Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Hiroyuki Konuma

FAO Regional Representative for Asia-Pacific


He Changchui
Assistant Director-General and
Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific
Delivered at the
Special Session of China Development Forum
China: Building a Resource Efficient Society
Beijing, China, June 2005

Mr Chairperson
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear participants,

It is indeed a great pleasure to be invited to participate in this special session of the China Development Forum to share experiences and exchange ideas on water conservation with scholars and officials from both China and other parts of the world, as well as colleagues from international agencies.

Water is the lifeline of human beings. The eight Millennium Development Goals and its 18 targets, agreed upon by all 191 United Nations Member States at the Millennium Summit in 2000, are interdependent. In particular water issues – one of the themes of this forum – closely relate to the goals of halving by 2015 the proportion of the world’s poor whose income is less than $1/day and the undernourished people, reducing by half the proportion of people who are unable to reach or afford safe drinking water and improved sanitation and stopping the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources.

Agriculture consumes some 80 percent of fresh water withdrawals in the world and will continue to be the largest water user. Outputs from irrigated areas, comprising only 20 percent of all arable land, account for 40 percent of all crop production and almost 60 percent of cereal production in developing countries. Many of the 852 million undernourished people in the world live in water-scarce regions; 519 million of those live in developing countries in Asia and the Pacific region. To ensure future food security, FAO projects a 14 percent increase of agricultural water withdrawals in 93 developing countries, and 45 million ha in the net expansion of the global irrigation area from 2000 to 2030. Irrigation is expected to contribute 70 percent of the increase of world cereal production.

More than two million people in developing countries, most of them children, die each year from diseases associated with unsafe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. Given the projected growth of the world's population each year, 100 million and 125 million additional people need to gain access to improved water supply and sanitation, respectively, by 2015. Hydropower is an important energy source, especially small hydropower systems in rural areas where it can be a sustainable, clean alternative, while large hydropower dams may be more problematic. Of the approximately two billion people worldwide without access to electricity, many live in rural or peri-urban areas. It is expected that, worldwide, small hydropower systems will grow by a further 60 percent by 2010.

Increased competition in water use, continuous degradation of land and water resources, frequent occurrence of water-related disasters and the rapid deterioration of the environment and ecosystem are today’s common concerns of governments, civil society, and related international organizations. Overuse and misuse of fresh water has caused water shortages, wastage and contamination. Rivers and lakes in many parts of the world are already polluted or severely degraded as a result of diminishing natural ecosystems. The decline in the quantity and quality of water resources is causing the extinction of freshwater species and a severe loss of biodiversity. It is expected that, by 2025, 3.4 billion people will be living in countries defined as water-scarce.

The United Nations has declared this year as the beginning of the “Water for Life” decade to promote efforts to fulfill international commitments made on water and water-related issues for reaching the MDG targets by 2015, and to build the foundation for further progress in the years beyond. The UN assembly has called upon the relevant United Nations bodies, specialized agencies, regional commissions and other organizations of the United Nations to deliver a coordinated response, utilizing existing resources and voluntary funds, to make “Water for Life” a “decade for action”. China is a giant country and an important partner of FAO. China’s rapid economic growth and social development have attracted worldwide attention and appreciation. Meanwhile, the phenomenal conflict between population, resources and environment – an issue which is commonly faced by many developing countries today – is also causing increasing concern. Naturally, a good understanding of and better responses to China’s water issues will benefit not only China itself, but also the whole region and the world community.

Through longtime efforts, especially in the past two decades or more following the reform and opening-to-the-outside-world policies, China has made great achievements in water resources development and conservation. Feeding 22 percent of the world's population with only 6 percent of the world's renewable water resources and 7 percent of the world's arable land – as well as the lifting of 200 million people in rural areas out of poverty in the short time span of 20 years – is a testimony to its success. The contribution of China to world poverty alleviation and food security is remarkable.

However, in the course of building a harmonious society with sustainability, China will face multiple challenges, especially regarding floods and waterlogging, water shortages, water pollution and the degradation of the environment and ecosystem. FAO has noticed that new guiding principles and innovative strategies on water conservation have been proposed and practiced in recent years in China. These include facilitating transfer from traditional demand-driven to supply-driven management, enhancing institutional reforms, emphasizing integrated water resources management, advocating water valuation through a market approach, promoting technical innovation for greater efficiency and productivity and stressing water quality and environmental protection. These principles and guidelines indeed coincide well with sustainable development and the Millennium Development Goals.

