AbstractWater governance has been handled as a critical national issue in China since ancient times. Over thousands of years, water governance in China has evolved from flood control, irrigation, and navigation to modern large-scale water supply, water pollution control, and ecological protection, with sustainable water resources management being the major challenge today. This paper presents an overview of the development and evolution of China’s water governance before and after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In particular, over the last 70 years, China’s water governance has experienced fundamental changes, which can be grouped into four stages: (1) engineering development and project management underlying national and regional planning and administrative command (1949–1978); (2) water resources management characterized by water withdrawal permits and initial attempts for integrated water resources management (1979–2001); (3) more established integrated management combining watershed management and regional water management and adopting growing market mechanisms for water resources allocation (2002–2016); and (4) since 2016, ecological civilization construction intended to strengthen the systematic, comprehensive management of rivers, lakes, and basins by implementing the River Chief system in the whole country.IntroductionWater is one of the most important components connecting nature and society, being involved in water resources, water disasters, water environment, and water ecology. The unique properties of water in natural and social systems make the governance of water resources different from that of other resources (Wang et al. 2017). On the one hand, the spatiotemporal nonuniformity and mobility of water resources make it more difficult to manage; on the other hand, water is a common-pool resource with externalities, and the “tragedy of the commons” may occur for water resources without appropriate governance (Ostrom 1990). The exploitation and use of water by human beings have broken the natural water cycle, and in some areas, water use exceeds the carrying capacity of water resources, leading to many pressures on water resources, such as scarcity, pollution, and extreme weather disasters (Cosgrove and Rijsberman 2014). Numerous problems with water resources make water governance a major issue concerning human survival and social stability (Rogers and Hall 2003; Tortajada 2010). Water governance refers to the whole enabling environment in which water management actions take place to promote efficient water allocation and use, prevent and control water disasters, and ensure sustainability. Such governance involves water management institutions, such as government administration structures, market mechanisms, and public participation, setting up water policies and making water-related decisions.Water governance in human society has undergone a long evolution. After thousands of years of flood control, irrigation, and navigation, modern society with large populations and a high intensity of urbanization has been faced with new challenges, namely large-scale water supply, water pollution, and ecological protection (Varis and Vakkilainen 2001). With the global degradation of ecological catchment systems, humans’ attitude towards water issues has changed from ignoring to active governance (Motesharrei et al. 2014). The ancient engineering development of water resources has evolved into modern water resources management (Huitema et al. 2009). Government-oriented water allocation has evolved into market-oriented allocation (Bakker 2005). The management of water resources in silos has evolved into integrated water resources management (Biswas et al. 2004), and sole water supply management has evolved into combined water supply and demand management (Chen et al. 2005). There are a variety of water governance systems at different spatial and temporal scales and under different cultural backgrounds and different national systems, which have been spread and promoted as important wisdom regarding water control (Angelakis and Zheng 2015).As the cradle of oriental civilization, China has a vast land area, abundant resources, and a complex natural geographical and hydrometeorological environment. Unlike the valley civilizations of Egypt and Babylon, China’s Yellow River basin belongs to a monsoon climate and sits at a higher latitude in which climate disasters are frequent. Therefore, it is essential to consider rainstorms, droughts, floods, and overwintering while developing China’s water resources (Jiang 1997). For thousands of years, the agricultural economy dominated China’s economy, water was the lifeblood of agriculture, and waterways supported navigation. Chinese people have emphasized the importance of water governance and have accumulated rich experiences through water management practices over successive dynasties (Greer 2012). Over time, the attitude to water governance in China has progressed from avoiding to treating, from blocking to dredging, from dredging to guiding, and from preventing water damage to promoting water conservancy, reflecting a movement from passive to active water management (Zhang 2015). During China’s history, a series of water management cases were of great importance to the country’s successful water governance: for example, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, as a typical representative example of ancient water conservancy engineering, was wisely designed and built 2,000 years ago and is still in use today. In terms of legislation and regulations, a formal irrigation management system appeared in China as early as 111 BCE (Ban 1962). In 737 CE, the first national water conservancy management regulations (Shuibushi) were developed (Li 1992), which stipulated that the success of irrigation-district management was a basis for the evaluation and promotion of relevant government officials.Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), China has moved into a new era of social development and made great achievements in water governance, especially since the implementation of the Reform and Opening-up program from the end of the 1970s (Jia and Zhu 2020). The annual death toll from floods has decreased from about 9,000 in the 1950s to about 540 in the last 10 years (Deng 1999; Xiong and Tian 2019). The safety of drinking water has improved for most of the population. The Chinese government has used a range of economic policy tools to promote sustainable water use, for example, using water pricing measures, including increasing block tariffs and different water prices for different sources, and water right trading, to promote water conservation. In general, water management in China has supported rapid socioeconomic development during the last decades (Shen and Speed 2009). As a result, China supplies food for 22% of the world’s population, using only 7% of the world’s arable land and 6% of the world’s water resources (Wang and Wang 2012).Along with the rapid development of China’s social economy, the focus and priority of water governance in the country have evolved from flood control in the 1950s and 1960s to water supply in the 1970s and 1980s, to water pollution control in