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Living in Harmony with Our Waters and Ensuring Our Rivers Flourish

By Li Guoying Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2024-05-11

Rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water are the lifeblood of our planet, the wellspring of human life, and the cradle of civilization. Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2012, the Central Committee with Xi Jinping at the core has placed great emphasis on the protection and management of rivers, launching a national river strategy. This has paved the way for a new chapter in river protection and management in the new era.

I. Impressive results in river protection and management in the new era

Remarkable improvements to rivers and lakes

The complete implementation of the river and lake chief system has bolstered ecological protection and management in river basins such as those of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. Further progress has also been made in the Mother River Restoration Initiative. For the first time in a century, the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, which was initially built over 2,000 years ago, has achieved continuous water flow along its entire length. Similarly, the Yongding River, which had run dry for more than two decades, now has year-round, uninterrupted water flow along its entire course.

Better distribution of water resources

We have effectively carried out major inter-basin and inter-regional water diversion projects, epitomized by the South-to-North Water Diversion Project. This has yielded initial progress in creating an overall pattern of water resource distribution featuring north-south coordination and east-west assistance. The water supply capacity of national water conservancy projects increased from 700 billion cubic meters in 2012 to almost 900 billion cubic meters in 2022.

Systematic transformation in the utilization of water resources

We have vigorously pursued the National Water Conservation Campaign and tightened mandatory limits on the use of water resources. As a result, between 2013 and 2022, even as China’s GDP surged from nearly 60 trillion yuan to over 120 trillion yuan, total national water consumption remained within 610 billion cubic meters. Within this period, water consumption per 1,000 yuan of GDP dropped by 42.8%, while water consumption per 1,000 yuan of industrial added value fell by 58.2%.

Visible progress in flood and drought control

We have overcome a series of severe and rare flooding and drought events along major rivers, such as the Yellow, Pearl, and Yangtze, effectively safeguarding people’s lives and property. During the main flood season of 2023, we achieved an important victory in responding to the most widespread flooding in the Haihe River basin since 1963. During the flooding, not a single reservoir failed, all important levees remained intact, and nearly a million people were evacuated from flood detention and retention basins, without the loss of a single life.

II. Improving the distribution of river water resources and promoting the conservation and intensive use of water resources

China has always been troubled by summer floods and winter droughts, with the north experiencing water shortages and the south having an abundance of water resources. This has resulted in an extreme imbalance in the distribution of water resources across time and space in China—a situation unlikely to change in a long period of time. Moreover, with a large population and limited water resources, China’s per capita water availability is only about 35% of the global average. Water scarcity is a critical factor affecting not only environmental quality but also the nation’s economic and social development.

It is vital that we regard the carrying capacity of our water resources as the precondition and cornerstone of our work. We must put water conservation first, manage water use in line with availability, and put equal emphasis on developing new water resources and preserving existing ones. Based on sound planning and development of inter-basin and inter-regional water resource distribution projects, we must comprehensively enhance our ability to coordinate and regulate water resources, guarantee water supply, and bolster strategic reserves. By doing so, we will provide a strong guarantee for high-quality economic and social development.

Accelerating construction of the national water network

The Outline Program for the Construction of the National Water Network, jointly issued by the CPC Central Committee and the State Council, will be fully implemented. We will focus on river basins as a whole and the balanced distribution of water resources, as well as the specific features of rivers and lakes and the layout of water conservancy infrastructure. On this basis, we will designate large natural river and lake systems, large water transfer projects, and major water transmission and drainage channels as the backbone of the national water network; regional river and lake connectivity projects and water supply channels as key links of the network; and water storage projects with regulating functions as network nodes. Ensuring coordination between existing and new projects, we will take steps to strengthen network connectivity by shoring up weak areas and reinforcing links. Through these efforts, we will make faster strides in developing a smooth-flowing national water network that is complete, secure, efficient, smart, eco-friendly, and well-regulated.


