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UPDATED: March 12, 2012 NO. 11 MARCH 15, 2012
Quenching Thirst
China adopts strict water management measures to prevent an acute water shortage
By Li Li

Shen Dajun, a professor at the School of Environment and Natural Resources of the Renmin University of China in Beijing, participated in the preparatory surveys for the drafting of the new State Council water policies. He said that the most groundbreaking clause is the one that annotates the performance evaluation of local government officials with the realization of water management goals, and hoped that local government heads would then be better motivated to monitor issues related to water resources.

South China's Guangdong Province has issued a local regulation on the implementation of the guideline. Mayors of the 21 largest cities in Guangdong will be evaluated on nine indicators of water management under three main categories­—water use, water use efficiency and wastewater discharge.

But many environmentalists still feared that the new water policies would have only a limited impact, since local officials in China have long prized GDP growth over meeting environmental targets.

Ma Jun, founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based environmental NGO, believes holding local governmental officials accountable for water resource issues is a step in the right direction while his main concern is that local governments might doctor figures simply to make themselves look better.

Ma said that he appreciated the last line of the new water policy that underlines the importance of inviting the public to participate in water resources management and increasing the transparency of decision-making.

He suggests that as the first step, environment and water resources authorities should publicize all the current statistics regarding total water use, water use efficiency and wastewater discharge for different sectors. Moreover, at the beginning of each year, water resources authorities should also publicize annual water use plans with quotas for different companies. "Thus the public can clearly identify which companies are the biggest water users and wasters," Ma said.

Where to push

China's total water use topped the benchmark of 600 billion cubic meters in 2010, five years earlier than originally planned. While the massive rise in water consumption has a lot to do with the country's rapid industrialization and urbanization, enormous waste by water-intensive industries means that there is considerable scope for conservation.

According to the China Youth Daily, Beijing has around 60 18-hole golf courses, which utilize large amounts of water for daily maintenance. Meanwhile, Beijing's average annual water availability is merely 100 cubic meters per capita, about one third of that of Israel, which is among the driest countries in the world.

China's water conservation potential is also enormous in the agricultural irrigation and industrial production sectors. Jiang Wenlai, a water expert from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said that China's agricultural water use efficiency is 20-30 percent lower than that of developed countries while its water use per 10,000 yuan ($1,583) of industrial added value is three times higher than the average level of developed countries.

In February, the tap water company of Guangzhou City filed an application to raise the price of water for residential use from 1.3 yuan ($0.21) to 2.02 yuan ($0.32) per cubic meter. A three-tiered progressive pricing system is also proposed, under which residential consumers who use a lot of water need to pay twice the base price for their extra consumption. A public hearing on water price adjustments was held on February 29, where most representatives agreed on the necessity of raising water prices to promote more conservation. After Xi'an in northwestern Shaanxi Province and Changsha in central Hunan Province, Guangzhou is about to become another large Chinese city that will use water price hikes to send a strong signal of conservation to its residents.

However, at the press conference on February 16, Zhou Xuewen, chief planner with the Ministry of Water Resources, said that the adoption of stricter water management policies would not limit water for residential use while domestic water conservation methods and equipment will be promoted.

Water experts also called on local authorities to be prudent in raising water prices.

Shen said that according to his research, most urban families with three members in China consume only 12 cubic meters of water per month and many families had already adopted conservation tips. He believes that as most ordinary families only tend to use only as much water as they need, price rises wouldn't lead to significant conservation benefits. "Higher water prices should be charged on water-intensive sectors, such as the papermaking industry, thermal power plants, ski resorts with artificial snow and golf facilities," he said.

Ma said that while water price hikes could stimulate conservation, residents who pay higher prices need to know for sure that their money is used to protect water resources instead of simply going to tap water companies' "windfall profits."

Residents have complained that at public hearings on water price adjustments in many cities, tap water companies failed to produce convincing accounting records to justify their demands for an increase.

"More expensive water should be for a better environment. For example, the public needs to know that the sewage treatment surcharge, which is part of the water price, is used for its purpose," Ma said. "Otherwise, they won't support a rise."

Email us at: lili@bjreview.com

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