Water Warriors: How China’s River Chiefs Aim to Tackle Water Pollution
By: Genevieve Donnellon-May
In many ways, China’s history is one of water management. As Chinese historiographers often remark, the unique hydrological conditions within China led to the creation of three historical miracles: China, Chinese civilisation, and the Chinese people. In both ancient and modern times, Chinese rulers have acknowledged the importance of water for its role in maintaining social stability as well securing their legitimacy.
Beijing’s leaders are acutely aware of the importance of water in maintaining social stability and ensuring the regime’s survival. The government has focused on engineering its way to water security, an approach traceable in part to Mao Zedong’s idea that man must conquer nature. This is reflected in the Chinese state’s construction of large-scale hydroengineering projects, encompassing numerous dams and inter-basin water-transfer projects. More recently, water governance was explicitly tied to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “ecological civilization” (生态文明) concept (China Brief, June 23) and his published book titled “The In-depth Learning and Implementation of Xi Jinping’s Important Discourse on Water Governance” (People’s Daily, July 19).
In May, China announced new plans to improve water quality. According to the “Guideline on Water Ecology and Environmental Protection in Major River Basins”, by 2025 China’s water governance aims to accomplish two main objectives: first, eliminate surface water below Grade V quality, and second, raise the proportion of “fairly good quality” surface water to 85 percent—an increase of 1.6 percentage points from 2020 (Ministry of Ecology and the Environment, May 5; State Council, May 5). China has a six-tier water quality system, with water below Grade V classified as the worst quality. At Grade III or above, surface water is considered to be of “fairly good quality”.
As a core convention of the central government, guidelines on the water management of major river basins are typically issued once every five years. In contrast to older guidelines, the most recent guidelines explicitly specificizes the improvement of surface water quality as an obligatory target and includes projected targets for the conservation of water resources and ecosystems. By 2025, for instance, China has set ambitious plans to recover waters levels in 53 dried-up water bodies and restore native fish species to a stable population in 107 major water bodies. China also aims to create an additional 213 square kilometers of wetlands by 2025.
China’s Water Woes
The new guidelines seek to address enormous, growing water challenges in China. In addition to severe droughts, China faces enormous water quality and spatio-temporal distribution challenges. Due to various interlinked factors such as industrialization, rapid population growth, and urbanization, the demand for freshwater in China is quickly increasing. Looking ahead, forecasts project that China’s water demand will continue to increase in the coming years. Adding to the country’s water scarcity dilemma, climate change is expected to exacerbate these concerns by causing rainfall patterns to become increasingly unpredictable. Recent estimates show that overall, the country’s per capita availability of water is only 25% of the world’s average. Moreover, according to official estimates, over 400 Chinese cities are short of water (People’s Daily, March 21, 2018; Asian Development Bank, October 31, 2016).
A notable example of a Chinese city facing acute water insecurity is Beijing. China’s capital regularly grapples with water scarcity and has experienced
multiple droughts, all while coping with a rapidly growing population (National Development and Reform Commission, May 21, 2021). On average, a Beijing local only has access to 145 cubic meters of fresh water each year—that amounts to one tenth of the world’s average water resources per capita (BBC, February 11, 2018).
Addressing water quality concerns: The River Chief System
In response to growing water quality and quantity concerns—as well as infighting between different bureaucracies—the central government has introduced a “River Chief System” (RCS) (河长制) to streamline water governance. The RCS policy was first used in response to an outbreak of blue algae at Lake Taihu, Wuxi City in Jiangsu province in 2007. As the outbreak left over two million people without potable water for a week, Wuxi authorities strove to address water pollution woes by appointing local government officials as “river chiefs.” To provide an incentive structure for local officials, the water quality of river cross-sections was closely monitored and included in the cadre evaluation system of party and government heads—notionally linking water and ecological performance to promotion up the party bureaucracy (National People’s Congress, March 6, 2017; Xinhua, December 31, 2017; State Council, January 4, 2018). In principle, those who submit inaccurate reports on purpose or fail to submit reports on water quality monitoring results are held accountable.