The Shangbao Terraces in Chongyi County, Jiangxi Province, which were included in the 2022 edition of the World Heritage Irrigation Structures List. The terraces comprise a complete agricultural irrigation system and an effective ecological protection system, thus fully embodying the ideas of respecting nature, protecting it, and following its ways. MINISTRY OF WATER RESOURCES / PHOTO BY LU XINPING

Tightening mandatory limits on the use of water resources

We will determine development targets for cities, land, urban population, and industrial structure and scale based on available water resources, strictly observe upper limits for the development and use of water resources, and ensure prudent and efficient use of water resources based on rigorous oversight. By evaluating the carrying capacity of water resources in rivers and lakes, we will define control indicators for the available volume of water in river basins and regions. We will step up supervision and regulation of water extraction and use, improve the monitoring and metering system to track the withdrawal and consumption of water from various sources, and strictly enforce water resource evaluations, while tightening management over water extraction permits. We will expedite the process of initially allocating water rights and establish and refine a market-based mechanism for trading these rights.

Advancing the National Water Conservation Campaign 

To conserve water, we will make sustained efforts to raise water use efficiency in agriculture, reduce the discharge of industrial wastewater, and cut water loss in urban areas. Unconventional water resources will also be better utilized. We will press ahead with fostering a water-saving society at the county level and make determined efforts to conserve water and regulate water use in the Yellow River basin. To spur innovation in water conservation, we will promote contract-based water-saving management, adopt new approaches such as water efficiency labeling and water-saving certification, and encourage financial and private capital investment in water conservation. We will carry out extensive educational and promotional activities related to water conservation in order to encourage society as a whole to adopt water-saving lifestyles and production modes.


The Cangzhou section of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, Hebei Province. In 2022, water began flowing along the full course of the canal for the first time in a century, restoring its original beauty and charm. MINISTRY OF WATER RESOURCES

III. Protecting and managing river basin ecosystems and ensuring we live in harmony with our waters

Adhering to the principle that lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets, we will plan development with a view to ensuring harmony between humanity and nature. By respecting nature, following its ways, and protecting it, we will promote river and lake ecological restoration, safeguard the health and vitality of rivers and lakes, and ensure their sustainable use for the long-term benefit of the Chinese nation.

Restoring our nation’s mother rivers

China’s mother rivers—the Yangtze and Yellow—have nourished the natural environments of their respective basins and nurtured the people of their regions, forming a vital foundation for their survival. Just as the Yangtze and Yellow rivers have fostered the Chinese nation’s development, we must see that we continue to effectively protect and manage these vital watercourses.

We will steadily replenish the Grand Canal, conduct regular water replenishment of rivers and lakes in north China and targeted replenishment during summer months, and regulate the ecology of the Xiliao River basin. Ulan Suhai Lake will also be replenished, and the water surface area of Baiyangdian Lake will be kept stable. We will enhance monitoring of ecological flows and water levels, as well as water quality and aquatic ecology. We will also establish and refine early warning and response mechanisms for ecological flows and strengthen oversight over the implementation of protective measures for ecological flows.

Great efforts will be made in tracing the origins of China’s river civilization. We will work to protect, pass on, and promote the cultures of the Yangtze River, the Yellow River, and the Grand Canal to ensure that we carry forward our historical roots and strengthen confidence in Chinese culture.

Advancing ecological protection and governance of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs

We will continue to implement the river and lake chief system and steadily work to ensure our rivers and lakes flourish. We will strengthen the management of river and lake shoreline spaces and make ongoing efforts to tackle illegal riverside occupation, construction, mining, and dumping through standard procedures. We will intensify the management of sand mining in river channels and crack down on illegal sand mining activities.

We will bolster the protection of drinking water source areas and enhance the safeguards for water quality at key water sources, such as the Three Gorges Reservoir and the Danjiangkou Reservoir, as well as their upstream catchment areas. Faster steps will be taken to green and modernize small hydropower stations, and a sustained push will be made to advance the overall management of rural water systems.

