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Seminar explores water environmental governance

Author  :  WU NAN and XING YIXIN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2022-07-23

NANJING—Scholars shed light on the river and lake chief system, flood disaster and environmental governance, as well as human development and water governance practices, at an international symposium on Water and Society in Nanjing, on July 2.

Close connections

Boosting water conservancy and reducing flood damage is a major event in national security, and water security concerns national economic and social development and stability, as well as people’s health and well-being, said Chen Maoshan, director of the Development Research Center of the Ministry of Water Resources. Under the strong leadership of the CPC Central Committee, the whole country has been working together on flood prevention security, drinking water security, and water supply security, constantly improving river basins’ flood prevention system, and carrying out irrigation and water conservancy construction, laying a solid foundation for securely placing rice bowls of the Chinese people in our own hands. The country has planned and constructed a batch of trans-basin water transfer projects such as the south-to-north water diversion project, strictly implemented the water resources management system, improved the intensive and optimized allocation system, and strengthened the protection and restoration of water ecology, providing solid water resources support and guaranteeing water security for sustainable economic and social development.

Water is closely related to human society, said Alex de Sherbinin, associate director for science applications at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University. Climate change has given rise to such problems as water scarcity, declining crop production, and rising sea levels, causing millions of “climate migrants.” Compared with other factors, water availability is the most important factor affecting changes in population distribution.

The relationship between water and society is an important entry point for understanding Chinese society. Water plays a crucial role in constructing human social relations and spiritual culture. According to Zheng Xiaoyun, director of the China Yangtze River Culture Research Institute at Hubei University, the development of water hygiene is the process and product of technological progress, as well as the result of conflicts and changes in concepts, religions, and social traditions. The complex relationship between water and human hygienic development, and the grand social phenomena it manifests, show the important value of water history research.

After settling down, humans must actively utilize water resources and solve the problem of clean water, with wells being our earliest water purification facilities. Wells have been found in ancient ruins in China, Egypt, and several other countries. Today, wells continue to serve daily water use in arid regions of China. In some regions, a village is divided into several social units according to the relationship in water usage. It can be considered as a neighborhood formed by the well, which is called the “well side.”

Chen Ajiang, director of the Research Center for Environment and Society at Hohai University, and his team investigated water-deficient areas in the Taihang Mountains in east China. According to the survey, due to daily water needs, neighboring residents jointly raise funds and invest in the construction of wells, thereby delineating the boundaries of water use and building a water community. Residents in the well side help each other, and supervise each other’s water use behavior, and even daily behavior. Religious activities and secular cultural activities with the well side as a unit provide entertainment activities for neighborhood residents, enhance mutual exchanges among them, and hence promote integration of local society.

Water governance

Water environmental governance constitutes an important aspect of national governance, which is fully reflected in the construction of national laws and regulations. The Yangtze River Protection Law and the Yellow River protection law are exemplary laws to follow in national water governance and environmental governance based on great river basins, said Ke Jian, a professor from the School of Law at Wuhan University. In the future, the modernization of national river governance should pay full attention to the establishment of the basin coordination system and mechanism, he suggested.

Establishing national parks in important water environment areas is a significant governance move in recent years. Su Yang, a research fellow from the Development Research Center of the State Council, believes that in past protection practices of national parks, there have been frequent conflicts among protection agencies, local governments, and indigenous peoples. The key premise of going from conflict to symbiosis is that the central government coordinates and adjusts the rights, responsibilities, and interests system as a whole, and tries to balance the interests of stakeholders while benefiting the overall interests, coordinating the contradiction between protection and development.

In response to national requirements for water governance, innovative measures have emerged in local water governance practices, and the river chief system is a typical example. Chen Tao, deputy dean of the School of Public Administration at Hohai University, elaborated upon the origin and evolution of the river chief system and analyzed the structural factors of the system. He suggested advancing the river chief system and making it practical, capable, and effective through multi-subject collaboration. It is necessary to enhance the sustainability of the non-governmental water governance mechanism and open up the “last mile” of river and lake governance.

Despite the large role of the river chief system in actual operation, there are potential problems that need to be optimized. Mark Yaolin Wang, director of the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia, said that the reform and innovation of the river chief system needs to strengthen horizontal coordination and vertical management, and encourage social forces to participate.

In addition to measures such as national promotion and local innovation, the impact of daily lifestyles and ideas on water environmental governance should not be underestimated. When discussing the relationship between bottled water and sustainable consumption, Zhang Dunfu, a professor from the School of Sociology and Political Science at Shanghai University, noted that the rapid growth of bottled water consumption and its environmental consequences are rooted in people’s impedances of consumption ideas and consumption behaviors in associating it with ecological environmental damage.

Editor: Yu Hui

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