Initially using Wuxi as a proof of concept, the water quality monitoring results of 79 river cross-sections were included in the government performance evaluation. A year later, the river and lake remediation in Wuxi showed immediate results, with a significant improvement in the water quality of 79 assessment sections. Additionally, the overall compliance rate increased from 53.2 percent to 71.1 percent, thereby showing the effectiveness of the RCS policy in addressing water pollution (China Water Resources News, December 8, 2016).
Following the success of Lake Tiahu’s RCS, the Chinese central government carried out a nationwide implementation of the RCS policy. In his 2017 New Year’s address, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared, “Every river should have a ‘river chief’” (People’s Daily, June 16, 2017). By the end of 2018, the river chief system had been implemented throughout the country. At present, there are over 300,000 river chiefs at various levels (Xinhua, January 15, 2019).
Under this system, top officials at various levels of government—including township, county, municipal, and provincial—are appointed as lake or river chiefs within their respective jurisdictions. This means that river chiefs assume complete accountability for overseeing and safeguarding their respective rivers, encompassing tasks such as protecting water resources, mitigating water pollution, restoring water ecosystems, enforcing regulations, and conducting monitoring. Among these tasks, mitigating water pollution is considered the highest administrative priority.
The performance of the river chiefs is managed by a top-down accountability system—river chiefs of higher government rank evaluates the performance of lower-level river chiefs, through metrics such as whether local officials meet the water quality targets of specific river sections. Adding to this, river chiefs are held accountable if environmental damage (such as agricultural runoff) occurs in the water bodies they oversee (Xinhua, January 15, 2019).
In Zhejiang province, river chiefs are closely monitored, and water management is a non-negotiable task, while in Hainan, river chiefs are assessed every six months, and those who rank poorly or fail to fulfill their duties are investigated and held accountable (Huaihe River Commission, March 12, 2018). Elsewhere, in the city of Tianjin, river chief assessment results are published monthly and linked to incentives such as funding and performance evaluations for officials. Meanwhile, in the city of Guangzhou, many rivers have displayed public notice boards displaying the contact information of river chiefs, enabling residents to report problems promptly (Huaihe River Commission, March 12, 2018).
So far, according to official Chinese statistics, the implementation of the RCS policy succeeded in improving water quality. In the Sancha River watershed of Guizhou province, the water quality compliance rates increased from 55.3 percent in 2010 to 96 percent in 2014.  Additionally, in Wuxi, the compliance rate stayed above 70 percent from 2011 to 2017 (Wuxi Government, April 20, 2017).
Challenges and Implications
On the one hand, water quality in river basins throughout the country has generally improved. According to the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment, 84.9 percent of surface water monitoring stations reported potable water conditions in 2021, in comparison to 68.9 percent in 2012 (State Council, September 14, 2022). Furthermore, the RCS supports various national projects related to water pollution control and water ecosystem restoration—such as the Major Science and Technology Program for Water Pollution Control and Treatment (《水体污染控制与治理科技重大专项实施管理办法》) (Ministry of Ecology and Environment, November 22, 2019) and the State Council’s Action Plan for Water Pollution Prevention and Control (《国务院关于印发水污染防治行动计划的通知》) (State Council, April 16, 2015).
In addition, the RCS policy aims to reduce ineffective water management policies. Due to fragmentation among various jurisdictional areas and related government agencies with interconnected responsibilities, poorly coordinated water quality plans and projects may result in ineffective water management.  Under the RCS policy, however, the RCS office oversees the coordination, supervision, guidance, inspection, and communication of work. The RCS framework avoids replacing existing water-related administrative departments—such as bureaucracies related to environmental protection, forestry, and agriculture—or spreading the tasks across different departments. Doing so means that collaboration between the different government departments is easier and less inclined to incite bureaucratic conflicts—while also improving water quality in rivers and lakes.
