China’s water withdrawals per hectare of irrigated land have declined by 20% since the early 1990s, even in water-scarce northern China. This case study identifies four factors driving improvements: Chinese decision-makers’ balancing of needs for water for food versus growth; institutional and policy reform; major government investment; and local technical, economic and regulatory programmes. Challenges remain, especially mismatched incentives between national and local decision-makers, frustrating the achievement of ambitious environmental targets.
China’s progress offers lessons for other countries. For example, strong national leadership is necessary but not sufficient for environmental progress, even in a single-party state. Positive change requires ambition, innovation and investment of leaders and citizens at all levels. China’s experience highlights the importance of a problem-focused approach: using rewards and incentives, and clarifying roles, responsibilities and accountabilities among different users.