Empowering Farmers And Implementing Modern Irrigation Helps China Reduce Water Consumption

November 18, 2016

World Bank Group

  • China is a water-stressed country with low per capita water availability
  • A World-Bank supported project helped improve agriculture water management and increase agriculture water productivity
  • Farmer empowerment and modern technology reduce irrigation water consumption

China is a water-stressed country: per capita water resources are about a quarter of the global average, or 2,100 cubic meters. This scarcity is more severe when the spatial distribution of water sources, the total population and arable land, are taken into account, and the increasing impact of climate change compounds the problem.

Irrigated agriculture, as an essential source of rural employment and livelihoods for over half of the population, uses over 60% of the nation's total water resources; more than any other activity. To ensure sustainable use of the limited water resources, making more efficient use of water in agriculture is critical for China.

Between 2012 and 2016, the World Bank worked with China to implement the Water Conservation Project II in Hebei, Shanxi and Ningxia, the three most water-scarce provinces in the Northern region.

Financed with a World Bank loan of $80 million, the project aimed to improve agriculture water management and increase agriculture water productivity. “Through this project, we seek to reduce evapo-transpiration (ET), and increase water productivity of crops, rather than focusing only on technical measures,” said Sing Cho, Senior Water and Sanitation Specialist and project leader. “We are trying to achieve ‘real water savings’ or reduce ET, by improving on-farm water works to reducing water waste, and also by taking integrated measures such as tailoring cropping patterns for higher water productivity and changing farmers’ behavior to reduce water consumption.”

Hebei province is a major grain producer in China but faces severe water shortage. Per capita water resources stand at only 307 cubic meters, about 1/7 of national average and 1/30 of the global average.

With rapid economic growth, Hebei has seen higher demand for water resources which threatens the sustainable use of their limited water resources. Groundwater in particular is currently overdrawn in some areas, and the overdraft has resulted in the water table falling by 1-2 meters a year. Irrigated agriculture is a major contributor to this as it accounts for 75% of total water usage.   

The project in Hebei covers 10 counties with 326 villages and a total population of 322,000, and includes improving irrigation systems on 26,456 hectares (65,374 acres) of farmland, lining and dredging of 262 kilometers of irrigation canals, and 3283.27 kilometers of pipelines.

" I decide when and how much water to use based on the irrigation forecasts. It saves both water and labor.  "

Wang Weizhen

Villager of Youzhai Village, Guantao County,Hebei Province

Empowering farming communities to manage irrigation water

Earlier in 2016, the village water users association (WUA) held a special drawing of lots in Youzhai Village in Guantao County to manage irrigation water and determine the order of irrigation for households in the village.  Guantao is one of the counties covered by the project.

There are 270 farmer households in Youzhai Village with a total of 1,320 people.  They grow wheat and maze on their 2,000 mu (330 acres) of farmland. In 2012, the project installed irrigation pipelines and water measurement devices in the fields to help save water.

The WUA was formed in early 2013, with the main mandate of managing irrigation water and coordinating the order of irrigation.  “In the past, people used to argue and fight, and no one wanted to yield. With the WUA, such things no longer happen. Now it is harmonious and orderly,” said its elected head Zhao Jiangang. 

The WUA is also responsible for operating and maintaining the water works financed by the project. During the slack season, the WUA gets technical people to check the pipelines and fix problems immediately. 

A “water rights system” has been put in place in the village. A water rights certificate was issued to each household that shows the amount of mu (0.16 acres) of farmland and water allocated. Each household also received an IC card to get water from the irrigation water management system.

“It is very easy. You just need to swipe the card and water will come to your field,” says Wang Weirong, a villager.

Information on all households has been filed in the WUA’s computer-based irrigation management system. “When a farmer runs out of money on his IC card, he comes to me. I check his information in the system and recharge his card,” said Zhao Jiangang. “At the end of the year, we reward those who use less water and penalize those who use too much. This gives people an incentive to save water.”

Today, there are 134 village-based WUAs in Guantao County. WUAs that perform well and farmers who have reduced water consumption receive awards, while those who use more than their allotted water have to pay a higher price. “We are putting in place a water rights trading system in the irrigation districts that will allow farmers to buy and sell their water rights,” explains County Water Resources Director Wu Huatao.   

Moisture forecasts guide irrigation schedules

The project also supported an irrigation forecast system in Guantao County that comprises six monitoring stations collecting data on the temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, rainfall, soil moisture content and groundwater level. An information management center generates forecasts the water requirement using computer models.  These are published on the internet and via LED signs outside the monitoring stations to guide irrigation scheduling.

Wang Weizhen used to rely on his experience to make irrigation decisions. Now he checks the soil moisture information. “I decide when and how much water to use based on the irrigation forecasts. It saves both water and labor,” said Wang.

Improved irrigation scheduling has reduced ET while satisfying crop water requirements. As a result, water consumption per mu (0.16 acre) of wheat is estimated to have been cut by 80 to 100 cubic meters.

 “This project has set a good model in our province,” said Wei Tieqiang, a deputy director of water resources in Hebei Province. “Through the water pricing and water rights systems and water users associations, we have been able to raise awareness among farmers for the need to conserve water. Only this way we can make the modern irrigation system work and achieve higher water efficiency and productivity,” Wei said.