On the other hand, the RCS policy has produced significantly uneven results between regions in China based on limited available information. Wealthier cities and those with stronger environmental restrictions tend to see more significant improvements, as these administrative districts have more funds to invest in water pollution treatment systems and water pollution control.
As one study highlights, the RCS has generally produced better results in wealthy cities, whereas relatively less developed regions still suffer from severe water quality issues (Journal of Cleaner Production, 2019). For instance, in 2017, the Nantong City government (in Jiangsu province) allocated 1.5 billion yuan (US$ 213 million) to water quality control (Nantong City Government report, 2018). In contrast, local governments of poorer cities may find this more challenging to do so due to limited budgets.
Furthermore, considerable pressure on local officials to meet water quality targets may result in environmental protection expenditures exceeding the total revenue of local governments—spending habits such as these may exacerbate the already severe debt crisis plaguing provincial governments. Indeed, as various Chinese scholars have noted,  financing effective environmental governance could result in a rise in the debt ratio of debt-laden local governments, whose decline in revenue has been well documented in recent years (Reuters, March 10; see also Xinhua, June 6; South China Morning Post, June 4).
Adding to this, China’s new national security laws may result in the significant decrease of foreign direct investment (FDI) (see China Brief, June 5). Despite the country’s ongoing economic downturn (Reuters, June 15), the RCS policy will nonetheless increase demand for environmental treatment projects and technologies necessary to carry out water quality control. This could result in sellers raising their prices alongside increasing costs of environmental treatments.  Given the fierce competition and expensive nature of water purification technologies, coupled with pressure from the central government to meet the various RCS targets among other objectives—all while facing reduced revenues—it remains to be seen how provincial governments can balance these inherently conflicting demands.
Another aspect to consider is the link between CCP (Chinese Communist Party) legitimacy and water resource management. Despite the planned construction of more hydro-engineering projects and an overall “infrastructure-focused” approach to domestic water management in China (State Council, May 27; China Daily, May 27), the aforementioned obstacles to the RCS could significantly hamper the efficacy of these policies. A breakdown in water management could culminate in a rise in water prices, stringent water restrictions, and heightened water scarcity. This scenario could result in strong public fears of significant water shortages, followed by rampant social unrest, beginning in one particular city or province before spreading to others. Given environmental protests in recent decades—oftentimes arising over the management of water resources and water quality—it is not unreasonable to consider this possibility.
Aside from the protests surrounding the Three Gorges Dam, as well as the 2011 Wukan protests in Guangdong, several other incidents further highlight the link between water resources management and social unrest. Notably, in 2001, a “dam blocking” incident occurred when residents in downstream Zhejiang protested by deliberately sinking boats into a waterway, with the aim of blocking polluted water in upstream Jiangsu province from entering their shared bodies of water (The China Quarterly, 2014). Furthermore, in 2007, protests held by environmental activists broke out in Xiamen over the construction of a chemical plant that posed serious health and environmental risks, including water pollution. In 2008, the Xiamen municipal government cancelled the project altogether (Reuters, June 1, 2007; South China Morning Post, June 2, 2007).
Not only has the RCS policy succeeded in bringing together different government departments and officials, it has also made significant progress in improving the water quality of China’s river basins in a short space of time. However, the RCS policy once again reveals the lopsided development pattern between different Chinese provinces and administrative districts across the country.
The potential failure of China’s RCS raises concerns over a nascent legitimacy deficit for both local and central governments. If the system fails to effectively address water management issues, it could undermine public trust and confidence in the government’s ability to safeguard the country’s environmental resources. This could have far-reaching consequences for the credibility of authorities at the local, provincial, and national level of government. Furthermore, due to the ongoing debt crisis of local Chinese governments, it remains to be seen if these resource-intensive policies can be sustained in the long term—and provide the governance results promised by CCP authorities.
This article originally appeared in the Jamestown Foundation's China Brief.