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Results Briefs October 1, 2019

Growing More with Less: Tackling China’s Water Scarcity Through Sustainable Agricultural Water Management

World Bank Group

The Second Water Conservation Project for China improved agricultural water management and increased agricultural productivity through water-saving infrastructure and technological advancements, as well as institutional improvements for farmers and operators. New or improved irrigation and drainage services reached 594,200 beneficiaries; better agriculture water management also helped increased incomes for poor farmers in Ningxia, Hebei and Shanxi provinces.


For decades, irrigated agriculture in China has been an essential source of rural employment and livelihoods for millions of people, while also contributing to 75% of the country’s total agricultural outputs.   The rapid economic growth and poverty reduction of China is, to a significant part, attributable to irrigated agriculture, but the sector is responsible for some of the country’s water stress, as well. Irrigated agriculture uses over 60% of the nation's total water resources, more than any other activity.  Population growth, rapid industrialization, and the adverse effects of climate change exacerbate the problem.

Water scarcity, combined with inefficient and unsustainable water use, low agricultural water productivity, and low farm income in Northern China are taking a toll on the region’s socioeconomic development.


The World Bank has been supporting China’s National Irrigated Agriculture Water-Saving Program for more than 15 years, through both the First Water Conservation Project (WCP1) and most recently, this project, Water Conservation Project II (WCP2).  WCP2 focused on scaling up new water management innovations and expanding to more provinces, providing an example of transformative, long-term engagement.

Through a series of interlinked operations, the project aimed at improving water management in Hebei, Shanxi, and Ningxia -- three of the most water-scarce provinces in Northern China. To reduce net water consumption, the project reduced water withdrawal for irrigated agriculture in Ningxia and Shanxi and reduced groundwater overdraft in Hebei Province.  Physical improvements to irrigation systems included canal lining, dredging, a low rubber dam, a pump station, and conveyance pipelines.  Financial and technical support was provided to increase the resilience of farm communities to climate change and increase farm yield and output value.  In addition, the project empowered local communities through the establishment of cooperative water user associations.


The Water Conservation Project II was designed to raise farmer income through increased productivity and achieve water conservation by reducing consumptive use in irrigated agriculture. From 2012 to 2017, some of the results achieved include:

-          The construction of 4.22 km lining and/or dredging of Xiaoyinhe Canal in Hebei's Daming County and 17.55 km branch canal lining in Qingtongxia and Weining Irrigation Districts of Ningxia, and lining of about 677.38 km lateral and lower canals.

-          The construction of a low rubber dam for water regulation in Jiexiu County and a pump station for irrigation in LIshi County in Shanxi.

-          The construction of over 88 km of main water conveyance pipelines for supplying about over 24 million cubic meters of water annually for irrigation and other uses to a number of townships and villages in Shanxi.

-          Water-saving on-farm works and technologies, including canal rehabilitation, installation of low-pressure pipes, and micro-irrigation, covering an irrigation area of 59,849 ha.

-          Water withdrawal in Ningxia was reduced by 22.67 million cubic meters (MCM), exceeding the target of 22.20 MCM by 2 percent.

-          Groundwater overdraft in Hebei was reduced by 16.52 MCM, exceeding the target of 13.50 MCM by 22 percent.

-          Groundwater withdrawal in Shanxi was reduced by 5.80 MCM, slightly exceeding the target of 5.70 MCM.

-          Improved crop production brought a substantial increase in farmers’ income : from 36% to 74%.

-          290 Water User Associations (WUAs) were established in the project area (52 in Shanxi, 37 in Ningxia, and 201 in Hebei) with participation from 760,000 farmers.

Bank Group Contribution

The World Bank, through a loan from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), provided US$76.73 million to the project. Besides financing, the Bank also provided China with international experience and sustainable multiple-win solutions to the interlinked issues of water scarcity, low agricultural water productivity and farm income, and ecological degradation from over-withdrawal of surface and groundwater in the irrigated areas.  


The World Bank worked closely with the Provincial Governments of Hebei, Shanxi, and Ningxia, in addition to municipal, prefectural, and county governments within those provinces. During project preparation, individual consultants were hired to establish a baseline for the Monitoring and Evaluation system through soil sampling, field surveys, and farm visits. Monitoring and Evaluation consultants at both the national and provincial levels became involved early in the process to ensure quality of technical design and to conduct analysis throughout the project to track progress.

Moving Forward

The Water Conservation Project II was instrumental in increasing the institutional and organizational capacity of farmers and operators through training and the establishment of water user associations (WUAs). The WUAs ensured that, even well after completion of the project, farmers would be responsible for the management of the irrigation systems, water conservation, and water-saving measures.

The project also introduced innovative approaches to water management that are now being

adopted on a broader scale in China and are being reflected in other World Bank-supported projects which went into implementation later.

The project further introduced actions to strengthen climate change adaptation capacity for irrigated agriculture, including factoring in increased hydrological variability into the analysis and design, promoting water conservation, progressing institutional development, introducing drought-tolerant seed varieties and high-value crops, training on farming technologies to increase resilience, and introducing adaptation measures such as soil moisture preservation and balanced fertilizer application.


New or improved irrigation and drainage services reached 594,200 direct beneficiaries, of whom 287,300 (48 percent) were women.  About 10 percent of the beneficiaries of the project were classified as “poor.” The project’s achievements of increasing farmer income contributed to shared prosperity of the project areas.

When the project ended, 760,000 farmers were benefiting from and participating in 290 Water User Associations that were established across the three provinces.

“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.”

Wang Weizhen, a farmer in Hebei Province’s Youzhai Village, used to rely on experience alone 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.

The WUA of Youzhai Village 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.