Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
The Thirsty Dragon: China’s First-Ever 14FYP for Water Security

Via China Water Risk, a report on China’s 14 year plan for water security:

China’s first-ever 14FYP for Water Security signals that it is well ahead in water adaptation & the IPCC’s “climate resilient development”. 

  • Water = top priority for China’s next 100 years of development; Water 14FYP recognises the many & significant challenges with water (spatial distribution, economy ++)
  • Strong recognition of managing water from mountains-to-oceans plus strong fortifying of flood measures (1 in 100-200 years); In a way, you could look at it as an adaptation plan
  • Everything is covered with deep reforms across energy & industrial mix, transportation, new digital watersheds ++; China views water & nature as the backbone of its prosperity

Last year when we went looking for water in the 14 Five Year Plan (FYP), we felt optimistic as all indicators point to a firm commitment to an ecological civilisation where water plays a key role. And we are not disappointed with this year’s Two Sessions, which reiterated China’s commitments towards eco-civilisation, but it was the release of the first-ever 14FYP for Water Security (Water 14FYP) that shed any doubts that water was a top priority for China.

Water 14FYP is an ‘umbrella plan’ that holds together all water policies and actions 

Before we dive in, it is important to understand that the Water 14FYP sets out an ‘overall comprehensive plan’ for water in the next five years. So, it is not an individual plan per se but an ‘umbrella plan’ for all previous key water policies. These include the “Most Stringent Water Management System”, “Promoting Comprehensive Treatment of Groundwater Overexploitation” and “The Water Ten” to water permitsecological red lines/zoneswater resource tax and so on.

China’s first-ever Water 14 Five Year Plan signals that it is well ahead in water adaptation & the IPCC’s “climate resilient development”

In short, the plan provides a framework as to how China will approach water security in the future. This approach gives comfort that beyond ensuring a stable supply of water, China’s making holistic, regional and transformative efforts on the waterfront. Because water is how we will feel climate change, the Water 14FYP also signals that China is well ahead in water adaptation and the IPCC AR6 WG2’s “Climate Resilient Development” – more on this later.

This means that to get on top of the full extent of China’s efforts on water, you will need to read all the other plans. As we have written extensively on each of these key water policies, we will not go through them again here but instead, share 8 key water thoughts from this year’s ‘direction of travel’ from the Two Sessions as well as the Water 14FYP…

1. Water = top priority for the next 100 years of development

The first thing that springs to mind is that water is a #1 priority. Released by the NDRC and the Ministry of Water Resources, the Water 14FYP kicks off with reference to President Xi Jinping’s thoughts on water: “put water savings first, balance regional differences, strengthen systematic governance and push forth with a two-handed approach.” The two-hands refers to the complementary actions of using market forces and government regulations to allocate water resources efficiently and fairly.

With this, we know that the plan not only signals strong political will toward ensuring water security but that challenges due to the spatial distribution of water and the economy are also recognised. So naturally, as water is essential for growth, waternomic challenges are iterated in the plan: “The unique natural physical geography, climatic conditions, water resource characteristics and socio-economic conditions make our country one of the most demanding and difficult countries in the world to control water.” If you are not aware of China’s challenges, check out at-a-glance challenges in our infographics in the Big Picture.

Here, it is important to remember that the 14FYP sets the direction of travel for the next 100 years. The fact that a grand umbrella plan has been put in place with the Water 14FYP signals the importance of the resource for the next “100-year” phase – it is definitely needed to fuel China’s dream to build “a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful.”

2. Water is key to stability, rural revitalisation + food security

Stability is of paramount importance to China and water is a key ingredient for “ensuring stability”. Indeed, Premier Li Keqiang stressed the importance of “pursuing progress while ensuring stability” several times in his 2022 work report.

Water is also essential for agricultural and rural development and the Water 14FYP dovetails into China’s 2022 No.1 Central Document which focuses on rural revitalisation. Now that its population has been lifted out of absolute poverty, China is working to ensure that they don’t fall back into poverty.

