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Growing more with less: China’s progress in agricultural water management and reallocation

Research report

Written by Julian Doczi, Roger Calow

Research report

​Since the early 1990s, China has experienced remarkable economic growth, lifting nearly 600 million people out of poverty. Investments in agricultural productivity post-1978 drove this growth, but also led to pollution and overuse of water resources. Nonetheless, China has since progressed toward more sustainable water management, particularly in agriculture. This case study focuses on China’s ability to get ‘more crop per drop’ by improving agricultural water use.

China’s water withdrawals per hectare of irrigated land have declined by 20% since the early 1990s, even in water-scarce northern China. This case study identifies four factors driving improvements: Chinese decision-makers’ balancing of needs for water for food versus growth; institutional and policy reform; major government investment; and local technical, economic and regulatory programmes. Challenges remain, especially mismatched incentives between national and local decision-makers, frustrating the achievement of ambitious environmental targets.

China’s progress offers lessons for other countries. For example, strong national leadership is necessary but not sufficient for environmental progress, even in a single-party state. Positive change requires ambition, innovation and investment of leaders and citizens at all levels. China’s experience highlights the importance of a problem-focused approach: using rewards and incentives, and clarifying roles, responsibilities and accountabilities among different users.

Julian Doczi, Roger Calow and Vanessa d’Alançon