MEP Reform: From Mountaintop to Ocean?

By Feng Hu 12 March, 2014

Given the war on pollution, can MEP reform improve China's “mountains, water, forest, farmland & lakes”?

MEP regarded as too weak to punish polluters due to dispersed authority & overlapping functions
Much talked about reform to merge responsibilities of MLR, MWR, MOA, SFA & SOA to form Super MEP
MEP reform looks inevitable to address increasingly interlinked plans in the water-food-energy nexus

In the 2014 Central Government Work Report, the word “reform” appeared 77 times. One reform expected in 2014 is reforming the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) by merging it with various authorities in charge of the glaciers, rivers, lands, forests and oceans. The much talked about “From the Mountaintop Down to the Ocean” reform is expected to give more power to the MEP to fight the “war” declared on pollution last week by Premier Li Keqiang (read about these efforts in War on Pollution).

Given the current level of concerns over pollution & food safety, such reform is necessary to carry out the increasingly cohesive and comprehensive plans issued to address water scarcity, pollution and related food & energy security issues. The questions are therefore how and when?

Dispersed authority & overlapping functions

The MEP has been long regarded as too weak to punish polluters. This is largely due to dispersed authority and overlapping responsibilities in monitoring the environment. The MEP is a relatively new ministry formed in 2008 when it was “upgraded” to a Ministry from the State Environment Protection Administration (SEPA). Unfortunately, other existing ministries & administrations had been already looking after various parts of the environment.

The diagram below shows the current status and intended reform:
China Governemnt Environment Organs Structure Reform Overview of Environmental Related Ministries in China

“Same-but-different” responsibilities muddies the management of water

Under the current structure, the administrative authorities of environmental issues are dispersed among different ministries and administrations. Administrative departments usually have to spend great efforts in coordination before finally reaching an agreement to solve real problems.

Take groundwater as an example: it is managed by several ministries together:

  • MLR is responsible for the monitoring and supervision of its pollutions;
  • MWR will monitor the quantity & quality; whilst
  • MEP will draft and monitor the implementation of the pollution prevention plan.

Such distribution of responsibilities also exists in the management of surface water as well as the ocean, making it difficult to monitor individual ecosystem as a whole. It also makes the execution of punishments towards pollutions relatively slow and ineffective.

These “same-but-different” functions result in inconsistent and inefficient data collection

In addition, there are overlaps in the monitoring functions of these ministries and administrations. Currently, monitoring water quality is one of responsibilities of the MWR as per the Management Measures of Water Functional Areas. However, the MEP is also in charge of monitoring functions such as managing wastewater treatment and supervising Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). For the water pollutants, the MWR monitors the total amount and set the “redline” while the MEP monitors and manages its own indicators.

These “same-but-different” functions also result in inconsistent and inefficient data collection. It would make more sense to merge the monitoring functions of the MWR & the MEP to establish a unified national system covering both groundwater and surface water.

“Super MEP” needed to tackle water-food-energy nexus

As can be seen, the current structure hasn’t proved to be very effective and efficient in managing water use & pollution, let alone addressing issues that require more cross-collaborations such as energy and food security. Indeed the government has been announcing increasingly cohesive and comprehensive plans. Last December, the MWR announced the Water-for-Coal Plan. For food security, the following have been announced:

With more effective and cohesive policies to come, deeper and more efficient collaboration among the ministries are also needed to execute them. Obviously, merging those environment-related responsibilities currently in the MOA, the MLR, and the MWR into the MEP will be an easy option. It could further strengthen the MEP’s administrative stability, decision-making power as well as access to resource. Nevertheless, increased collaboration and “unsiloed” approach to address issues at the water-energy-food nexus is a trend we expect to see continue in 2014 (see our 5 Trends for 2014 here). A “Super MEP” is necessary in to make this happen.

Reform looks set to happen: the questions are how & when?

“Mountains, water, forest, farmland and lakes are all parts of a common living circle… the administration of their use and ecological rehabilitation must be in accordance with the law of nature.”

President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China
15 November 2013


There is no doubt that the dispersion of authority has not only weakened the MEP’s effectiveness in execution. It has also resulted in inefficient use of public resources. As President Xi said in his government report on 15 November 2013, “Mountains, water, forest, farmland and lakes are all parts of a common living circle… the administration of their use and ecological rehabilitation must be in accordance with the law of nature”.

Mr. Shengxian Zhou, Minister of Environmental Protection, also urged in his article published in People’s Daily on 7 February 2014 that “….it is necessary establish a unified environmental management system to monitor all pollutant emissions and independently conduct environmental monitoring and law enforcement….(The unified system) should cover all pollutants from industrial point sources, agricultural sources, transport and other mobile sources, and strengthen unified supervision of all the environmental media containing pollutants, such as air, soil, surface water, groundwater and marine.”

“….it is necessary establish a unified environmental management system to monitor all pollutant emissions and independently conduct environmental monitoring and law enforcement.”

Mr. Shengxian Zhou, Minister of Environmental Protection
7 February 2014

These voices from central government leaders signal the government’s will to restructure its ministries to better manage its “mountains, water, forest, farmland and lakes” for a “beautiful China”. At a minimum we will likely see some of the responsibilities held by the MWR, MLR, MOA, SFA and SOA to be merged into the MEP; in addition, it is rumored that MLR will even be dissolved and its responsibilities will be merged into relevant ministries.

No matter whether we will end up with a Super MEP, or just a better collaboration among the different ministries, the reform of the MEP is inevitable. Indeed, SEI#1 expected to be a RMB4.5 trillion (US$750 billion) industry and without a big stick wielded by a “Super MEP”, it is difficult to see this can be achieved. It will not be an easy task to balance the water, economy, food and energy whilst maintaining stability, amidst a backdrop of climate change – a Super MEP would give a government a better fighting chance.

Further Reading

  • The War on Water Pollution – Premier Li has just declared war on pollution. Tan expands on the government’s stratagems & offensives and fundamental changes required to shore up the MEP’s arsenal in order to wage a successful war
  • 2013-2014 Key Water Policies Review Haven’t been following China’s Three Red Lines strategy to protect water? Check out our summary of key water policies from 2013 to 2014
  • 8 Facts on China’s Wastewater Don’t know anything about wastewater in China? Is it on the rise? Is industrial wastewater under-reported? Is it worse for rural areas? Check out our 8 facts from tech, key pollutants to standards
  • Fundamental Issues: Industrial Wastewater Professor Ma Zhong, dean of the School of Environment of Renmin University gives his in-depth views on the industrial wastewater standards & pricing. Is it cheaper to pollute than to treat?
  • China Water Risk’s 5 Trends for 2014 With environmental risk cited as one of the top risks most likely to derail economic growth, check out our top 5 trends in water for the year of the Green Horse
  • Groundwater Crackdown – Hope Springs The economy slows down but the Chinese government speeds up groundwater crackdown with increased transparency, blacklists at both central and provincial levels
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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