In further addressing water issues, broad-based policies and wide-ranging programmes will have to be launched looking ahead to 2015 – the MDG target time frame – hinging around the following dimensions:

1. Stakeholders participation and joint efforts toward a water-saving society

With only 2 200 cubic meter of average annual water resources per capita, water shortage is a major challenge in China. After more than two decades of rapid economic development and urbanization, competition for water is already a stark reality. By 2020, the population of China will increase to about 1.45 billion while gross domestic production will be double that of the year 2000, water competition is bound to become more acute. Establishing a water-saving society has become crucial, and the participation of civil society will play a critical role in achieving water saving goals. Long-term endeavors to raise public awareness and joint efforts by various stakeholders on legal, political, institutional, managerial and technical aspects are necessary.

At the macro level, national and river basin economic scales and structures need to be adjusted in accordance with water availability. This calls for the establishment of macro control targets of water use through formulation of national and river basin strategies and plans for water development and allocation. Better established legislation, institutions, water-rights, water monitoring and control systems, and broader social awareness will safeguard their smooth implementation.

At the micro level, water use efficiency and productivity of each individual product need to be promoted. This calls for the establishment of a water consumption codex through formulation of technical standards. Experimental study, water-saving modernization, financial incentives and technical innovation will be the major options.

Special attention should to be paid to the role of the agricultural sector in water saving, as agriculture will remain as the biggest water consumer in China (as well as in the rest of the world). The potential for water-saving in the agricultural sector is significant. From 1998 to 2004, China invested US$10 billion in irrigation rehabilitation and water-saving irrigation pilot projects. So far, China has developed 21.3 million ha of high efficiency irrigation areas. In addition, non-engineering water-saving technologies, such as rice water-saving irrigation, were extended to over 20 million irrigation areas. Nationwide, irrigation water use efficiency was promoted by around 10 percent during the past ten years. From 1980 to 2000, the total irrigation area in China increased by 6.7 million ha while the total irrigation water use amount remained at about 350 billion cubic meter and the share of irrigation water use as a percentage of total national water use declined from 85 to 63 percent. In the coming decade, China has projected that it will maintain future food security with the current amount of total irrigation water use.

This will require more efforts in irrigation modernization through adoption of modernized design concepts, rehabilitation and upgrading of infrastructure systems, management reform, technical innovations and capacity building. FAO’s experience shows that – combined with water harvesting, deficit irrigation, good agriculture practices and conservancy farming – productive water use can be realized in both rainfed and irrigated agriculture.

2. Strengthened implementation in protecting water and the environment

Overdraft, water pollution and soil erosion are identified as the three major factors causing water-related environmental and ecosystem problems in China. Overdraft has resulted in 72 underground water depression cones in the whole country, with a total area of 61 000 squared km. Water bodies in 47 percent of the river courses and 75 percent of the lakes are polluted. The current area of soil erosion in the whole country is 3.56 million squared km, accounting for 37 percent of the national land area. Basic legislation and policies have been formulated and implemented to tackle these issues, but the performance is not always so perfect owing to the lack of a holistic approach.

This requires designing and implementing integrated policies that address environmental and economic concerns in a mutually supportive and balanced manner. Legislation and laws as well as clearly defined property rights and institutional arrangements may be needed, especially for integrated water resources management. Restrictive measures could be adopted for water pollution control. Hydropower projects need detailed environmental and socio-economic impact assessment as part of the planning process. Agriculture irrigation needs to be integrated into basin-level water resources management to secure optimal supply, sustainable use and integrated management of water resources. Integrated pest management could be adopted to reduce the pollution of surface and groundwater bodies by agricultural chemical inputs. Livestock and agro-processing industries should also reduce their ecosystem impact and become good water citizens.

3. More help to marginalized groups for an equitable society

Social balance has become a hot topic in China in recent years. The majority of the undernourished, poor and those who lack access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation in China are minority groups living in mountainous, remote or boundary areas with harsh natural conditions. Lack of water is the root cause of their poverty. Government programmes for developing small hydropower and drinking water projects, especially during the past five years, which have provided drinking water to more than 50 million rural people are fine examples of ways to improve the livelihoods of marginalized groups. Pilot polder dam projects and fodder irrigation projects are also under construction in the middle reach of the Yellow River and grazing areas, respectively. Still, 300 million people in China today lack access to safe drinking water.

The increasing disparity between urban and rural areas and eastern and western areas has further marginalized vulnerable groups, which could be a cause of concern. More attention needs to be paid to marginalized people, especially those living in the Yellow Plateau areas, where grazing areas are facing rapid desertification and where serious soil problems exist. Experimental results during the past ten years show that every one ha of irrigated fodder irrigation land could protect 20–100 ha of nature grassland. Basic water conservation projects in these areas are essential win-win options to secure food security and promote the livelihoods of these marginalized groups, while protecting the local environment and ecosystem, safeguarding social balance and stability, and maintaining cultural diversification.