the 1990s and 2000s, and ecological-civilization construction in the 2010s (Jia and Zhu 2020). The Chinese government has made a large number of changes in water governance; indeed, it is probably true that China has implemented the fastest change in its water governance system in recent decades (Jia and Zhang 2011). Before the late 1970s, the government allocated water resources at a very low price or even for free under the original planning economy system. Subsequently, the government gradually established a paid system for water resources use, a water resources fee collection system, and a two-part water price system (including basic and measured water price, in which the basic water fee is the basic fee paid regularly to cover initial investment and main maintenance, and the measured water fee is charged according to the actual water consumption). Furthermore, water rights trading is being piloted. The concept of water management in China has gradually changed from the exploitation of water resources to water ecological protection. The country’s governance philosophy has also shifted to explore the sustainable development path, with the goal of “harmony between humans and water.” The government expects to solve the country’s water problems and build a better water governance system through institutional reform (Liu and Yang 2012). As a country with a complex and changeable water management system, China is a valuable case to explore the evolution of water governance, and its governance measures are of great reference value to worldwide water management (Woodhouse and Muller 2017).The aim of this paper is to present an overview of the evolution of water governance in China, especially the changes in recent years. The discussion will include the development and evolution of the water governance system in China from the aspect of the water administrative system and market mechanisms of water resources allocation such as water rights trading and water pricing, as well as public participation. Following a systematic review of the history of water governance in China, this paper (1) addresses the current problems with China’s water governance, (2) projects the water governance needed for sustainable water resources management, (3) provides potential solutions for pressing challenges facing the growing water management problems, and (4) presents a comparative national example for water governance around the world.The Legendary Story of Water Harnessing in China: The Position of Water Governance in Chinese CivilizationRivers have a profound impact on the production and life of human society (Postel and Richter 2012). Water is a “double-edged sword,” bringing flood disasters as well as resources. For example, over the last 3,000 years, there were more than 1,600 floods in the Yellow River (the cradle of Chinese civilization), posing a serious threat to human survival (YRCC 2003). Since ancient times, water governance has been a problem related to people’s livelihood and social stability; therefore, effective water governance is not only the cornerstone of human survival and development but also the key factor affecting the continuation of human society. During the 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, the practice of water governance has been continuous. From a certain point of view, it can be said that the history of the Chinese civilization for thousands of years is also a history of water control (Needham 1976).The legendary figure of Da Yu (Yu the Great)—referring to Xia Yu, a ruler of early Chinese civilization who created the Chinese state and who was famed for combating floods—shows not only the importance of water governance in the early stage of Chinese civilization but also the importance of successful water control personnel in Chinese political life. Da Yu became the leader of the tribal union because of the success of flood control by dredging, which substituted for his father’s failed method of blocking floods and laid the foundation for the establishment of the Xia dynasty (see: shan hai jing·hai nei jing) (Guo et al. 1992). Subsequently, the regimes of successive dynasties considered water control the key to ensuring peace and stability through governance. Water control required a large amount of manpower and material resources, which in a sense promoted China’s basic economic construction and population growth in ancient times and also promoted the development of the ancient Chinese state and centralized system (Cech 2009). Ball (2017) is the latest to recognize that water has had a prominent place in Chinese politics and culture. An enduring question [at least since Wittfogel (1957), building on his work since the early 1930s] is the relationship between water governance and the nature of the Chinese state. Wittfogel (1957), elaborating on Marx’s suggestion that there is an “Asiatic mode of production,” asserts that, at a certain level of economic development, a “hydraulic society,” such as those found in the Middle East, India, and China, is governed by a state with totalitarian control over that society.It is certain that, from ancient to modern times, China’s top leaders have paid great attention to and expended great efforts on water governance, such as organizing forced labor for the construction and maintenance of irrigation and flood prevention engineering for thousands of years and building large water projects by the mass mobilization of labor used as a substitute for capital in Mao’s period (1949–1976) (Perry 2007). On the other hand, inadequate water management affects the security of food and economic development. When major flood and drought disasters lead to famine and starvation, social unrest is often provoked, which may lead to the fall of the regime (Greenough 1982).Water Governance Institutions of Feudal Dynasties in ChinaChina has a long tradition of setting up water governance agencies in the central government. The system of Three Provinces and Six Ministries (san sheng liu bu) has been a government system in China for nearly 2,000 years. The administrative division of Shangshu Provinces (called Shangshu Tai) was formed in the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 CE). The Three Provinces and Six Ministries System was initiated during the Western Jin dynasty (265–316 CE), formally established during the Sui dynasty, and further improved in the Tang dynasty. Three Provinces refers to Zhongshu Province (Zhong shu sheng, in charge of confidential affairs and issuing decrees), Menxia Province (Men xia sheng, mainly responsible for discussing state affairs and reviewing imperial edicts), and Shangshu Province (Shang shu sheng, responsible for decree enforcement), whereas Six Ministries refers to the Ministry of Official Personnel (li bu), the Ministry of Revenue (hu bu), the Ministry of Rites (li bu), the Ministry of War (bing bu), the Ministry of Punishments (xing bu), and the Ministry of Works (gong bu) under Shangshu Province. Each ministry had 4 divisions, giving a total of 24 divisions. Under the Ministry of Works, there was a water division. Furthermore, an independent water ministry was sometimes set up, for example, in the Wei kingdom of the Three Kingdoms period, West Jin, and