There’s an entire section on rural conservancy & supporting modern agri (drought resistant seeds, aquaculture etc.)…

…both play a role in realising China’s ‘digital watershed’

The plan aims to strengthen the water supply guarantee for the 270 million rural population plus there is an entire section on rural water conservancy and “developing water-saving irrigation vigorously” to support high-quality and modern agricultural production. Agricultural water pollution due to excessive fertiliser use will also be dealt with and irrigation tech will be harnessed to improve all these efforts – monitoring agri water use and pollution plays a key part in realising China’s ‘digital watershed’ – more on this later.

Besides these, China will also be using crop mix to manage water, moving away from water intensive crops in stressed regions. Moreover, drought resistant seeds will be promoted to ensure food security plus to maximise water resource use, integrated farming such as the use of rice and aquaculture resulting in “double crops” is encouraged.

All these efforts to support China’s rice bowl will be increasingly important as climate change impacts both water availability and food production. So does the Water 14FYP deal with climate change? Yes, it does …

3. Water 14FYP is a holistic adaptation plan to ensure availability + protect against future shocks

The Water 14FYP does recognise that climate change exacerbates existing issues and creates new problems: “With economic and social development and the impact of global climate change, existing challenges for water security still need to be addressed, yet new emerging issues are becoming more and more urgent.“

Water lies at the heart of everything. We cannot survive without it yet climate change will make its availability more uncertain. This was made abundantly clear in the 2022 IPCC AR6 WG2 report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” – see 8 dire impacts here. Also, the IPCC says water is how we will feel most climate impacts. So going forward, we must simultaneously ensure water availability to survive and protect from acute shocks (e.g. blizzards/ storms/ floods/ droughts) and chronic trends (rising scarcity/ humidity/ seas).

Water 14FYP recognises climate change exacerbates water issues & addresses it with key adaptation tasks…

The first-ever 14FYP for Water Security does just that with key tasks that address core adaptation issues around water – from ensuring water supply to building resilience to water shocks. Ensuring water supply includes improving water savings, pipe leakages, irrigation, alternate supply source from diversion to reuse, outright bans in stress regions, tackling pollution plus more; whereas building resilience includes upping action on floods, droughts, soil erosion, watershed restoration & protection and so on.

The Water 14FYP also makes it clear that groundwater overexploitation and pollution are well understood; as is groundwater’s increasing vulnerability to climate change. For more on this, check out our World Water Day article on groundwater … in case you missed it this World Water Day is all about making the invisible visible.

Naturally, if water is well managed, cascading climate risks will also be curtailed as water is a trigger point for other impacts such as food, energy, economic growth, migration, disease and so on.  Therefore, in a way, you could look at the Water 14FYP as an adaptation plan.

If China can ‘control water’ it can limit its impacts from imminent water and water-related climate risk. This may sound grand but that is the plan … and the plan is holistic and transformative. For an idea of how grand, look no further than source protection as part of its “mountains-to-oceans” approach to managing rivers…

4. Grand protection plans – Ecological zones, China’s Water Tower & National Parks

We have long talked about the need to manage water from its source in the mountains to the oceans and there is a strong recognition of this is in the Water 14FYP which aims to “strengthen the protection and restoration of river source areas”. Specifically mentioned – “China’s Water Tower“, “Zoige Prairie Wetland“ and “Qinling” – important ecological zones for the Yellow and Yangtze.

Further downstream, the ecological protection of rivers and lakes will continue to be strengthened. Specifically, targets for ensuring the ecological flow of 282 key rivers and lakes will be set, and new water intake permits will be suspended in water stressed/scarce regions in the Yellow River basin. To facilitate ecological protection, cross-provincial eco-compensation mechanisms for key river basins will be established and national parks will be set up.

China’s first group of national parks made it into Li Keqiang’s work report alongside China’s mission to Mars

Here, it’s worth noting that China’s first group of national parks made it into Li Keqiang’s work report alongside China’s mission to Mars. Five national parks that are home to nearly 30% of key terrestrial wildlife species in the country have been established; one of these is Sanjiangyuan, the source region of 3 key rivers – the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong.

