8 Key Challenges In Rural Water Security

By Feng Hu 16 July, 2018

CWR's Hu shares reflections from the CEWP workshop - where are we on safe drinking water for rural China?

Rural population is shrinking & its water supply lags urban areas; only 69% of villages have centralised water supply
Plus 9% of rural households still reliant on unprotected groundwater; remote villages need decentralised solutions
Improved monitoring & national standards are essential; basin-wide management from mountains to sea will help

On 25-26 June, CWR’s Feng Hu was invited to speak at two sessions of China Europe Water Platform (CEWP) workshop, held during the Qingdao International Water Conference – “Relations of Rural Water and Food Security to the Water SDG” and “Addressing the Challenges – The Role of the Market & Innovation” – and sat on a panel on “Financing and how to develop bankable projects”.

Chinas Long March To Drinking Water 2015 Report CoversRural water security is one of CWR’s focus areas. Back in 2015, CWR published a joint investigatory report titled “China’s Long March To Safe Drinking Water with chinadialogue, which identified ambiguous ownership, unclear water pricing mechanisms, immature market mechanisms, a lack of rural business models and governance as key issues hindering China from “completely solving” drinking water.

This article provides updates since the launch of this report and also reflections based on discussion during the CEWP workshop.

Ensuring safe and secure water supplies to 1.39bn people over a land mass of 9.6mn km2 (nearly the size of Europe), isn’t an easy task for any government. By 2015, 98% of China’s urban population and 93% of her rural counterparts had access to improved drinking water source (India fell 1% short on the urban measurement; see chart below).

By 2015, 93% of China’s rural population had access to improved drinking water source…


…by 2020, China wants to provide centralised drinking water supply & tap water to at least 85% & 80% of its rural population

Global comparison of access to improve drinking water source in 2015.tif

FAO defines an “improved” source as “one that is likely to provide ‘safe’ water”, but also admits the lack of established relationship between access to “improved” sources and access to “safe” water. According to WHO, an “improved” source could be “public taps or standpipes, tube wells or boreholes, protected dug wells, protected springs and rainwater collection”, as well as “piped water on premises”. Despite such murky definition, both China and India have come a long way.

By 2020, China wants to provide centralised drinking water supply and tap water to at least 85% and 80% of its rural population, respectively. Financing will remain a challenge. Meanwhile, there are another eight key challenges to address to finish the last miles of this long march.

1. Rural China is no longer the majority

There are now more people living in the cities than in the rural areas in China. By the end of 2017, 58.52% of the population lived in urban areas. By 2020, this percentage is expected to rise to 60% as per 13FYP. As this trend continues, by 2050, rural population is expected to more than halve as per UN’s 2018 projection (see chart below).

More people living in the cities than in the rural areas in China…


…by 2050, rural population is expected to more than halve…

China's annual population at Mid-Year, 1950-2050

As people become better off, the amount of resources consumed tends to increase, including the use of water (see next point). Meanwhile, many rural people are moving into cities, pushing up the urban demand.

This means, even if future rural water supply coverage reaches 100%, the total number of served rural population in 2050 would actually be less than the current number. This has implications on choices of solutions and scale of new projects, as well as the allocation of financial resources.

2. Closing the urban and rural gap

The prioritisation on urbanisation meant that more resources have been allocated towards cities and counties. As a result, urban water supply has progressed and improved much faster.

Prioritisation on urbanisation means urban water supply has progressed & improved much faster

The Chinese administration under provinces and municipalities includes generally five levels: city (市), county (县), town (建制镇), township (乡), and natural villages (自然村). In addition, there are special zones at town and township level (镇乡级特殊区域). As shown in the left-below chart, water supply coverage in 2016 ranged from 98.4% in cities to 65.2% in natural villages. The total length of China’s water supply pipelines could circle the earth at the equator 120 times!

Daily domestic water consumption per capita in China

On the use front, agriculture (mainly irrigation) is obviously a big user, representing 62.4% of China’s total water use in 2016. For domestic water use, average daily per capita figure at township level has been on the rise, while that of city, county and town levels have peaked and stayed almost flat in the past few years (see right-above chart). At village level, the 2016 figure was 74 L/day/pax: although there is no comprehensive historical data, it is assumed to be on the rise and will continue to increase.

3. Narrowing regional differences in rural water management

Rural water management varies between different administrative levels, but also across regions. There are over 2.6 million natural villages in China, one fifth of which have village committees (more structured governance & better access to public finance) and are called “administrative villages”.

The chart below shows the share of administrative villages with centralised water supply and domestic wastewater treatment across provinces in 2016. At national level, the two shares stood at 68.7% and 20%, respectively. Only 5 provinces had both shares higher than the national level, all of which are located on the eastern coast with a highly urbanised population and developed economy.

Only 5 provinces had both shares (centralised water supply & domestic wastewater treatment) higher than national level…


…all of which have a highly urbanised population

2016 province comparison

Clearly, there is significant room for improvement for most provinces. Water supply and wastewater treatment (and discharge) hold the two ends of the life cycle of water management. To properly treat wastewater and control discharge is as important as ensuring stable and safe supply.

