Monday, June 18, 2012

Irrigation Decline and Precarious Food Security in Contemporary China

China's irrigation system has deteriorated gradually in the past three decades, plagued by a growing number of malfunctioning facilities and worsening water problems in rural areas. This article argues that the decline of irrigation in China is mainly derived from its marginal position in the Chinese economy, which has been oriented towards pursuing rapid GDP growth over the last three decades at the expense of irrigation and agriculture. 

With only seven percent of water resources but 20 percent of population in the world, China relies on irrigation to produce 70 percent of its grains. While the irrigation system assumes such an important place in the country’s food security, it has declined and even broken down in parts of the country in the past three decades, a period during which the Chinese economy grew at an average annual rate of more than nine percent. According to a 2009 Chinese official report, more than half of the large irrigation zones and more than 60 percent of the medium-sized irrigation zones were not functioning well, and more than 85 percent of the large pumping stations were in urgent need for reconstruction (NPCC, 2009). It is reasonable to believe that the smaller irrigation facilities are in an even worse condition because they are much more underfunded. The decline of the irrigation system has posed serious livelihood risks to hundreds of millions of people and undermined China’s capacity for food production.

To find out the nature and causes of the decline of the irrigation system in China, I examined government documents and statistical data on economic planning, public investment, agriculture, and irrigation for the past three decades. In addition, I designed and conducted a three-month field research in a county of central China in the summer of 2010. I carried out about forty in-depth interviews with officials and farmers on their opinions and experiences with irrigation. I also visited a number of irrigation facilities including reservoirs, dams, canals, ditches and irrigation ponds. My field research was supported by the East Asian Studies Program and the Institute for Global Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

I found that the decline of the irrigation system in post-reform China is mainly derived from the marginal position of irrigation in an economy that pursues maximum GDP growth. More specifically, agriculture, the main sector that irrigation serves, has contributed less and less to GDP growth after the reforms in the 1980s. Thus it has become less important on the government agenda and has received decreasing efforts from various pertinent actors including the central government, local governments, and farmers. The practice that maximizes GDP growth and the ideology that legitimizes it has been referred to as GDP fetish or growth fetish by critical development scholars, in that it pursues unsustainable GDP growth while at the expense of food security, environment, and human health (Hamilton, 2003; Stiglitz, 2009; Stiglitz et al, 2009).

The central government

The Chinese central government is the national policy maker that steers the direction of the national economy. The issues of irrigation were marginalized within the government and received low priority in economic planning. In the 1980s, it drastically cut irrigation investment by more than 40 percent. Between 1981 and 1997, the share of irrigation in total infrastructure investment had never exceeded three percent, down from nearly seven percent in the pre-reform period (NSBC, 2009: 79). By contrast, industrial investment, which could lead to rapid GDP growth, had received favorable government support in terms of bank loans, government funds and political priority in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 1990s, particularly after Mr. Deng Xiaoping’s tour of southern China in 1992, coastal areas and large cities received a great amount of investment and favorable policies (e.g. tax policy) to construct special economic zones, which aimed to draw foreign direct investment, promote export-oriented industrial production and accelerate GDP growth (Huang 2008: 109-174). The principle that economic growth must be the focus of government work was written in all important government documents. As Mr. Deng himself called it, “Development is the absolute principle”. The connotation of his development is economic growth, or simply GDP growth (Deng, 1993: 370-383).
Underinvestment and negligence had led to the decline of the irrigation system. In 1998, huge summer floods swept through China and caused tremendous damages. The floods exposed the vulnerability of the irrigation system and deeply alarmed the Chinese central authority. After 1998, the central government increased annual irrigation investment and called for more attention to irrigation. However, under the GDP fetish, the irrigation system was still marginalized on the government’s agenda.

