November 3, 2014, by Katharine Adeney

Running Dry: Water, Agriculture and Climate Change in China

Written by Christine E. Boyle.

Conflicting reports on the state of China’s agricultural water use situation range from statements that China’s water shortages threaten the future food security of the nation, to optimistic reports that China’s potential gains for water use efficiency spell out great opportunity for reaching more sustainable water-use rates, and stabilizing grain production.[1] Recent climate change projections spell out increased vulnerability of land, people, and the environment, unless the nation invests heavily in adaption.

Between the dissenting viewpoints, there is general consensus that China’s current agricultural water use practices are unsustainable and without major improvements in water-use patterns, water shortages, especially in China’s north, threaten future economic development. At present, China’s irrigation water use efficiency remains among the world’s lowest.  While overall water efficiency has been slow to improve, change is occurring at the local level as agricultural communities respond both to policy changes and the realities of water scarcity.

2011 represented a turning point in China’s agricultural water use sector. Massive government investments to the order of 4 trillion Yuan by 2020, alongside the central government’s elevation of water conservation to the nations’ top development priorities in the No. 1 Policy Document and the 12th Five Year Plan point to the gravity of the water situation and the commitment of the government to address the challenges. The 12th Five Year Plan and the No. 1 Policy Document of 2011 each lay out a strategic blueprint for how China plans to resolve its agricultural water use ills and together signal a decisive commitment to the water use sector to a degree not seen since the early decades of the People’s Republic of China. From 2012 – 2014, the No. 1 Policy Documents further strengthened the nation’s resolve to modernize agriculture and maintain the current policy of 95% domestic supply of grain.

Increasing “Crop per Drop”

More than half of China’s cultivated land is irrigated.[2] And despite recent influxes in investment, China’s irrigation efficiency remains low, estimated at 0.46 in 2006,[3] a level that is much lower than most developed countries. Improving the current irrigation system’s water use efficiency is important because China’s water resource availability is among the lowest in the world. The most recent estimate of China’s annual renewable internal freshwater resources per capita is 2,093 cubic meters,[4] which is far below the estimated world average of 8,349 cubic meters.[5]

In addition, northern China has only 21% of the country’s water endowment,[6] making improving irrigation infrastructure in northern China particularly urgent. My recent study with colleagues at the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy found that cooperative investment in irrigation infrastructure between farmers and local water resource bureaus is proving an effective partnership to improve efficiency, but investment levels remain very low (US$78/ha over a three-year period).[7]

China’s Immunity to Drought

According to national statistics, drought and flood events since 2004 have not affected national grain production levels (See Figure 1). In fact, in 2009 amidst a number of severe drought events in the southeast, annual grain output increased by 0.4 percent from the previous year. Although national grain data has been noted for its questionable reliability, there are more practical reasons for the apparent resilience of China’s crop harvests.

graph christine

Figure 1: Flood and Drought Disaster Assistance and Grain Production (2004 – 2009)

The Chinese government has become adept at minimizing crop shortfalls by employing extreme measures such as transporting irrigation water from nearby water sources, mainly rivers, to the dry fields. During central China’s drought in the summer 2011, the government invested 800 million Yuan (USD 120 million) in emergency funding to repair and dig over 30,000 irrigation wells in Shandong Province, the nation’s second-biggest wheat producer. Hebei Province, on the other hand, transferred 70 million cubic meters of water from the Yellow River to irrigate its fields, typically watered by summer rainfall. While successful in reducing crop shortfalls in the short term, such reactive steps will not forestall future crop losses and, when assessed from a strategic viewpoint, comprise a highly fragmented approach to drought management as well as being expensive and limited in scale.

China is in the early stages of carrying out a comprehensive strategy to minimize the harmful impacts of ever-more-frequent drought and flood cycles. In 2011 China’s State Council introduced several policies to help mitigate risks around grain production, which include “Action to Stabilize Grain Production” and a series of “Spring Drought Management” policies, backed by a 12.9 billion Yuan fund. The policies feature a plan of action focused on minimizing risks related to extreme weather events such as restoring ecological buffers along waterways to reduce landslide risks, promoting water-saving technologies for irrigation, use of drought-resistant seed varieties, introducing crop insurance for farmers, and educating farmers on how to mitigate drought risks on their own land plots. The effectiveness of these policies has yet to be realized.

China’s Vulnerability to Climate Change

Despite drought resilience to date via ad hoc measures, a McKinsey report found that China’s agricultural sector remains highly vulnerable to climate change, estimating that China must spend up to 25 billion Yuan annually between 2010 and 2030 to counter the effects of drought and avoid substantial agricultural losses.[8] The aforementioned measures initiated in 2011 indicate that China is heeding the call for disaster mitigation, although it is too early to assess how the 2011 actions will be implemented.

China’s physical characteristics alone make it highly vulnerable to weather-related extremes. 22,909 of the nation’s rivers have a catchment area of more than 100 km2, while 2,221 have areas exceeding 1,000 km2. Uneven seasonal and spatial distribution of precipitation results in the regular occurrences of floods, while droughts are also common, especially in China’s arid north. Its southern coastline sits in the direct line of the northern Pacific typhoon system compounding its physical complexity through a number of socioeconomic factors. Currently 1.35 billion people live in the country, a number which is expected to grow by an additional 4 percent by 2030, around which time the population will peak.

While China’s territory extends over an area of 9.6 million km2, accounting for about one-fifteenth of the global land surface area, only 15 percent of its territory is arable. Given complex and diverse physical and socio-economic conditions, increases in climate variability and intensity pose significant water resources management challenges, with profound implications for the nation’s agricultural sector and food security future.

China’s food security remains highly fragile against the backdrop of the country’s current economic development, its geographic characteristics, and its agricultural and water policies. The implications for China’s agricultural sector, water resource conditions, and the wellbeing of its people remain in question unless substantial policy reforms and investments are made.

Christine E. Boyle is CEO, Blue Horizon Insight & Assistant Professor, Portland State University. Image credit: Christine E. Boyle.


[1] The pessimistic reports in include Lester Brown’s Who Will Feed China (1995), the more recent and optimistic reports include “Charting Our Water Future” by the McKinsey Company and World Bank (2009).

[2]Huang, Q., Rozelle, S., Lohmar, B., Huang, J. and J. Wang (2006) Irrigation, agricultural performance and poverty reduction in China, Food Policy 31(1): 30-52.

[3]MWR (2006). Water Resources Development Statistics Bulletin 2006. ed. M. o. W. Resources. Beijing.

[4] FAO. (2013) AQUASTAT data. Food and Agriculture Organization.

[5] ESCAP. (2010) Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2009. Bangkook: United Nations Publication.

[6]MWR (2006). Water Resources Development Statistics Bulletin 2006. ed. M. o. W. Resources. Beijing.

[7] Boyle, CE, Huang QQ and Wang JX (2014) “Assessing the impacts of fiscal reforms on investment in village-level irrigation infrastructure” Water Resources Research Volume 50, Issue 8, pages 6428–6446.

[8] McKinsey&Company, “From bread basket to dust bowl”, November 2009.

Posted in AsiaChinaWater Security