4. Decentralised solutions are important for small and remote villages

Another reason for the regional difference may be due to the size of villages. Amongst the >2.6 million natural villages, about 93% of them have a population less than 1,000 and 46% even have a population less than 200. Amongst the half million administrative villages, 47% of them fall under the 1,000-person mark (see charts below).

Pie chart of natural villages and administrative villages

A centralised drinking water source is defined as a water source that supplies a population over 1,000 people, according to “Technical guideline for delineating source water protection areas” (HJ338-2018) put into force on 1st July 2018. So technically, the majority of villages would have to adopt decentralised solutions.

A lot of current efforts focus on expanding piped water supply systems. This makes sense for villages with a larger population. For those next to cities and counties, they can be connected to existing urban systems. Indeed, 33% of villages will be served by urban tap water systems by 2020.

But, for many small and remote villages, large infrastructure projects can be financially unfeasible and/or technologically difficult. They need effective and economic decentralised solutions. In some extreme natural conditions, the local governments even have to resort to “ecological migration”.

5. Protecting the quality of groundwater sources

From a life cycle point of view, ensuring rural water security is to ensure the quantity and quality of water from the source, the supply, the usage, wastewater treatment to wastewater discharge. The first step is to secure the source.

By the end of 2016, 47.7% of rural households use tap water for drinking; meanwhile, over 50% of rural households relied on groundwater water as their drinking source, where 41.6% relied on protected wells & springs, and another 8.7% relied on unprotected groundwater sources (see chart below). Groundwater reliance is even higher in Central, Western and Northeastern China.

>50% of rural households relied on groundwater water as their drinking source…


…but >60% of groundwater monitoring stations & points still in very bad or bad quality condition in 2017

Rural households by drinking water source by end of 2016


According to the latest State of Ecology & Environment report, despite the improvement in overall water quality, groundwater quality remains worrying, with over 60% of groundwater monitoring stations and points still in very bad or bad quality condition in 2017.

Clearly, this poses a risk for those who source water directly from wells and springs. But even for tap water users, there is still potential risk in case the water works malfunction or fail to remove certain pollutants, if the water was originally withdrawn from a polluted river or groundwater.

6. Pricing is important, but improving monitoring is more urgent

China Reform - Water Resource TaxPricing is important in managing supply and demand. Reforming the relatively low water tariffs and testing tax-based systems have been on the government to-do-list. Ongoing rural water tariff reform focuses on irrigation. Thanks to improved pricing and incentives such as water rights trading, irrigation water use has seen zero increase for five consecutive years. But, water price hikes are still seen as controversial for many smallholder farmers and low-income households. In addition, without water meters in place, it is unrealistic to think about fee collection, not to mention raising tariffs.

Merely 2.7% of the country’s half million administrative villages monitor rural drinking sources…

…remote sensing & drones could improve the coverage & cut down costs

Monitoring of rural drinking water sources is also lagging. The Water Ten Plan sets no hard target. It is reported by State Council that 700 counties and around 14,000 villages monitored their drinking water quality in 2017. However, the results are not publicly available. Moreover, the number represents merely 2.7% of the country’s half million administrative villages, or 0.5% if including all the natural villages.

Given the vast number of rural source points, adopting monitoring technologies such as remote sensing and drones could improve the coverage and cut down costs. For instance, satellite images have been used to monitor eutrophication and groundwater depletion. But, innovation is still needed to cover many other parameters.

7. Lack of national standards for rural drinking water sources & wastewater discharge

China has set up a relatively comprehensive system of standards to regulate the quality from water sources to wastewater discharge (see table below). But, there is no specific national standard for rural drinking water sources, especially decentralised ones.

Environmental standards relevant to rural water quality

So far, only a handful provinces have issued local rural discharge standards…

…but they are either less stringent than urban standards or cover limited parameters

The existing general standards (GB18918-2002 & GB8978-1996) have no specific discharge limits on rural wastewater treatment facilities. So far, only a handful provinces have issued local rural discharge standards. However, they either adopted less stringent limits compared to those on urban and industrial pollution sources, or only covered a limited selection of monitoring parameters.

Once wastewater is released into the nature, it not only affects local water safety but could also lead to adverse impacts in the downstream. A national standard is needed to regulate rural wastewater discharge across the entire country.

8. Towards basin-wide management from mountains to the sea

Ensuring rural water security deals with a complex circular system from source to discharge. But it is much more than just water management. As shown above, many different demographic and socio-economic aspects as well as natural conditions interact and limit the progress of a region to move towards 100% access to safe water supply. On top of that, there is also the impact of climate change, from affecting the availability of water to increasing the risk of water-borne diseases.

All these factors are not static and are constantly changing the dynamics between demand and supply. Thus, we need a more holistic approach. It shouldn’t be based on a simple aim of increasing supply or adding treatment facilities. The decision-making needs to take into consideration many different factors and scenarios.