the early East Jin (Huang 1980). These water divisions were mainly responsible for flood control and water conservancy projects as well as water transport. For example, in the Qing dynasty, the water division verified and provided funds for road projects for river ditch protection; water conservancy; the construction of bridges; the construction of war boats, ferries, and various other vessels; and the salaries of officers and soldiers involved in river protection.Historically, one of the most important duties of local officials was water governance, including flood control, irrigation, and water navigation (Wang et al. 2018). For example, the Dujiangyan project—which was constructed in the Warring States period in 256 BCE under the leadership of Li Bing, the governor of Shujun of the Qin kingdom—alleviated the effects of drought and flood via an ingenious water diversion method, and to this day, the project still plays an important role in drought relief. Another famous example of historical water management is when the great Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo, who was then governor of Hangzhou, harnessed the Qiantang River and dredged West Lake, using the dredged mud to construct the globally admired West Lake Su Causeway (xi hu su di) (Toqta 1985).The great rivers in China are prone to flood and drought disasters because of their unique natural geographical environment. For example, the Yellow River is the sandiest river in the world. Due to the silting-up of the river bed, the channel often breaks and changes course over the North China Plain, affecting a scope of more than 1,000 km scope from Tianjin in the north by the Bohai Sea to Yancheng in the south by the Yellow Sea with frequent and harmful floods. In order to ensure the normal operation of rivers in China, since the Qin and Han dynasties, the central government has delegated agencies and officials to take charge of the planning, construction, and management of water projects (Zhang and Deng 2009).In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the river governance system was further developed, and the government established a special river administration agency—the River Governor Office (yamen)—as well as a river governor (he dao zong du). In the Qing dynasty, river governors had the same rank as governors who were in charge of the local affairs of one or more provinces. However, the position of river governor only existed in the area of the Great Canal and was mainly set up for the purpose of the administration of the Great Canal to guarantee the transportation of grain goods from South China to Beijing (the capital city, located in North China). That is, the River Governor Office was not a generalized institution for all rivers during the Ming and Qing dynasties.Before the Ming and Qing dynasties, the management of local water affairs was generally carried out by an agency established by the central government. However, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, except for the management of large water projects, water affairs were generally delegated to local societies for self-management (Angelakis and Zheng 2015). There were three reasons for this change: (1) due to external military incursions and internal rebellions, the central government failed to invest in and govern local water officials, who were often weak and corrupt; (2) during this period, the country’s population grew rapidly, and consequently the cost of managing water resources increased and management budgets therefore became inadequate; and (3) the central government’s lax governance of local governments had created more space for local autonomy, which provided a foundation for self-organization (Dang et al. 2013). Water governance in China changed from a state system in the Han and Tang dynasties to a system of rural community rule and local self-government in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Finally, it was transformed into a unified management system combined with hierarchical and subdepartmental management.Water Governance System in the People’s Republic of ChinaThe Phase of Informal Water Resources Management Focusing on Project Management through Administrative Commands (1949–1978)In the early days of the PRC, the central government clearly defined the basic principle of the public ownership of water resources. However, at that time, water consumption was low, water pollution was not serious, and competition and conflicts between water users were not prominent. In 1949, China’s total annual water use was only 100 billion cubic meters (Hydrological Bureau of the Ministry of Water Resources and Hydropower 1987). However, by 2013, it had reached about 620 billion cubic meters (Ministry of Water Resources of the People’s Republic of China 2014), and the scale of water supply had increased by six times compared to 1949. Therefore, there was no independent management of water intake until the 1970s; as long as the water conservancy project was approved, water could be taken freely, and water resources were allocated and provided for welfare by the government through the planning and operation of water supply projects. This mode led to the allocation and supply of water resources being heavily dependent on the state. Consequently, there was a lack of attention to the cost–benefit accounting of water resources, which resulted in a seriously low water price (Zhong and Mol 2010).At this stage, the management of water-related affairs in China was decentralized. Although the ministry of water resources (MWR) was established at the beginning of the PRC, hydropower generation, urban water supply, and farmland water conservancy were managed by different departments. At this time, the function of water management had engineering management as the core and lacked the function of resource management (Jia and Zhang 2011).In the Mao Zedong era (1949–1976), China took the development path of self-reliance, import substitution industrialization—a trade and economic policy that advocates replacing foreign imports with domestic production—and prioritized the development of heavy industry. In the first three decades of the PRC (1949–1979), China established a relatively complete industrial system, which laid a solid foundation for development in later periods. However, with the development of industrialization, environmental pollution has gradually become a problem (He et al. 2012), and the Chinese government has attached great importance to environmental protection since the 1970s. For example, a national investigation of environmental pollution was performed and some environmental protection agencies were set up in the 1970s (Liu 2015). In 1972, the Guanting Water Source Protection Leading Team was established (headed by Wan Li, who was then the vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultation Conference of Beijing City and later the chairman of the People’s Congress of China in 1988–1992), which was the first environmental protection institute in China. A national environmental protection organization was established in 1973, which was then called the Environmental Protection Leading Team Office of the State Council. In 1982, after the first institutional