Yellow River Basin Faces Environmental, Economic Challenges

New research sheds light on water, irrigation, poverty alleviation

Beijing—Leading experts on water and irrigation are meeting today to identify solutions to problems affecting the Yellow River Basin. The region enjoys high economic growth, but faces many environmental challenges and high poverty rates in parts of the basin.

The workshop, “High-impact Interventions for Reducing Water-related Poverty in the Yellow River Basin,” was organized by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy (CCAP). Collaborators include partners from the Yellow River Conservancy Commission, Beijing Normal University, Tsinghua University, the University of Illinois in the USA, and the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food.

“China is experiencing increasing water scarcity in many river basins due to its rapid economic development, an expanding population, growing urbanization, and limited scope to develop new supplies of fresh water. Our research finds that these issues affect the Yellow River Basin in particular,” said Claudia Ringler, IFPRI senior research fellow and a workshop organizer.

Considered the cradle of Chinese civilization, the Yellow River Basin is the second largest basin in China and is a key agricultural and industrial region.

Research presented at the workshop found that rapid economic growth has put intense demands on Yellow River waters. Yet despite increased development, the agricultural sector remains by far the largest user of water resources, accounting for 80 percent of total withdrawals and surpassing available resources for decades.

“Because poor people in particular depend on farming for their livelihoods, access to water is a key factor in their economic well-being,” said Jinxia Wang, Professor at CCAP. “Our study found significantly lower rates of poverty in irrigated areas of the Yellow River Basin compared to areas without irrigation.”

While 19 percent of all households living in irrigated villages are poor, the rate is more than double in non-irrigated villages, 41 percent, researchers found (measured by international poverty standards).

However, water availability for agriculture in the basin is increasingly threatened by rapid growth in the demand for industrial and urban water, the need to flush sediment from the river’s lower reaches, other environmental demands, and growing water pollution. Climate change is already evident in the basin with long-term declines in river runoff, higher temperatures, and increased frequency of drought.

“There is no panacea for addressing the severe water scarcity challenges in the Yellow River Basin,” Ringler noted. “Based on an assessment of options available, we believe that the government should continue to reform irrigation management institutions and water pricing across all water-using sectors. At the same time, users need to be compensated for giving up water resources for higher-valued uses and users.”

Experts contend that water projects that follow market mechanisms would be an important means to help poor farmers, as they can make water available for agriculture and compensate farmers who conserve water. They also urge reform at the administrative levels of central and local governments to fully integrate management of land and water use at the basin level to avoid large inefficiencies caused by conflicting objectives of the various agencies involved.

“Expanding irrigation in the basin will help boost crop yields, which in turn will increase incomes of poor people and reduce poverty. However, there are limits to the availability of water, and labor productivity is known to be lowest in agriculture. Therefore, accelerating a shift of rural labor force out of agriculture by creating off-farm employment opportunities in higher productivity sectors in rural areas is arguably even more important,” Ringler concluded.

Contact Information: 

Lijuan Zhang, 64888983-801
 zhanglj.ccap@igsnrr.ac.cn

Michael Rubinstein, +1 202/862.5670
 m.rubinstein@cgiar.org

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