Comprehensively addressing the over-extraction of groundwater

We will enhance groundwater monitoring, bolstering supervision, management, and zonal regulation. We will control both the total amount of groundwater extraction and water table levels and introduce notification and assessment systems for changes in groundwater levels.

Coordinating measures for conservation, control, substitution, replenishment, and management, we will make holistic efforts to tackle groundwater over-extraction in 10 key regions, including North China, the Sanjiang Plain, the Songnen Plain, and the Liaohe Plain. In addition, we will control groundwater extraction in areas served by the South-to-North Water Diversion Project and launch pilot projects for the artificial recharge of deep groundwater.

Taking an integrated approach to addressing water loss and soil erosion

Soil and water conservation represents a fundamental measure for protecting and managing our waterways, as well as a basic national policy that requires long-term commitment. Our efforts will be focused on critical areas such as the upper and middle reaches of major rivers, the chernozem soil regions of northeastern China, and the water source areas of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project. On this basis, we will improve the efficiency and quality of comprehensive management in small watersheds.

A responsibility assessment system for soil and water conservation targets will be put into place. Comprehensive and routine remote sensing surveillance of soil and water conservation will be implemented, and tough, law-based measures will be taken to deal with activities that breach laws and regulations. We will review and promote experiences of carbon trading in soil and water conservation projects and develop a robust framework for realizing the value of ecological products derived from soil and water conservation.

IV. Making every effort in flood control and resolutely safeguarding water security

In recent years, a rise in extreme weather events has been characterized by increased frequency, intensity, and scope, with the abruptness, severity, and irregularity of torrential rains, floods, and droughts in river basins becoming more pronounced. To ensure both high-quality development and greater security, we must adopt a prevention-based approach, coordinate drought and flood control, and implement more robust measures for forecasting, early warning, response drills, and planning, so as to resolutely safeguard water security.

Improving the system of river basin flood prevention projects

Given that the process of flood generation, concentration, and progression occurs within the confines of river basins, we must consider river basins as the fundamental units for planning, constructing, and implementing the system of flood prevention projects. Taking a long-term perspective, we will comprehensively assess the evolving dynamics of flood prevention and disaster mitigation in river basins and update flood control plans for the seven major river basins to form new flood control frameworks that are adaptable to development and sufficiently forward-looking.

Adhering to a systems approach, we will ensure coordinated management between river basins and regions and balanced overseeing involving upstream and downstream sections, left and right banks, and mainstreams and tributaries. We will methodically plan the functional development of reservoirs, river channels, levees, and detention and retention basins. The construction of major projects for flood regulation in river basins will be accelerated. Key river channels will be subject to comprehensive management and a three-year action plan will be implemented to build up levees along major rivers and lakes in line with national standards. We will ensure the safe development and operation of detention and retention basins and see that they play a key role in river basin flood prevention at critical moments.

Heightening rainfall monitoring and forecasting

Forward-looking, timely, and accurate monitoring and forecasting of rainfall is vital for winning the fight in modern flood control. Taking river basins as the fundamental units, we will fully leverage modern technology and equipment to quickly establish three lines of defense comprising meteorological satellites and rainfall radars, precipitation stations, and hydrological stations.


Songyinxi Water Conservancy Scenic Area in Songyang County, Zhejiang Province. In recent years, water resource departments have strengthened the management of ecological flows and water levels in rivers and lakes in an effort to carry out river and lake health assessments. MINISTRY OF WATER RESOURCES / PHOTO BY JIANG XIAODONG

The first line of defense will ensure cloud-based rainfall detection and prediction, with capabilities extending to the forecasting of flood generation, concentration, and progression. The second line of defense will monitor rainfall at the ground level and extend to forecasting subsequent generation, concentration, and progression. At the third line of defense, hydrological stations will conduct flood monitoring and reporting and also engage in forecasting flood progression and transmission.

