China's River Chiefs: Who Are They?
By Yuanchao Xu 17 October, 2017
China wants to fully establish the river chief mechanism by 2018 but what does this entail? CWR's Xu explores
There is a vivid metaphor in China – 9 dragons managing water (九龙治水), which describes overlapped and unclear management. This metaphor also applies to other organisational issues and aptly reflects the truth about China’s water management.
Unclear responsibility divisions causing inefficiency in China
In China, there are many governmental departments in charge of water-related issues (we wrote about this here). From an administrative perspective, there are national ministries like the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR), provincial departments and urban bureaus. From a natural perspective, there are river basin commissions, some of which can span across provinces. From a functional perspective, there are different government departments in charge of specific issues such as water pollution, water resource, floods, water tax, etc. This causes unclear responsibility divisions and inefficiencies especially when problems occur.
China’s many govt depts in charge of water causes unclear responsibility & inefficiencies…
…After the 2007 cyanobacteria incident in Lake Taihu, the Wuxi city govt introduced the river chief mechanism
After the cyanobacteria pollution incident in Lake Taihu in 2007, the government of Wuxi city introduced the river chief mechanism. The published ‘Targets and Assessment Measures of Water Quality Control for River Cross-sections in Wuxi’ stipulated that the results of water quality testing be included in the administrative assessment of the people in charge. This document has since been referred to as the origin of the river chief mechanism. This mechanism obtained effective results after only two months with water quality improving remarkably.
After Wuxi’s successful experience with the river chief mechanism, provinces/cities including Zhejiang (see more here), Liaoning, Nanjing, Hefei, Tianjin and Qingdao have also achieved satisfactory results from their trials.
In Kunming, a river chief organised a meeting of experts and relevant departments to identify problems and provide pollution control suggestions. In Nanjing, after implementing the river chief mechanism, a pilot section of a notoriously polluting was treated successfully. In Qingdao, river inspections are conducted at least three times a week and river chiefs who fail tasks can even face dismissal.
On 11 December 2016, the ‘Opinions on Fully Promoting the River Chief Mechanism’ was released by the General Office of the State Council and the CPC Central Committee, stipulating that the river chief mechanism must be fully established by 2018.
The river chief mechanism = clear responsibilities
There are four levels of river chiefs, which are: provincial, urban, county and township in descending order of power. River chiefs are assigned to take charge of rivers and lakes in their jurisdiction. In addition to this, each province will have a principal river chief – a position to be undertaken by principal leaders of the provincial government or party committee. In this way, each part of the river/lake is taken care of by a certain official.
River chiefs are assigned to take charge of rivers/lakes in their jurisdiction…
…performance as a river chief is important in the overall assessment of officials
Assessment is a key aspect of the river chief mechanism. Assessment criteria for river chiefs is set up depending on local river/lake water quality. Performance as a river chief is important for the overall assessment of officials. Indeed now officials face lifetime accountability for environmental performance in their jurisdiction. With this measure, local officials will no longer choose to pursue “GDP only” growth and disregard the environment.
For accountability, the public supervision of river chiefs has also been introduced. An information disclosure platform of river/lake management and protection shall be established. Moreover, a list of river chiefs is to be published, as well as the river chiefs’ responsibilities, the current condition of the corresponding river/lake and a supervision telephone number.
River chief to also coordinate trans-jurisdiction matters
Apart from ensuring regular river/lake management and protection, the responsibility of river chiefs also includes coordination on trans-jurisdiction issues. With the help of river chiefs, conflicts between different regions/departments can be solved more effectively. As pointed out by relevant officials, the river chief mechanism doesn’t change the function of different departments, but establishes a platform for collaboration under the lead of the government and the party committee.
With the help of river chiefs, conflicts between different regions/departments can be solved more effectively
This mechanism also acts as an enforcer for corresponding regulations. River chiefs’ regular water management and protection tasks are in accordance with regulations like the “Most Stringent Water Resources Management System” and the “Water Ten”. With clear responsibility divisions and customized assessment criteria, the river chief mechanism helps the enforcement of such regulations.
As of August this year, China has already appointed about 200,000 “river chiefs“. 31 provincial-level regions have filed plans for implementing the river chief policy and appointed general river chiefs at the provincial level. What’s more, 16 of these regions aim to appoint river chiefs down to the township level, while the other 15 plan to set up the mechanism to an even finer level.
The river chief mechanism will further drive the importance of environmental performance for government officials performance, which will ultimately help move closer to achieving a Beautiful China with blue skies and clean water.
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