Water management and food security in vulnerable regions of China

June 23, 2014
Jennifer Kingsley

Extreme weather events and a changing climate are affecting two critical agricultural areas in China, but in very different ways: one is drying up while the other is flooding. Researchers from the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy are using historical data analysis, extensive household surveys, and robust economic modeling to make recommendations about the most cost-effective way to manage water in these regions—and therefore enhance food security.  

A study of extremes

North China Plain is a major centre for grain production and home to 35% of the Chinese population. It is a water-scarce area, with water availability being only one-quarter of the national average. Between the 1950s and 1990s, the average temperature for the region increased by over 1ºC and precipitation decreased by an average of 140mm per year. Poyang Lake, on the other hand, is one of the largest freshwater wetlands in Asia. It plays an important flood mitigation role for the middle area of the Yangtze River basin, and is a key part of the local ecology. Although dramatic seasonal fluctuations are a natural part of the system, flooding events have become more frequent and severe in recent years. In 2010, flooding killed 57 people and destroyed almost 1.8 million hectares of crops. The economic loss was more than 7.9 billion USD.

In both regions, food security has been affected either through water scarcity and drought, or from high water and flooding. The research team is investigating what is happening with the local climate, exploring how farmers are adapting to the changes in water availability, and identifying economical ways of sustaining food production.

Finding a solution

The first step of this project, which began in 2012, was to comb through historical climate and weather data to find information about trends and extreme events. Early analysis shows that in the last 50 years, the annual average temperature has increased in both regions, though there has been no obvious change in precipitation. The study has also shown how crops are affected in extreme years compared to relatively normal years. For example, in a normal year in North China Plain, 70% of the wheat plots may be affected by drought; in an extreme year, that number jumps to 94%. In a normal year around Poyang Lake, 58% of rice plots may be affected by flood, but in an extreme year the number can be as high as 78%.

The next question is how farmers are adapting, or not, to climate uncertainty. Household surveys were conducted with representatives from 1,500 households in 150 villages across North China Plain, and 900 households in 90 villages across the Poyang Lake region. In both study regions, survey results show that farmers are managing water with both engineering measures—such as reservoirs, pumps, and wells—and non-engineering options—such as shifting sowing or harvesting dates, minimizing water use, and developing water users or farmers associations. 

These activities are being practiced to greater or lesser degrees from community to community; adoption rates range from 5-40% for different strategies. Household decisions about adaptation are affected by many factors including income, education, social capital, and access to government services such as reservoirs, emergency response plans, or technical support.

China's Poyang Lake Region is suscpetible to flooding, which can reduce agricultural yields.The research team also investigated adaptation strategies used by governments, primarily at the national level. A major adaptation used by government is to issue early warning information to villages, though less than 40% of villages receive this service. Governments also regulate water levels through state controlled dams and reservoirs and set water policy, though adaptive policy sensitive to climate uncertainty is still scarce.

All of this information, collected through widespread engagement of farmers, academics, survey enumerators, and government officials, leads to the crux of this projectfinding the most economical way of adapting to changing water conditions to protect agricultural areas and access to food.

Integrating research into policy

Climate change is a stated priority within the Chinese government. The country approved a National Plan for Coping with Climate Change in 2008 and an economic development plan for Poyang Lake in 2009. Other plans exist too, including the National Comprehensive Plan for Water Resources; however, many plans do not yet focus on adaptation, and do not include concrete policies for economic water management. There are still gaps, and researchers at the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy intend to address them, through data analysis, capacity building within the research community, and developing robust economic models. These activities will help safeguard farmers and their crops around Poyang Lake and North China Plain, two essential links in China's food security chain.

The project “Water Resources and Adaptation to Climate Change in Vulnerable North China Plain and Poyang Lake Region in China” is funded through the IDRC Research Initiative on Water Resources and Adaptation to Climate Change in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean with funds from Government of Canada's fast-start climate finance.

Jennifer Kingsley is an Ottawa-based writer.

Watch an interview with researcher Jinxia Wang:

view with researcher Jinxia Wang