We will optimize the layout, structure, and functions of monitoring stations and look into building hydrological and hydraulic models for flood generation, concentration, and progression tailored to the characteristics of each river basin. These efforts will help extend the lead time for flood forecasting and improve the accuracy of flood predictions.

Reinforcing the digital twin system for water management

The empowerment of river protection and management with digital twin technology represents an underlying trend and a development imperative. Making a holistic push for progress, we will advance the development of digital twin river basins, water networks, and water projects. This will entail digitally mapping all elements of physical river basins, water networks, and water conservancy projects, as well as every aspect of the water management process and conducting intelligent simulations and scenario planning.

Using digital flow fields, we will rehearse scenarios to understand the progression of flooding, the distribution of risk points, the operational status of flood detention and retention basins, and the receding of floodwaters. We will iteratively refine the plans for managing and deploying flood control systems within each river basin and develop forecasting, early warning, simulation, and planning functions. We will thus ensure forward-looking, science-based, targeted, and safety-oriented support for decision-making and management.

Enhancing the working system for flood and drought control

Building a defense system that encompasses all levels of management and every geographical area is vital for establishing solid defenses against flooding and drought. Our aims are to ensure no human casualties occur, no reservoirs collapse, no important levees are breached, and no damage is done to major infrastructure, and to guarantee the supply of safe water in both urban and rural areas. We will conduct thorough risk assessments and address potential hazards, ensure emergency response teams, equipment, and materials are in place ahead of time, improve the early warning mechanism for mountain torrents, and ensure the system of flood prevention projects is deployed in a rigorous fashion. We will actively stockpile water resources to protect against drought and see that targeted measures are taken to assist specific groups at the optimal time and within the correct scope, so as to ensure a reliable supply of drinking water for both urban and rural residents and meet the irrigation needs of crop farmers in a timely manner.

V. Strengthening management of river basins and enhancing our capacity for river protection and management

Taking river basins as the fundamental units, we will pursue coordinated management involving upstream and downstream sections, left and right banks, and mainstreams and tributaries, and strengthen unified planning, overseeing, control, and management across river basins. This will ensure continued improvements in the capacity and standard of river protection and governance.

Unified planning

Based on the overall context of each river basin, we will determine baseline characteristics, economic and social development needs, and environmental protection requirements. In response to changing circumstances, we will take timely steps to update the overall plans for river basins. We will improve the specialized planning systems for river basins to ensure they are accurately positioned, well-defined, mutually reinforcing, and well-integrated. We will strengthen planning-based guidance and constraints and reinforce responsibilities for implementation to guarantee the effective fulfillment of planning goals and tasks for each river basin.

Unified overseeing

In line with the basic principle that regions must serve the needs of river basins, we will coordinate the relationships between upstream and downstream sections, left and right banks, and mainstreams and tributaries. We will consider the functional roles and regional distribution of water conservancy projects in a holistic way, carefully determine their layout, scale, and standards, and coordinate the sequence of their implementation. We will enhance record-keeping for river basin management initiatives and encourage collaborative efforts to protect and manage river basins. This will ensure that all sides systematically work toward unified objectives based on integrated plans.

Unified control

We will pursue integrated management of key water regulation projects within river basins to reinforce alignment among various goals concerning flood prevention, water supply, ecological conservation, power generation, navigation, and other issues. We will refine the system for coordinating the interests of all parties and ensure unified control for flood prevention, water resources, and ecological flow volumes within river basins, so as to deliver the best possible results. 

Unified management

We will establish an overseeing framework featuring coordinated river basin management, regional collaboration, and inter-departmental coordination. We will bolster comprehensive law enforcement and promote joint prevention, control, and management within river basins. We will ensure unified management of rivers and lakes, water rights and resources, and water protection and governance actions. This will facilitate collective efforts to safeguard the health and vitality of our rivers and lakes.

Li Guoying is Minister and Secretary of the CPC Leadership Group, Ministry of Water Resources.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 3, 2024)