Op-Ed Contributors

State should get their feet wet

By Zheng Fengtian (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-03-29 07:52
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Severe droughts have struck many regions of China in recent years. From Chongqing and Chengdu several years ago; to Henan, Shandong and other provinces in North China last year; to the current one ravaging much of Southwest China, the lack of rainfall has become a serious natural calamity for China.

The resulting shortage of water has exposed serious problems in the nation's irrigation of farmland and a lack of water conservancy infrastructure in rural areas.

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A lack of investment for years and the corresponding institutional shortcomings put many water saving facilities in a state of disrepair. The relatively low profit from grain cultivation also makes farmers reluctant to throw money into maintaining facilities.

In the past several decades, the State has been giving priority to water projects on major rivers and in major grain producing areas, but has neglected building water facilities in mountain and hill areas that do not grow grain.

For example, in some areas of Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, farmers are still at the mercy of the forces of the nature. When a drought occurs, drinking water for locals can't be guaranteed, let alone water for irrigation. Thus China is faced with an imperative long-term problem of reconstructing and maintaining water infrastructures in these areas.

Irrigation and water saving facilities are closely linked to a farmer's livelihood. However, experiences in recent decades show that although international organizations and various governments have conducted thorough studies on the investment and management of rural water saving facilities, many developing countries still haven't done enough. The poor performance of these projects makes people doubt the effectiveness of the "World Bank consensus" on water conservancy.

"World Bank consensus" refers to the insistence that privatization is an effective way of addressing the plight of public goods supply in rural areas in developing countries. This view believes that the market could optimize the allocation of resources, and public resources (including water) could be seen as a special commodity that is exclusive and could be transferred. So through the use of a market system, governments of developing countries could improve the efficiency of public services.

Under the guidance of the "World Bank consensus", many developing countries, including China, have brought about reform and privatized the construction and management of various infrastructure. But after years of employing this method, developing countries found that the consensus did not bring a bright future for the construction of local water saving facilities and has actually resulted in many new social problems.

For example, after Mexico carried out water conservancy reform under the guidance of the "World Bank consensus", the withdrawal of state funds led to the stagnation of water projects construction, while private sectors could not afford the high costs of construction and management. The privatization of infrastructure increased the inequality in people's access to public services and caused a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Because of the poor performance of the "World Bank consensus", more and more countries have begun to adopt a new governance model with State funds as the main source.

In the Republic of Korea (ROK), the construction of irrigation infrastructure is an important component of the nation's "New Countryside Movement". In terms of investment, the ROK established a management system supported mainly by government finance and supplemented by investment from rural households who could benefit from the water projects.

According to special geographical features in different areas, the authority actively motivates local rural people and attempts to make farmers more active and enthusiastic about these measures. The government also puts forward various preferential policies and incentives to support and award those villages with good performance. Water conservancy facilities are managed by different government-sponsored civil organizations. These measures have ensured the success of the ROK's reform in terms of rural water conservancy facilities.

China should also increase government expenditures in supporting rural water projects to effectively cope with drought or waterlogging. The government could appropriate special funds for constructing small rural water facilities in three to five years and repair local ditches and ponds that were abandoned previously. Through providing work as a form of relief in drought-stricken areas, government expenditures in rural water projects construction could not only increase employment and alleviate poverty, but also solve the drinking water and irrigation problems in impoverished areas.

The author is vice-dean of the Rural and Agricultural Development Institute at Renmin University of China.

(China Daily 03/29/2010 page8)