Water and Food Security in a warming China

Editors Note:  We are pleased to announce that China water expert Christine Boyle has joined the GLF team as a contributor.  Christine brings with her 15 years of environmental planning experience.  She was previously a Fulbright Scholar in China and recently obtained her PhD from University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. She will be blogging on topics related to water and agriculture.

The roots are willing, but the water table is weak. [Source: FT]

I am thrilled to be joining the GLF team.  In my inaugural post, I’d like to draw an explicit connection between climate change and its impacts on water and food security.

The current trajectory for global greenhouse gas emissions is rising faster than the most pessimistic emission scenarios envisioned in the 4th Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007. Despite large uncertainties, a recent World Bank report  warns that it increasingly plausible that this has put the world on a 4° C average warming path within the 21st century.

Such climate developments, their implications, and the resulting potential impacts – some very likely, others masked by great uncertainty – are, of course, relevant for the large populace of China.


Climate-Induced Impacts on Agriculture

Assessments of China’s vulnerability to climate-induced impacts suggest that due to extremes in temperature and precipitation, the nation’s agricultural sector faces large impacts from climate shifts.  This prognosis, coupled with a very low level of preparedness, is a combination that spells trouble for China’s 240 million farming household and the nation’s food security future.

How will this happen?  Climate change threatens to cause more water stress and increase frequencies of severe droughts and floods. Although increased rainfall is typically good for crop growth, extreme flooding can damage crops and livestock caught in the flood path.  Due to China’s expansive and varied topography, it is feared that this will translate into significant socio-economic losses in the 21st century. In the past 20 years, for example, droughts in China resulted in average annual grain production loss of more than 16 million metric tons (MMT) with a record level of 60 MMT loss in 2000. According to the Ministry of Water Resources Annual Bulletin, over the same period, droughts also diminished drinking water supplies for nearly 28 million people and 22 million livestock annually. One strategy to help the nation avoid risks of grain shortages is China’s foreign farming policy, which is essentially a strategy of land purchases or leases abroad to guarantee its food security. This policy, known as outward investment, is part of a larger set of policy initiatives set out clearly in the Outward Investment Sector Direction Policy of 2006.

China is a global player in terms of overall food production so, as they say, “a sneeze in China can give the whole world a cold.”  In a globalized world with complex interconnections from trade, grain production decreases and resulting reliance on imports have the potential to extend far beyond national boundaries and discussions about China’s domestic food self-sufficiency.  The following graph (see Figure 1) depicts China’s dominance in global wheat production; trends are similar for maize and rice. Such production quantities indicate the magnitude of China’s crop production, yet China’s demand for basic grains is still increasing.

Figure 1: Country-level wheat production in 2009-10. Source: Agriculture Corner

Government Action

As a result of increasing concern over how best to mitigate climate change impacts, China’s central government has escalated climate change adaptation into the nation’s top policy agenda. To push the adaptation agenda, it released the China National Plan for Coping with Climate Change in 2008 and the action plan China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change action plan in 2012. Since 2010, the Ministry of Water Resources in China has also taken a number of measures to introduce strict water resources control through improving policies related to the development, utilization, conservation, and protection of water resources.

China has formulated several programs that focus on the water and agricultural sectors, including in particular:
•    the National Integrated Water Resources Plan 2010-2030,
•    2011’s Policy Document Number 1
•    the Seven Major River Basins’ Flood Control Plan, and
•    the National Plan to Guarantee the Safe Supply of Drinking Water.

These planning documents aim to enhance the adaptive capacity of the sector and its associated domains. Most notably, on January 12, 2012, China’s State Council published a guideline to implement water resources management in China under the strictest water resource management criteria. The guideline sets management criteria based on three red lines outlined in the approved National Integrated Water Resources Plan 2010 – 2030 from the MWR. The three red lines define the upper limits in terms of total amount, water-use efficiency, and water quality to guarantee the nation’s sustainable development. The red lines have not yet been publicly released.  To note, China’s water management strategy remains hindered by two fundamental policy constraints: lack of water rights and below market pricing of water for agriculture. Without addressing these core issues, meeting conservation goals will remain difficult.

In future weeks on GLF, I will unpack the complex relationship among water, energy and food (a ‘trilemma’ that GLF was the first to explore here and here) by assembling a portfolio of viewpoints and expert opinions on crafting a cost –effective and sustainable path forward.  It is my firm belief that China has the capacity and resources not only to meet its water resource and climate change challenges, but to master them.

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