Applying consumption-based water management to achieve real water savings for China

The China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research (IWHR) is working with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations to produce a regional study, with technical and policy guidelines for consumption-based water management. Consumption-based water management has been pioneered in China in Turpan (semi-arid Xinjiang) and in the water-stressed Hai river Basin, encompassing extensive groundwater use and well-documented over-abstraction in the North China Plain.

As input to this project and under the Australia-Mekong Water Facility, the Australian Water Partnership (AWP) is supporting Australian Partners to assist the IWHR in developing these technical and policy guidelines. The new guidelines will represent current global best-practice from both a technical and governance perspective, and enable Chinese Government agencies to better manage and allocate water under conditions of scarcity.

Dr Emma Carmody (New South Wales Environmental Defenders Office), Dr Tim McVicar (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) and Dr Hugh Turral (independent senior water management specialist) participated in a two-day Expert Consultation meeting in Beijing, China, on 29–30 October, which was co-convened by IWRH and the FAO Regional Office for Asia-Pacific. The meeting included experts from a range of disciplines including remote sensing, irrigation, hydrology, economics and law.

Consumption-based water management—also known as evapotranspiration or ET-based water management—is a water management system that can be applied to irrigated agriculture to achieve ‘real’ water savings by reducing non-beneficial ET or ET more generally. While water consumption is being monitored in parts of the highly informal water economies of Asia, the shift from monitoring consumption to actively managing water on this basis is presenting a challenge.

The Australian delegation’s input at the Expert Consultation meeting helped to consolidate the Australian experience in water accounting, audit, allocation and compliance with a view to incorporate these aspects into the guidelines. The meeting was also attended by experts in remote sensing from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and International Water Management Institute; consultants and former senior officials from the FAO; academics with expertise in hydrology and related disciplines; and water experts from government agencies.

“The FAO-AWP-World Bank Expert Consultation was a critical step towards a new policy and practice guidelines for consumption-based water management in the Asia-Pacific. The new guidelines will fully incorporate the Australian, Chinese and global experiences shared, and be used by FAO to support governments in better understanding where and when remote sensing technologies can be used to better manage water scarcity in agriculture,” said Ms Louise Whiting, FAO Senior Water Management Officer.

Participants at the Expert Consultation meeting included representatives from Australia, FAO, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, International Water Management Institute, US and German universities, and Chinese Government agencies.

The first day of the meeting focused on technical elements, with an emphasis on remote sensing. Dr McVicar—who leads the ecohydrological remote sensing team at CSIRO—gave a presentation on achieving practical impacts in water allocation and management and the trade-offs in effective use of remote sensing of evapotranspiration. At the conclusion of day one, it was recognised that the technology is well-developed and understood, and that the biggest challenge lies in facilitating uptake in different and often-challenging contexts.

Presentations and discussions on the second day focused on law, policy and governance—as well as training and capacity building—with Dr Carmody presenting an examination of the legal and socio-political barriers to developing and implementing consumption-based water management and rights in different jurisdictions, and compliance challenges that could occur with cap-based water management.

“Together we discussed the possibility of implementing consumption-based management in water-scarce and overallocated zones in Asia. I was inspired by both the breadth of experience and dedication of those in the room, and the collective desire to advance this project,” said Dr Carmody.

AWP will provide additional support for Dr Turral and Dr Carmody to contribute to the technical guidelines on consumption-based water management with a focus on the legal, regulatory and governance aspects drawing on Australia’s experience. The manual is expected to be finalised by March 2020.

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