reform, the Environmental Protection Bureau was established, which belongs to the Ministry of Urban and Rural Construction and Environmental Protection. In 2018, it became the Ministry of Ecology and Environment.The Embryonic Stage of China’s Water Governance System Featured by Resources-Oriented Management and Initialization of Integrated Water Resources Management (1979–2001)With the increase in water use, the competition and conflicts between water users became prominent. In order to deal with the scarcity of and competition for water resources, the concept of water withdrawal permission and regional water rights emerged in the 1980s (Xia and Pahl-Wostl 2012). For example, the 1987 Yellow River Water Resources Allocation Plan was a landmark achievement at this stage (The Yellow River “87” water resources allocation plan was the first basin water distribution plan of the great river in China. It balanced and allocated water for the river ecological environment and water for the economic and social and balanced and distributed the water among various administrative regions.) The formulation of this allocation plan put forward the formal institutional arrangement for the quantitative allocation of water use rights between provinces.Along with market-oriented reform—which followed the model of western developed countries and was divorced from the planning economy, which followed the model of the former Soviet Union—the regulation of paying for water was gradually built up, and water prices were also gradually raised (Zhong and Mol 2010).The requirements of integrated management were also put forward for the water governance system. In 1984, the State Council decided that the Ministry of Water Conservancy and Electric Power should be the national comprehensive administration department for water resources and should administrate water resources rights and be responsible for the centralized management of unified planning, legislation, and scientific research. At the same time, this ministry coordinated the allocation of water resources and the contradictions within the water sector.The Water Law of the People’s Republic of China was promulgated in 1988 and was the first basic law to regulate water activities. It stipulates that the state implement a system of unified administration of water resources in association with the administration at various levels and by various departments (Peng 2010). Due to the general lack of water in North China, the management of water resources is becoming increasingly strict. The introduction of a water withdrawal licensing system and accompanied strong support from related regulations formed a relatively complete water law and regulation system. This marked the initial establishment of the national water governance system. In this period, the implementation of water permissions and the continuous promotion of water distribution objectively laid a foundation for the construction of the water rights system.In terms of water price, this law stipulated that water fees and water resources fees shall be paid for water use. In 1992, the State Price Bureau began to manage water supply as a commodity, which meant that the commodity property of water was officially recognized.In 1998, the State Council unified the management functions of groundwater and urban flood control into the MWR, and the office of the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters was also set up in the MWR (Yan et al. 2006). By this time, the integrated management function of the MWR had been strengthened and the system of unified management of water resources by the MWR had been roughly formed.Compared with the central government’s water governance, local governments basically followed the central government and established corresponding water administration divisions (departments, bureaus, etc.). At the same time, local governments also explored the reform of the water governance system. In 1993, based on the former Water Conservancy Bureau and Drainage Headquarters, Shenzhen City established the first water authority in China, which took the lead in breaking the pattern of multidepartmental water management. Later, Shanghai and other cities, drawing on other countries’ extensive experience of water management, also established an integrated water management mode that covered the whole process from water supply, water use, and drainage to water conservation, sewage treatment, sewage reusing, and water resources protection, achieving remarkable results (Nickum and Lee 2006).In 2008, due to the reform of governmental functions, it was decreed that the MWR would no longer be responsible for the specific management of urban water-related affairs, which provided free space for cities at all levels to explore appropriate water governance systems according to their specific conditions.Formal Institutional Setting Permitting Water Rights Trade and a Basin Management Approach (2002–2016)In the 2000s, water rights and the water market became hot topics in China. In 2000, water rights trading between Dongyang and Yiwu in Zhejiang Province became the first case of water rights trading in China (Speed 2009). Subsequently, other water rights transfer projects were carried out in various Chinese regions; however, these took place without a clear definition and division of water rights and preceded the establishment of a water use rights system. In 2005, the Framework of Water Right System Construction was promulgated. Subsequently, the Regulations of Water Withdrawal Licensing and the Collection of Water Resources Fee, issued in 2006, made it clear that water licensing could be traded under certain conditions, which provided a legal basis for the trading of water use rights. Moreover, the interim regulations on water resources allocation promulgated in 2007 marked the basic establishment of national regulations for initial water-rights distribution.In 2011, the most strict water resources management policy was put forward, concretized by the “three red lines” (red lines for the control of total water use quantity, the control of water efficiency, and the control of pollutants in the water function zone), which was intended to strengthen water resources administration (Zuo et al. 2011). Since 2000, the practice and exploration of water rights trading and the distribution of initial water use rights have provided a quantitative basis for the implementation of water withdrawal licensing and the pollutant discharge permit system. Therefore, today, the requirements of water resources management are clearly determined and quantified in China, making their operation and implementation more convenient.In 2014, the Ministry of Water Resources began to carry out water rights pilot projects in the provinces of Jiangxi, Hubei, Henan, Gansu, and Guangdong and in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. These pilot projects included three parts: the registration of water use rights, water rights trading, and the construction of the water rights system (Moore 2014). At the end of 2017, these projects had passed the acceptance inspection; however, it is not clear how to promote the next step of water rights reform. After the institutional reform of the State