There are plans afoot to add more. Last year, Premier Li’s expressed in his 2021 work report that China aims to “move faster to build major ecological shields, develop a national park-based nature reserve system, and expand forest coverage to 24.1 % of China’s total land area.” By 2025, nature reserves and national parks are expected to account for more than 18% of the national land area plus 100 million mu (6.7mn hectares/ 67,000 sqkm) will receive desertification land treatment.

These are grand efforts – land treated for desertification alone is half the size of England and China’s nature reserves and national parks will eventually protect areas larger than France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and the UK combined.

5. Ramping up resilience for water shocks with inland & coastal flood defences

In 2021, record-high rains in Zhengzhou, Henan brought huge losses to China. Not surprising then that the Water 14FYP includes adaptation measures such as reinforcing flood control infrastructure, strengthening embankments of key rivers, lakes and reservoirs and realising adequate flood plains.

The new flood protection targets have also been set to withstand one in 100-200 years flood levels to “ensure the safety of people’s lives, property and stable operation of economy and society”. Building flood resilience in the Water 14FYP starts from the mountain source regions, rural areas to large urban areas along the rivers to coastal cities; again, echoing a mountains-to-oceans approach.

Coastal regions that “are economically developed, densely populated, with high social wealth” will be prioritised for defences against coastal flooding including storm surges. These include important cities, economic zones and critical infrastructure in coastal areas.

Again, the action is transformative. To reduce and prevent damages and disruptions from future record-breaking floods, China will move to centralise flood control protection for flood zones covering an area of 800,000 sqkm; upping protection for the 860 million people who live there. For a size perspective, this is centralised flood control zone is larger than the land area of Turkey.

819 flash-flood-prone valleys have also been identified for action. Other innovative measures such as using digital watersheds for flood control and forecasting in major rivers basins are also on the task list…more on this in later in ‘digital watershed’.

The Water 14FYP also notes that controlling floodwaters by optimising flood storage and retention zones can help buffer water supply and food production against external shocks; China can continue agricultural production despite floods or droughts. More resilience means fewer shocks, which means more stability and more stability in both water and food supply is what it’s all about. To deliver this, the whole watershed will need to be monitored effectively which brings us to the next point…

6. Governance strategies: Building ‘Digital Watersheds’ & using ‘Rivers Chiefs’ and litigation

None of the above, be it ensuring supply, ecological protection or flood/drought prevention work without governance which is pervasive throughout the Water 14FYP. Besides improving government efficiencies and reform, updating standards, ensuring compliance and so on, the plan expands on monitoring innovations.

These innovations include the full monitoring of its watersheds from mountains-to-oceans using new technologies from 5G, remote sensing to unmanned ships and underwater robots. China’s aim is to accelerate the construction of ‘digital watersheds’ for all its major river basins/water sources. There are currently two digital watershed pilots to monitor key flood control areas in the Huai and Hai Rivers; when successful, they will be replicated to other regions.

It is important to note that these digital watersheds are not just early warning systems. Beyond flood defence systems, they also help build data to strengthen China’s water conservancy information network. Ultimately, digital watersheds will help monitor, forecast and manage water resources more efficiently – from the allocation of water use/discharge permits, preventing & controlling pollution, improving water quality to maximising irrigation savings.

The public is also tapped for this grand monitoring exercise. An example of this is the “River Chief System” – an institutional innovation by China to curb water pollution by assigning more than one million “river and lake chiefs” to keep all rivers and lakes free of visible pollution. According to the Water 14FYP, more than 164,000 violations and problems have been solved since the programme started in 2018. The overall national surface water quality has also improved steadily.

Besides public participation in water governance, China is also promoting public interest litigation relating to environmental and ecological protection to test the new laws. In 2020, there has been a surge in public interest environmental lawsuits in China – the courts saw 103 public interest environment lawsuits initiated by social organisations; another 3,454 environmental suits were brought by prosecutors. These rates were up by 78% and 82%, respectively compared to the previous year.

