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

The river chief mechanism was introduced in 2007; it assigns each part of a river/lake to a certain official
Performance as river chiefs affects overall assessment of officials; public supervision is to be established
River chiefs to also help coordinate between depts & regions; several provinces/cities already seeing results

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.

Further Reading

  • 5 Facts About The Tarim River – Compared to the Yangtze or the Yellow, the Tarim River Basin is relatively unknown despite its strategic importance as China’s ‘Water Tower’ with 41% of its ice. China Water Risk’s Feng Hu shares 5 water facts we need to know about the Tarim
  • Rivers Flow In Me: Reflections From Zhejiang – China Water Risk’s Feng Hu shares his childhood experiences with rivers in Zhejiang and laments the pollution that has occurred since; but as government and business marry economic decisions with water, things are looking up
  • Why Do Hydro-Hegemons Cooperate? – Cooperation and conflict exist on a spectrum in transboundary river basins. Dr Selina Ho from Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy explores the policies of China & India, Asia’s two hydro-hegemons. How and why they work with other states on the Mekong & the Ganges?
  • Water Stewardship In Industrial Parks: The Kunshan Case – Kunshan City ranked as China’s most developed county-level city but faces increasingly serious water challenges. Alliance for Water Stewardship’s Zhenzhen Xu, WWF’s Aihui Yang & Qiandeng Environmental Protection Bureau’s Dadi Feng share experiences from their water stewardship project
  • 2016 State of Environment Report Review – The signs are positive for China’s environment in 2016. Groundwater quality improved after 5 years of decline though there is mixed news for rivers & lakes. Is the tide turning in China’s ‘war on pollution’?
  • No Safe Haven For Polluters – As affluent eastern Chinese provinces are cleaning-up, companies are relocating to inland provinces with more lenient regulations. China Water Risk’s Hubert Thieriot explores this pollution haven effect & why it can be a short-sighted strategy
  • Water Ten: Comply Or Else – China’s new Water Ten Plan sets tough action on pollution prevention & control. While this is good for the water sector, less obvious is who or which sectors will be impacted. China Water Risk’s Tan on why China is serious about its fast & furious pollution reforms to propel China to a new norm
  • Water-nomics: Trade-offs Along The Yangtze – With significant economic, water use and pollution disparities along the Yangtze River, China Water Risk & the Foreign Economic Cooperation Office of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, publish a joint brief to explore strategies to find the right development mix. Check out some of the key findings in this review
Yuanchao Xu
Author: Yuanchao Xu
Yuanchao uses his analytical proficiencies towards the assessment and visualization of water risks for China Water Risk. Prior to joining, Yuanchao was based in Europe completing the Erasmus Mundus Master Program where he specialsed in hydro-informatics and water management. He applied his skills in climate forecasting and water resource modelling to the EUPORIAS project with DHI (Danish Hydraulic Institute) which resulted in a conference paper on seasonal climate forecasting. Building on this work, he went on to develop hyfo, an open-source R programme for climate scientists and modellers to analyse and visualize data. Yuanchao’s bachelor degree was from the China Agricultural University where he specialized in heat energy and power engineering. During his time there, he also patented a testing instrument for hydraulic machinery. He has studied and worked in Beijing, Nice, Newcastle and Copenhagen.
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