Council in 2018, the function of water rights confirmation and registration was assigned to the newly established Ministry of Natural Resources. Presently, the practice of water rights trade and the establishment of water entitlement are important factors in the construction of water rights institutions. However, a series of such institutions has yet to be established, such as those involved in water rights registration, water rights trading rules, water market and intermediary organizations, social supervision mechanisms, and government supervision and services. Accordingly, water property rights are obscure, water rights circulation is inefficient, and water rights protection is inadequate. Therefore, there is still a long way to go to build an effective water rights institution in China (Wang 2017).In 2002, the Water Law was revised to introduce a water governance system that combined river basin management and regional administration and to stipulate that “the Ministry of Water Resources is the water administrative department of the State Council.” Meanwhile, the revision clarified the functions of river basin commissions as the agent dispatched by the Ministry of Water Resources to manage watershed water resources. The revision to the Water Law stated that the water conservancy authority with various names in different periods responsible for water management under the State Council shall set up river basin organizations in major rivers and lakes and shall perform the duties of water resources management and supervision prescribed by laws and these various institutions under the State Council. It additionally stipulated that river basin organizations shall be responsible for the compilation of river basin planning and the examination of water conservancy development project planning within their jurisdictions and that each administrative region shall implement local management in accordance with the unified management of the river basin. However, the “river basin organizations” only referred to the agent of the Ministry of Water Resources, which lacked comprehensive functions such as water environment management, and these organizations’ administrative levels are also low, which makes it difficult to coordinate conflicts at the provincial level. Although the water governance system has been defined and standardized in the legal sense, the contradiction of water interests between watershed management and regional management has not been well resolved.A New Phase of Ecological-Civilization Based Water GovernanceIn 2007, the report of the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) proposed “to build an ecological civilization.” Later, in November 2012, the 18th National Congress of the CPC made a strategic decision to “vigorously promote the construction of an ecological civilization.” On May 5, 2015, the Opinions of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council on Accelerating the Construction of Ecological Civilization was released. On March 11, 2018, an amendment to the Constitution adopted at the first session of the 13th National People’s Congress revised the sixth item of Article 89 of the constitution, the latter of which is titled, “the State Council exercises the following functions and powers,” from “(VI) leading and managing economic work and urban and rural construction” to “(VI) leading and managing economic work, urban and rural construction and ecological civilization construction.”The term “ecological civilization” refers to a social form with the basic tenets of harmonious coexistence, “virtuous cycle” (which is embodied by the “three R’s” of reducing resources use, reusing waste, and recycling with least emissions); all-round development; and the sustainable prosperity between humans and nature, among humans, and between individual humans and society. The construction of an ecological civilization has been given the highest priority by the CPC. Such construction must exert an impact on water governance. In February 2014, Xi Jinping put forward the idea of “water-saving priority, space balance, system management, and two hands efforts” and proposed the development planning requirements of “deciding the city by water, deciding the land by water, deciding the population by water, and deciding production by water,” and to “make way for flood and leave space for ecology” (Nie and Jin 2014). The core requirement of an ecological civilization regarding water governance is to realize the sustainable development of water resources, including many aspects such as water disaster prevention and mitigation; maintaining development within the carrying capacity of water resources; the strict limitation of wastewater discharge to protect the water environment; the promotion of water use efficiency; and the construction of a “harmonious life community” in which mountains, water, forest, farmland, lakes, and grass form an integrated ecosystem, while simultaneously conserving enough eco-water to protect ecosystems.The Ministry of Water Resources has formulated a code for the calculation of the water demand of river and lake ecological environments (SL Z 712-2014). Additionally, in the national water resources planning standard (GBT51051-2014), there are clear terms for the evaluation and satisfaction of ecological water demand. For the compilation of basin water resources planning, it is required to assess the basin ecological water requirement and satisfy it in priority. Many small hydropower stations all over China [for example, in Zhangjiajie (Guo 2019)] have been stopped or decommissioned in order to guarantee ecological flow.Public Participation and Expert ArgumentationTo promote scientific decision-making, in the 1980s, China established an expert argumentation system for the planning of important major projects and policies and stipulated that the water governance system should also execute expert argumentation regulations. The planning of watershed development and protection and the production of major project feasibility reports and environmental impact assessment reports have to go through expert argumentation before they can be approved. For example, from 1986 to 1988, the State Council obtained the services of 412 professionals to discuss 14 topics concerning the Three Gorges Dam Project (Padovani 2005). The National People’s Congress approved the construction of the project in 1992.In 2002, the Management Regulations for Water Resources Argumentation of Construction Projects was implemented. Construction project water resources argumentation is an institution of water resource management in China that sets up procedure and standards for professional activities for comprehensive analysis and demonstration of the rationality of water intake; water use; and the return flow of newly built, reconstructed, and expanded construction projects and the impact on the water environment and the legitimate rights and interests of others according to the comprehensive planning of river basins or regions and the special planning of water resources.Additionally, in order to promote the democratization of decision-making, China has established a system of public participation in decision-making. For example, in the process of