Ministry reform From 9 to 2 dragonsIn China, the change of mindset is already under the way. Earlier this year, we saw the end of “nine dragons managing water”: the dispersed government responsibilities in water are now consolidated into two ministries (see CWR review here). New initiatives on water governance such as river chiefs and eco-compensation between the upstream and downstream, will see wider adoption across the country.

All these point to a shift from single point management towards basin-wide management from mountains to the sea. The MEP reform that I talked about back in early 2014 is now a reality. I thus have great hopes and confidence that China will deliver safe and reliable water to all the rural households across the country, from Tien Shan mountains to coastal islands.

Further Reading

  • Wicked Problems Of Water Quality Governance – Water quality is a more serious threat to water security than its diminishing supply. Hear eight points on this wicked problem from eight water experts as a special edition Water International
  • Water Wars: What Policymakers Can Do – Water conflicts within countries are increasingly prevalent with industrial and even transboundary implications. What can policymakers do? We sat down with World Bank’s Scott Moore to find out
  • The Future Of The Paris Agreement – The Paris Agreement has been in effect for more than a year now. How is the rulebook going? What’s next at COP24? Professor Daniel Bodansky from Arizona States University, a climate change law expert, shares his views
  • How To Solve The Global Water Crisis – Most of the world’s water woes can be solved with enough money and willpower. The real challenges are thus not technical but political and ethical. Check out why World Bank’s Scott Moore thinks so
  • 3 Takeaways From Aquatech China 2018 – 4 years on, China Water Risk is again presenting at the Industrial Water Leaders Forum at Aquatech China. Our Dawn McGregor shares key takeaways from the 2018 events and how they compare to 2014
  • 2017 State Of Ecology & Environment Report Review – Prioritising rivers appears to have paid off but overall groundwater and Key Lakes & Reservoirs both worsened. Are we now seeing the “real” state of China’s environment? Find out in China Water Risk’s review of the 2017 State Of Ecology & Environment Report
  • Ministry Reform: 9 Dragons To 2 – What does China’s long-awaited ministry re-shuffle mean – who manages what and how? China Water Risk’s Woody Chan and Yuanchao Xu review the roles and impacts of the new Ministry of Ecological Environment & Ministry of Natural Resources
  • A New Model In Village Water Management – Water projects in China suffer from sustainability issues. Ivanna Tan from Lien Aid on how their Village Water Management programme overcomes these issues and has delivered clean & sustainable water to more than 72,000 rural villagers
  • Water SMART Blue Buildings For Sustainable Urbanisation – Complete coverage of centralized water & sewage systems may never be possible in China, so what can one do? Ecosoftt’s Stanley Samuel & Marcus Lin share how their Water SMART Blue Buildings Standard can be a valid alternative
  • Changing Filters: Benefits of AFM vs Sand – Sand filters are the primary means of treatment but there are performance & stability issues. Dr Howard Dryden, inventor of the up-cycled AFM® filter tells us how his filter means lower costs & bacteria & longer life
  • Water: Habits & Actions – What are you water habits? – What are your water habits? Even giving up chocolate for one week can positively impact our waters as Patricia Dwyer, Founder & Director of The Purpose Business Group, tells us. See what other changes you can make
  • WaterHubs: Infrastructure for Urban Slums – 523 million or 61% of the urban slum population in developing countries is in Asia. Saurabh Saraf, WaterHubs CEO, outlines how WaterHubs can deliver holistic & fiscally viable water & sanitation solutions for slums
  • Rural Drinking Water Solutions – 783 million people in rural areas still lack safe drinking water due to diseases coursing through waterways. Ling Li on why a traditional water distribution system is not necessarily the best answer & shares cheaper alternatives
  • China Water Risk special report: “China’s Long March To Safe Drinking Water

Chinas Long March To Drinking Water 2015 Report Covers

Feng Hu
Author: Feng Hu
Having previously led CWR’s work on water-nomics, Feng now sits on our advisory panel to help us push the conversation on integrating water considerations in planning sustainable transition and mobilising finance toward climate and water resilience. Feng currently works on ESG advisory at a regional financial institution. Prior to that, Feng worked as Sustainable Finance Research Manager APAC at V.E, part of Moody’s ESG Solutions. During his time at CWR, he initiated and led projects for CWR including the joint policy briefs with China’s Foreign Economic Cooperation Office of the Ministry of Environmental Protection on the water-nomics of the Yangtze River Economic Belt. Feng expanded the water-nomics conversation beyond China by co-authoring CWR’s seminal report “No Water No Growth – Does Asia Have Enough Water To Develop?”. He has given talks on water-nomics and other water issues at international conferences, academic symposiums, corporate trainings and investor forums. Previously, Feng also sat on the Technical Working Group of the Initiative for Climate Action Transparency (ICAT) and worked as a senior carbon auditor on various types of climate change mitigation projects across Asia and Africa. Feng holds two MSc degrees – one in Finance (Economic Policy) from SOAS University of London and the other in Sustainable Resource Management from Technical University of Munich – and a BSc degree in Environmental Science from Zhejiang University.
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