tsinghua.edu.cn


Despite the various water management explorations in China over the past three decades, China’s water problems remain challenging. Recently the Chinese government introduced the river chief system, a collaborative water governance approach, as an update to the previous water management system. We analyze this reform by establishing an analytical framework based on collaborative governance theory. The analysis argues that the institutional context and motivations are the external conditions influencing the collaborative governance regime and thus the outcomes of the river chief system. We conclude that the system provides effective water management tackling collaborative issues in the Chinese context, but its long-term effects and sustainability remain to be determined.

Pages: 610–630


Research Article

Public–private partnerships in the water sector in China: a comparative analysis

Neng Qiana, Schuyler Houseb, Alfred M. Wuc and Xun Wud

aInstitute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore; bInfrastructure Group, World Bank; cLee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore; dDivision of Public Policy, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Contact: Xun Wu | Email: wuxun@ust.hk


China has emerged as one of the world’s most active markets for public–private partnerships (PPP) in the water sector, while the pace of such development globally has slowed in recent years. This article investigates the dynamics of the development of PPP projects in the Chinese water sector through comparative case studies. Our findings suggest that the unwavering pursuit of PPPs as a policy instrument by the central government, water sector reforms and the effective implementation of local governments are among key factors driving the impressive growth of PPP projects in China.

Pages: 631–650


Research Article

The Chinese characteristics of payments for ecosystem services: a conceptual analysis of water eco-compensation mechanisms

Raymond Yu Wanga, Cho Nam Ngb and Xiaoxing Qia

aCenter for Chinese Public Administration Research, School of Government, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, P.R. China; bDepartment of Geography, University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam

Contact: Xiaoxing Qi | Email: uniop@126.com


The applications of payments for ecosystem/environmental services (PES) are diverse. However, the changing characteristics of these applications in different contexts have not been adequately elucidated. This article provides a conceptual analysis of China’s water eco-compensation mechanism (ECM), a notion reported in the PES literature, through the lens of public–private, state–market, central–local and interjurisdictional relationships. It argues that the water ECM is essentially a statecentric utilitarian approach to mediating regional conflicts and inequalities. The Chinese practices of water ECM indicate an alternative approach to incentive-based conservation, highlighting the potential of integrating government-led instruments with market-oriented mechanisms in the development of a PES framework.

Pages: 651–669


Research Article

Groundwater irrigation and management in northern China: status, trends, and challenges

Jinxia Wanga,b,, Yuting Jiangb,c, Huimin Wanga, Qiuqiong Huangd and Hongbo Dengb,c

aChina Center for Agricultural Policy, School of Advanced Agricultural Sciences, Peking University, Beijing, China; bInstitute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China; cUniversity of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China; dDepartment of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, USA

Contact: Jinxia Wang | Email: jxwang.ccap@pku.edu.cn


This study uses panel data from the North China Water Resources Survey in 2004 and 2016 to update the status of groundwater. In the past two decades, groundwater irrigation has spread to more villages, but declining groundwater tables and deterioration in water quality have become more serious. Some policy measures (well-drilling permits, water quotas, water resources fees) have been implemented in an increasing number of villages, but they still only reached a small fraction of villages. Some of the responses by farmers to these challenges have accelerated groundwater extraction. Policy efforts are needed to improve the effectiveness of policy implementation and enhance sustainable groundwater use.

Pages: 670–696


Research Article

How to promote effective irrigation pricing reform in northern China? Insights from the Taocheng District

Sicheng Chena, Yahua Wanga and Jesper Svenssonb

aSchool of Public Policy and Management, China Institute for Rural Studies, Tsinghua University, Beijing; bSchool of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, UK

Contact: Yahua Wang | Email: wangyahua@mail.tsinghua.edu.cn


There has been a growing interest in understanding the enabling conditions for the adoption of irrigation pricing reform worldwide. We enrich the literature on policy diffusion by comparing the effects of different mobilization patterns in northern China, showing how differences in incentives have hampered or fostered the spread of a collect-and-refund policy in Taocheng District. We find that the mobilization pattern of water authorities, with limited fiscal resources and weak political influence, provided little incentive for local authorities to adopt the policy. By contrast, the mobilization pattern of government chiefs mobilized local authorities to spread the policy
across larger scales.

Pages: 697–715


Research Article

Joint analysis of water rights trading and water-saving management contracts in China

Hui Guoa, Xiangdong Chenb, Jiahong Liuc, Hongjiang Zhanga and Jesper Svenssond

aSchool of Soil and Water Conservation, Beijing Forestry University, China; bChina Water Exchange, Beijing; cState Key Laboratory of Simulation and Regulation of Water Cycle in River Basin, China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, Beijing; dSmith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford, UK

Contact: Hongjiang Zhang | Email: asoka_v@163.com


Water rights trading and water-saving management contracts are important market-oriented means to promote water conservation. This study integrates them together for a joint analysis, and puts forward a new way to optimize market-oriented water-saving services in China. This is to establish a water-saving management contracts-based water rights trading mechanism, that is, to allow trading of water saved under a management contract. We have two main findings. First, water-saving management contracts and water rights trading are highly compatible and interrelated. Second, water rights trading can be integrated into the implementation of water-saving management contracts and thereby promote their application.

Pages: 716–737


Research Article

Freshwater use in China: relations to economic development and natural water resources availability

Siao Suna, Chao Baoa,b and Chuanglin Fanga,b

aKey Laboratory of Regional Sustainable Development Modeling, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing; bCollege of Resources and Environment, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing

Contact: Siao Sun | Email: suns@igsnrr.ac.cn


Understanding the patterns and driving factors of water use is vital for developing adequate and sustainable water management strategies. This study examines the relations of provincial freshwater use in China to economic development and natural water availability in both space and time. The panel data model fitting results indicate that temporal variability of per capita total and sectoral water use shows an environmental Kuznets curve and is negatively correlated with water availability. In space, water availability has a significant positive effect on provincial water use. The results aids in diagnosing historical water use and elucidating relevant policy implications.

Pages: 738–756