preparing an environmental impact assessment report for a project, it is necessary to conduct a social investigation and listen to the opinions of the people living within the region that will be affected by the project. After the preparation of the environmental impact assessment report, it must be publicized for a period of time (Horsley 2009). Only projects that are supported by the majority of people can pass the evaluation. Another example of democratized decision-making is the adjustment of water prices, which requires a hearing that must be attended by a certain proportion of consumers and operators.The government–market–society three-in-one water governance system achieved wide recognition. An increasing number of market mechanisms were introduced into the water management system, such as water pricing, water rights trading, public–private partnerships (PPPs), and so on (Sun et al. 2016). Social participation has extended to many new areas, such as water user’s associations and the public supervision of water problems using smartphone apps.Interestingly, the planning economy of complete centralization from the late 1950s to the 1970s was only an interlude in China’s long civilization; the history of Chinese civilization contains elements of the market economy, public participation, and folk autonomy. For example, in the history of the Dujiangyan Irrigation District, a regulation was adopted that required paying a certain amount of rice per unit area of paddy field for the operation and maintenance of the project (Jia 2006). People could beat tall pillars of “defamatory wood” (feibangmu) or lung stone (feishi) or a “Ming Yuan drum” (mingyuangu) to complain about and accuse officials in front of the court or yamen. Additionally, under the rule of the empress Wu Zetian, people could make suggestions or report illegal behaviors secretly via a special mailbox called a tonggui. Moreover, emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty formulated a regulation entitled “people grab officials who injure people” as part of a special criminal law known as dagao, which allowed people with high moral standards to lead young people to bind bad officials (i.e., those who entered the countryside without permission and disrupted people’s lives) and transport them to the capital city (Li and Jiang 2018).Modern technologies play a very important role in China’s government–market–society three-in-one water governance system. For example, Internet of Things (IoT) technologies—including advanced sensors, smart data transmission, processing, and sharing, web GIS, and cloud calculation—have been used to promote external supervision and social participation. First, IoT technologies can allow people to supervise the operation of water systems and the performance of water governance systems. Second, they provide the ability for all people to report water problems through telephone calls and easy-to-use smartphone apps.Recent Achievements of Water Governance in China: River Chief System and Institutional RestructuringThe River Chief SystemThe coordination among multiple management organizations involved in water affairs has always been a serious problem in China (Yan et al. 2006). For example, the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment have overlapping functions in terms of water resources protection and water pollution prevention. Furthermore, the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Natural Resources have overlapping functions in terms of groundwater management, and the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development have overlapping functions in terms of urban water supply and urban flood control. Moreover, there are contradictions between the power generation of the Department of Hydropower and the flood control and water supply of the Department of Water Conservancy. These conflicts between departments have become an obstacle to integrated water resources management and integrated watershed management (Wang et al. 2016). In order to cope with the challenges of sectoral segmentation, poor coordination, and problems in water management affairs, China has established a River Chief system to strengthen the comprehensive management of river basins. To some extent, this is the inheritance of the river governor system of ancient China.The River Chief system is a river and lake management system in which the overall responsibility for the management of rivers and lakes is given to local leaders. The river chief is responsible for river management, chairs meetings to make decisions and coordinate between departments, and supervises the performance of departments and subadministrative regions. The system is linked to the accountability system of environment protection and the performance evaluations of top officials. The River Chief System was initially proposed in Wuxi City, Jiangsu Province, in 2007 in response to the inability of governmental institutions to improve poor water quality due to institutional fragmentation. Later, the system was extended to more provinces and was finally adopted at the national level by the Central Leading Team for Comprehensive Reforms in 2016.In the River Chief system, the main leaders of the CPC or government at the province, prefecture, county, and town levels appointed as the river chief are responsible for water governance within their jurisdictional area. The working modality includes formal and informal meetings chaired by the river chief with the participation of all involved government departments. The system includes the regular inspection and assessment of rivers and lakes, as well as incentives and penalties. The main advantage of this institutional arrangement is that the most influential authority, namely the first-in-command leader as the river chief, coordinates between different government departments, which often have different viewpoints.However, there are formalism problems in the implementation of the River Chief system. This system needs to be changed from movement-type management, which relies on executive orders, to routine management with a clear division of responsibility and smooth coordination. Local governments must ensure that the River Chief system operates as part of the current water governance system rather than working on a separate system. Additionally, the system would run more smoothly if river chiefs could coordinate directly with relevant authorities (Jia 2017).Prior to the establishment of the River Chief system, coordination among departments mainly depended on the superior leaders. One mechanism of coordination is coordination between different sectors under the same leader. The members of the party committees and government bodies at each level have their own areas of responsibility—for example, a leader in charge of a group of sectors, such as agriculture, forestry, and water, and another leader in charge of another group of sectors, such as urban construction and environmental protection. The leader can help resolve problems between departments that they are in charge of; however, it is not easy to resolve problems between departments that are under the leadership of different leaders, which requires coordination at a higher level—for