With the exposure of the severity of irrigation problems in recent years, and the hard reality that China must rely on domestic production for most of its food consumption, particularly at a time of global food crisis, the central government has altered its earlier position and started to assign more priority to irrigation. In 2008, the central government emphasized the importance of agricultural infrastructure including irrigation in the No.1 policy document, which has been issued at the beginning of every year to signify government policy priorities. In 2011, it used the entire No. 1 document to address irrigation decline and water problems, and reiterated the importance of irrigation for food production and security. The government planned to invest 4 trillion yuan ( about 608 billion U.S. dollars) in irrigation projects for the next decade to improve water conservation and expand irrigated areas (Jin, 2011).
Whether the central government’s plan to improve the irrigation system can be realized remains to be seen. It is constrained on the one hand by the deeply rooted GDP fetish in the political system and on the other by other actors involved in irrigation, particularly local governments and villages.

Local government

Local governments are the national policy implementer and local policy maker. According to my field research, local governments also wholeheartedly embrace GDP growth while showing little interest in irrigation. I have found that even when the central government calls for more effort on irrigation recently, local governments continue to ignore the need to improve irrigation. This is because the Chinese political system has become much more decentralized after the reforms, and local governments may pursue their own interests while ignoring national policies.

Local governments usually focus on projects that can boost GDP growth, such as industrial zones, urban real estate, roads and tourist sites. Even when they do invest in water project, they tend to invest in those that could stimulate economic growth rather than those that meet irrigation needs. In the past three decades, the county where my field research took place only built one new large dam, which was built in 2006 and received 22 million yuan (about 2.75 million U.S. dollars) from the county government. However, the main function of the dam is not to irrigate farmland but to create a beautiful urban scene that could boost the prices of real estate around the water. An irrigation official told me that, although the county bureau of water resources was responsible for the project, it was top county leaders who decided the site of the dam. He said, “As irrigation experts, my colleagues and I do not think that the site of the dam should be the place where it is now.”

The only time that local officials pay attention to the irrigation system is in the event of natural disasters. They must take action to avoid human casualty and serious property damages. However, such discursive and unsystematic effort is far from sufficient to prevent the breaking down of the irrigation system.

Villages and farmers

The GDP fetish also affects the irrigation effort of villages and small farmers, who are usually the users of irrigation water and the important maintainers of irrigation facilities. Due to the cutting of irrigation funds and the concentration of both public and private resources in the sectors that can stimulate rapid GDP growth, agriculture, the main sector that irrigation serves, has become less and less important in rural households’ livelihood strategy. The problem is particularly serious in China because every farmer only cultivates a very small piece of farmland, smaller than 0.3 hectare on average. As a result, they are more willing to take up non-agricultural businesses or migrate to the city than to work on farming.

In the county where I conducted fieldwork, farming only generated 2103.6 yuan (about 300 U.S. dollars) in 2008 for each rural resident on average, accounting for 21.8 percent of per capita gross income. In other words, farming only contributed about one fifth of income to rural households in the county. As a consequence, rural households tend to divert their effort away from irrigation and agriculture to more profitable businesses. According to local statistics, only 37.7 percent of rural laborers were engaged in agriculture (including animal husbandry) in 2008, while more than 60 percent of rural laborers were working in non-agricultural sectors. However, most rural households still rely on grain farming for their food supply. Therefore, they take some effort on irrigation and wish irrigation facilities running well. But their action is not enough to rescue broken irrigation facilities.


The irrigation decline has undermined the capacity of food production and threatened food security in China.Moreover, if China’s domestic food production cannot meet its consumption demand, it will be forced to import more food from the global market, thus pushing up food prices and causing food shortages in other developing countries. The increase in food imports to China in recent years has already caused concerns and worries in other countries. My study suggests that the GDP fetish must be suppressed and replaced by a people/environment-centered development strategy if China wants to save its irrigation system and ensure food security. The GDP fetish is a global phenomenon and practiced in many countries. Without changing it, food security, human health and long-term ecological sustainability would be sacrificed for short-term economic growth.

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