China: The ways to address disputes in Zhang River (#476)

Zhang River runs through Shanxi Province, Hebei Province and Henan Province as the border of Hebei and Henan Provinces. Within the basin, there is a large population but inadequate water and land resources. The residents of the villages along the river only have a small amount of valley terraces and flood land barely meeting their survival demand.

The water disputes of Zhang River were triggered in the 1950s owing to the limited natural resources, mainly on the Zhuozhang River, the Qingzhang River and the main stream of the Zhang River in the border area of Shanxi, Hebei and Henan. The number of destructive incidents of water projects in Hongqi Canal of Henan Province, Dayuefeng Canal of Hebei Province and Baishan Canal of Hebei was over 30. The residents of villages on both sides of Zhuozhang River from Hebei Province and Henan Province shelled each other and fought with weapons. The residents on both sides competed to build field-and-village-protecting dams and hydroelectric power projects for occupying river banks.

Action taken

Due to the particularity of the basin and its influence in China, the Central Government has attached importance to water disputes of Zhang River, issuing documents and guidance to the provincial governments of Henan and Hebei Provinces for settling disputes and achieving social stability. On June 3, 1989, the State Council approved "the Water Allocation Plan of Zhang River" proposed by the Ministry of Water Resources, providing that the water distribution ratio of Zhang River to Henan and Hebei were 48% and 52%, respectively.

In 1992, Ministry of Water Resources coordinated the two provinces to sign "the Agreement on the Settlement of the Water Disputes of Zhang River". While the main channel of the Red Flag Canal was blown up in August, 1992, the State Council held a meeting to mediate the water disputes of the Zhang River, and meanwhile, "the State Council's Coordination Meeting Minutes of the Water Disputes of Zhang River" (State Council [1992] No. 132) was proposed.

The Administration has assessed water rights and introduced the water market. These were new ideas of using the market mechanism to settle water disputes, namely "the paid inter-provincial water diversion, the optimization of the water distribution, prevention of water disputes and stable development." Jointly with the environmental protection departments, water resources departments and hydrology departments of related cities as well as a reservoir management bureau in the river basin, the Administration completed the River Pollution Emergency Response & Communications Plan of Upper Stream of Zhang River Basin, regulating regular meeting schedule, information sharing, emergency response and capacity building.

Lesson learnt

  • Water disputes were mitigated by the introduction of the appropriate administrative structure
  • Complex instruments were applied in an integrated way – ranging from the use of administrative, economic, legal, technical and engineering means. Especially the use of market mechanism and the rational allocation of water resources is an important approach to solve the water disputes.
  • Mitigation of water disputes allowed to develop a water-saving and pollution-preventing society. The carrying capacity of the water resources and ecosystem protection was an important part of the interventions in the Zhang River basin. At a mean time, development of the economy and society was enhanced.
  • Taking precautions beforehand and putting prevention first is an important principle to solve the water disputes.
  • Communicating effectively with other provinces and developing a friendship with the related provinces is an important humanistic factor to solve the water disputes.