instance, the official meetings of the party standing committee, government leaders (governors in the provincial government, county heads in the county-level government, and mayors in the city government at respective levels), and the government affairs committee. If the leader does not wish to make decisions about the problems that need to be coordinated, these problems will often take a long time to be solved. In the River Chief system, the responsibilities and assessment regulations of the river chief are comprehensive, concrete, and clear. The river chief must make decisions within the time limit required for the task and take responsibility for the consequences of their decisions and behavior. For this reason, the River Chief system works better than the original coordination mechanism.Water Administration System Reform of FragmentationFollowing the decision of the 13th National People’s Congress on the reform plan of the State Council in March 2018, major changes have been made to China’s water administration system. As the core department of water resources administration in China, many of the functions of the Ministry of Water Resources have been transferred to other ministries. The responsibilities of conducting water resources surveys and water rights registration have now been integrated into the newly established Ministry of Natural Resources; the functions of water function zoning, sewage outfall setting and management, and water environment protection in basins have been integrated into the newly established Ministry of Ecology and Environment; the functions of the management of agricultural water conservancy construction projects have been integrated into the newly established Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs; and flood and drought disaster prevention has been integrated into the newly established Ministry of Emergency Management. Therefore, the functions of the Ministry of Water Resources have been greatly weakened.In the new administration system, in addition to the Ministry of Water Resources, which is in charge of water resources planning and water conservancy project management, and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, which is in charge of water pollution prevention and control, China’s water-related administration institutions include the China Meteorological Administration, which is in charge of precipitation observation and rainstorm prediction and early warning; the Ministry of Natural Resources, which is responsible for water resources surveys, water rights confirmation and registration, groundwater observation, hydrogeological disaster prevention, and wetland protection; the Ministry of Emergency Management, which is responsible for the emergency management of flood and drought disasters; the Ministry of Housing and Urban–Rural Development, which is responsible for guiding urban water supply, urban stormwater management, the construction and operation of environmental protection facility, and so on; the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, which is responsible for field water conservation, and so on; and the Ministry of Transport, which is responsible for water transportation management.Although the function of the Ministry of Water Resources has been weakened, the office of the river chief is located in the various institutions responsible for water management, and the River Chief system seems to have been at the center of China’s water administration in recent years. In this way, the Department of Water Conservancy is still the main department that is involved with water administration. However, the River Chief system functions below the provincial level; there is no river chief at the national level, and trans-provincial rivers (e.g., the Yangtze River and the Yellow River) do not have river chiefs. Given that the function of the Ministry of Water Resources has been greatly weakened, the integrated water management function at the national level, especially in large basins, obviously needs to be strengthened in other ways.The Wisdom of Bidirectional RegulationThere has been a need for river basin legislation in China for a long time. For example, in the legislative plan submitted by the Ministry of Water Resources to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in 1993, a legislative proposal for the formulation of the Yellow River Law was put forward for the first time. At present, the central government is formulating the Yangtze River Protection Law. Through the formulation of the Watershed Law, a more comprehensive and authoritative river basin management institution will be established. It is necessary to establish a government–market–society three-in-one governance system to realize the comprehensive treatment of water disasters, water resources, water environment, and water ecology at the basin level as well as to coordinate the relationship between mountains, rivers, forests, fields, lakes, and grasses and the conflicting interests between upstream and downstream and between left and right banks. Undoubtedly, all of this represents a promising reform direction.There seem to be two contradictory directions in water resources management in China: the integrated management represented by the River Chief system and the segmentation symbolized by the weakening of the functions of the Ministry of Water Resources. However, are they really contradictory? To address the problem of the segmentation of China’s water administration system, the top decision-makers established the River Chief system to strengthen the coordination of integrated water resources management in order to balance the severe segmentation of water resources management functions within many ministries. The combination of the integrated management represented by the River Chief system and the segmentation symbolized by the weakening of the functions of the Ministry of Water Resources is really a combination of extreme decentralization and strong coordination, reflecting the great effectiveness of two-way regulation. In fact, a similar two-way regulation is present in other reforms in China; for example, China’s ongoing comprehensive reform of agricultural water prices adopts a two-way regulation strategy: in this strategy, on the one hand, water conservation is promoted by raising water prices (Lei et al. 2019), and on the other hand, rewards or subsidies are given to farmers according to their water conservation or production conditions. Because this reform is ongoing, we are eagerly observing new developments.The Timeline of China’s Water Governance Evolution and the Experience of China’s Water GovernanceThe Timeline of China’s Water Governance EvolutionThe timeline of China’s water governance evolution is summarized in Table 1. In general, after the establishment of People’s Republic of China in 1949, the new communist leadership maintained Chinese civilization’s fine tradition of attaching high importance to water control and tried a lot of water governance institutions. In the 1950s, with the socialist transformation, industry, commerce, and agriculture were transformed into public ownership, and water supply was gradually regarded as social welfare; water governance focused on water