4. Participatory approach toward integrated water resources management

Integrated river basin plans, which are under formulation, are a must under the national water laws. In the course of detailed planning, programming and implementation of these plans, cooperation among all stakeholders is key for success. The introduction of strategic planning and management approaches, recently adopted by China, will also play an important role. China has long adopted a participatory approach in engineering construction and management of water conservancy projects. During the past five decades, government departments mobilized hundreds of millions of farmers every year to work on water conservancy construction projects nationwide, which formed the basic foundation of the current water conservancy system. More than 20 million small water projects are managed by farmers individually or collectively and many large and medium scale water projects are jointly managed by specialized organizations and mass organizations

With exacerbated water competition and deterioration of the environment and ecosystem owing to reckless development, there is a need for a paradigm shift towards integrated water resources management. Establishment of a water rights system and adoption of water valuation, development of water users’ organizations from the river basin level down to the project level need to be further pursued and improved in order to better coordinate and monitor all stakeholders’ accountability, obligations and rights. Transparent governance and participatory approach are essential. Involving various water users at all levels in the appraisal, planning, construction and management of water projects and empowering stakeholders to make their own decisions on water related issues is the key for building a water saving society.

5. User-oriented water services for the changing economy

Most irrigation projects in China were developed in the 1950–60s and are designed for staple food production. After several decades’ operation, a considerable number of facilities are degraded and damaged. Yet drainage systems in many areas and water control systems in most small rivers are not completed. The rapid urbanization and establishment of various types of agricultural zones – agro-business zones, agro-tourism zones and modern agricultural zones – has pressed faster structural adjustments and crop diversification. These changes call for more flexible, reliable, and equitable and multiple water services, underpinning the need for public–private partnerships in water management

From 1999 to 2001, China’s food crop area was reduced by 5.3 million ha while the cash crop area increased by 5.9 million ha. Agricultural planting in China is now shifting from prevalently staple foods to a more balanced combination of food crops, cash crops and fodders. In the food crops area, the planting area for high quality and characteristic species continues to expand towards developing regionalized and specialized production systems. Some irrigation systems have become important water suppliers to cities, enterprises and even tourism areas.

The water sector therefore needs to respond to these changing requirements quickly by establishing appropriate policies and operational measures in accordance with the principle of integrated river basin planning and management, and technologies for water use efficiency and productivity, giving consideration to water supply flexibility, reliability, and equity, environmental and cultural issues. This calls for decentralized, community-based participatory management innovation and rapid rehabilitation, completion and upgrading of infrastructure systems. FAO is impressed by the progress that China has made in management reform – 35 percent of small water projects operate through contract services, leasing, sale and stocks, and there is still some way to go.

6. Increased inputs into the water sector

Lack of investment has been identified by the international community as the major factor delaying response to the major water issues in the world. On its way to industrialization, China faces both challenges and opportunities. With its robust economic development, and macro control capability, China enjoys a much stronger capacity to finance urgent and priority water conservancy projects. While increased public investment is essential, including in particular support to initiatives on social welfare and regional equity, incentive policies and mechanisms could be provided to encourage and attract donor communities, farmers and the private sector to develop water projects and water saving technologies by ensuring a set level of financial returns. As practiced in some areas in China recently, water pricing, management transfer, sanitation facilities and sewage treatment, and small project management reform could be options. Marketing of water rights could help facilitate private sector investment towards more sustainable, efficient and productive water use.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Improved irrigation and water management, integrated watershed management, high efficiency water use, water quality and environment protection and related water resources policies and institutional reforms are the priority areas for FAO. Early this year an International Conference on Water for Food and Ecosystems was jointly organized by the Government of the Netherlands and FAO in Hague, which identified specific actions to enable integrated management of water for food and ecosystems. FAO is highly interested in the good practice and successful experiences gained by the Chinese government in sustainable agriculture and water saving, from policy to legislation, programme development to operational implementation. FAO, with its global mandates and worldwide experience, stands ready to further strengthen the cooperation with the Government of China in reaching the Millennium Goals of food security and poverty alleviation.

Ladies and gentlemen,

To conclude, let me quote the statement of Mr. Kofi A. Annan, the UN Secretary-General, in his address at the launch of the “water for life” decade on 2005 World Water Day: “the world’s water resources are our lifeline for survival, and for sustainable development in the twenty-first century. Together, we must manage them better”.