With more cases expected in the future, China has built 1,993 judicial institutions specialising in handling lawsuits on environmental-related cases. As you can see, China’s ramping up on multiple fronts and on all fronts it is transformative. But this is not just the Water 14FYP …

7. It’s transformative! Read it with the 14FYP, the AR6 WG2 & Climate Resilient Development Report

With an entire plan dedicated to water adaptation, we argue that China is already one-step ahead on adaptation. But there is more …China is already practising “Climate Resilient Development” touted by the AR6 WG2 in its “grand redesign” of China … not just in the Water 14FYP but in the actual 14FYP.

Adaptation and transformation are built-in to every aspect of the 14FYP with the overall guidance of reaching an “ecological civilisation” and achieving “common prosperity” – these are very much in line with the AR6 WG2’s values of protecting ecosystems, the vulnerable, avoiding inequitable outcomes and equitable adaptation.

14FYP covers it all – deep reforms across energy mix, resource management, industrial mix, transportation, city hub & more…

So it’s not just the Water FYP but the entire 14FYP is indeed transformative demanding deep reforms across all areas. From energy mix, resource management, optimising industrial mix and management, high quality development, agricultural reform, transportation and city hubs to societal transformation as well as ecological protection and restoration – the 14FYP covers it all; and water is an integral part of this next-phase development.

It is important to understand this because the 14FYP for Water Security should not be read in isolation; it is linked to other development plans – if you have not read it, we recommend you check out the 14FYP here in Chinese or here in English.

Another point to note here is financing, a key stumbling block to effective adaptation. The Water 14FYP includes financing mechanisms such as eco-compensation, differentiated tariffs, water resource tax and permits (use & discharge) to help facilitate better allocation of water resources.

And, it is innovative: for water scarce regions where no new water permits will be issued due to over exploitation of water resources, the Water 14FYP encourages water rights trading to help meet new water use demand, without adding new pressure to local water resources. Pilot REITS for water infrastructure projects will also be conducted in future – this is a whole new world.

8. Philosophy matters! People-first = low-regret adaptation + Water is the backbone of China’s prosperity

China’s strive towards an ecological civilisation and common prosperity (aka Climate Resilient Development) is not going away, but here to stay. Another advantage in a changing climate is China’s people-centric philosophy, which was on full display during COVID.

People-first means that China will always use low-regret scenarios when planning resilience. This means it will always opt for transformative over incremental adaptation which would stand it in better stead for accelerating and intensifying climate risks ahead.

China really does view water & nature as the backbone of its prosperity

This is good news for water, the resource most vulnerable to climate change. But people-first also means water-first, as no water, no food. So while China may be slow at getting there (it is 1.4bnn people after all), it is not greenwashing when it comes to water – it really does view water and nature as the backbone of China’s prosperity.

In case you are still doubting, seeing water or nature as a ‘backbone’ to development was entrenched in President Xi’s 2022 New Year Speech – he dedicated more words to water and nature than the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macao …

“A Yellow River well harnessed is a millennia-long aspiration of the Chinese people. Over the past few years, I have visited all nine provinces or autonomous regions on the upper, middle and lower streams of the Yellow River. From the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, two “mother rivers” of the Chinese nation, to the limpid Qinghai Lake and the mighty Yarlung Zangbo River; from the South-North Water Diversion, known as a project of the century, to the Saihanba forest, shown as a patch of green on the map; from the northward trek and homecoming of elephants in Yunnan Province, to the migration and return of Tibetan antelopes — all these remind us that “If we do not fail Nature, Nature shall never fail us””

President Xi Jinping, 2022 New Year Speech

“Mother Rivers” are central to the prosperity of the Chinese civilisation and it will do whatever it takes to protect them. Essentially, the Water 14FYP is here to ensure that China does not fail water, so that water does not fail the Chinese people for the next 100 years.

Climate change means that there will be choppy times ahead, but if executed well, this Water 14FYP “adaptation plan” will set China up for “smoother sailing” in the future.



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