conservancy engineering planning and construction for flood control, water supply, and hydro-electricity generation, as well as soil erosion prevention and control. This trend was maintained until the end of 1978, when the Reform and Opening-up period came.Table 1. Timeline of water governance evolution of ChinaTable 1. Timeline of water governance evolution of ChinaPeriodsWater governance characteristicsBefore 1949Long tradition of water governance civilization. The central government is responsible for water management centered on flood control and water transport, setting up special water administration institutions; good local officials were active in the construction and maintenance of water conservancy projects.1949–1978Informal water resources management, engineering-oriented water governance for flood control and water supply, water resources allocation is attached to engineering project planning and management.1979–2001Resources-oriented management and initialization of integrated water resources management, the introduction of water pricing system and water withdrawal permission system.2002–2016Combining watershed management and regional water management (2002), Permitting water rights trade, three red lines of the strictest water resources management (2011).After 2016Comprehensive management of rivers, lakes, and basins by implementing the River Chief system.Since 1979, the trend is from water conservancy engineering management to water resources management under the macro background of reformation from planning economy to market economy. The concept of water payment and even full-cost pricing has gradually been adopted. In 1988, the first water law established the water withdrawal permit system.The water law, revised in 2002, defines the integrated water resources management system, which combines basin management with regional management. Water use right trade has been experimented with and demonstrated in some places. In 2011, the three red lines of the strictest water resources management were set up for the state and provinces (municipalities, autonomous regions).The year 2016 was the start of a new period with the implementation of the River Chief system in the whole country. The River Chief system constructed a strong mechanism for coordinating between sectors and regions for integrated water resources management and integrated basin management.The Experience of China’s Water GovernanceChina has accumulated rich experience in water governance, and its characteristics and advantages include five points. (1) Since ancient times, China has attached great importance to water governance, regarded water governance as a national priority, and established special water management agencies at the central and local levels. (2) China focuses on the development and application of hydraulic engineering technology. Both the ancient Dujiangyan project and the water storage and diversion projects of modern construction achieved huge benefits. (3) The key purposes of water governance vary with the needs of social development, and the water governance system should be dynamically adapted. For example, in recent years, China’s water management has shifted from water resources development to water resources protection; at the same time, regulations and administrative system have also changed accordingly. (4) The Chinese government leads the macro allocation of water resources through water resources planning, makes full use of the balance of extreme decentralization and strong coordination governance strategies in the water governance process, and introduces market mechanisms to improve the efficiency of water resources management. (5) In addition to the central and local governments setting up special officials to supervise water governance, the participation of Chinese nongovernmental organizations and water users in water control activities has also been strengthened. Nowadays, with the development of new network technology, residents’ participation will be more convenient.ConclusionsThroughout China’s history, water governance has been given a very important position. Special water conservancy institutions have been established to manage water, which has ensured the stability and economic development of the country, which for thousands of years was dominated by agricultural production. Accordingly, the idea that good statesmen must be skilled at water governance has been prominent during China’s history.Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the construction of China’s water governance system has been advancing from engineering management to resource management, from decentralized management to comprehensive management, and from informal management to formal management—to form the present-day integrated water governance system that combines watershed management and regional water management. This process has not been smooth but has had twists and turns, full of inconsistency. There has been existing water policy and institutional competition between a planning and market economy. Since the Reform and Opening-up, the general direction of reform is to move forward to the market economy, such as promoting water price and introducing water use rights.China has established an administration-led water resources allocation system with the main components of water resources allocation planning, water withdrawal permission, and water resources argumentation.It is clear that water pricing should be based on the principle of full-cost accounting according to national policies, although the price level is still generally lower than the cost. China has gradually established a water rights management system, including water rights allocation and confirmation and water right trading.Recently, in order to achieve the goal of the construction of an “ecological civilization,” to solve the environmental and ecological problems of rivers and lakes, and to ensure the health and sustainability of water resources, the Chinese government issued an “action plan for the prevention and control of water pollution” and comprehensively implemented the River Chief system to make the top leaders at all levels of local governments responsible for the management of rivers and lakes. This has improved mechanisms for the cross-sector coordination of comprehensive management and cross-regional coordination of the integrated management of river and lake systems. This, in turn, provides a systematic guarantee for maintaining the health of rivers and lakes and realizing the sustainable use of river and lake functions.The Chinese government has made many explorations and reforms in water governance, which have achieved satisfactory results. However, due to the complexity of China’s water problems, it is impossible to solve all these problems in the short term. Additionally, institutional reform needs some time to show its effects. In particular, the lack of an effective government–market–society cooperative governance model has led to the slow development of market mechanisms and public participation in water governance, resulting in disordered and inefficient water management cases in different regions of the country. 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