In China, Innovation in Water Rights Leads to Real Water Savings


China’s most arid regions are facing an increasingly serious water crisis, and local water policies often aggravate the problem. In such climates, growth in the agricultural sector has come with high environmental costs.

With the help of new technologies that measure real water consumption in agriculture, governments are designing innovative water rights systems that actually save water. Based on results from two successful pilots, the World Bank Group is partnering with China to tap into science to transform water management in agriculture at the national level.

The latest pilot supports the Turpan Prefecture in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous region, which is one of the country’s most water-stressed (annual evaporation is 200 times higher than annual precipitation) and poorest regions.
Despite the parched climate, irrigated agriculture, which is the largest water user, continues to expand. The area under irrigation increased nearly two-fold between 1970 and 2008, from 60,000 ha to 113, 000 ha. During that same time, groundwater tables in Turpan dropped by 1.5 to 2 meters per year causing a series of environmental problems, such as degradation of ecological oases and loss of cultural heritage water supply systems.
Overexploitation of groundwater was partly because of the quota-based water rights system in Turpan, based on “use it or lose it” principles. Farmers had incentives to consume as much water as they were entitled to. Even with the use of more efficient irrigation technologies, any water that was “saved” was used to develop more land, not returned to the soil, groundwater, or nearby lakes and streams.

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