Science - September 18, 2009

Chinese want their say in water prices

Water wasting in China has been reduced ever since water came with a price tag. State control makes way for involvement from occupant groups.

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Chinese want their say in water prices
Water wasting in China has been reduced ever since water came with a price tag. State control makes way for involvement from occupant groups.
Just like in the west, Chinese companies and citizens now pay for clean water, and Chinese and foreign companies invest in water purification and clean drinking water. Such market forces lead to more efficient water usage, a notion which professor of Environment Policy Dr. Arthur Mol and his Chinese counterpart Dr. Lijin Zhong will be putting forward in the next issue of Water Resources Management. With less state control, the voices of Chinese citizens are now heard as they develop new ways to negotiate water prices.
The Chinese water market is difficult to understand. Cities run short of clean water and big investments are needed to improve the water quality. As the central government lacks the money to do so, investments in the water sector are made by foreign companies, Chinese provinces and private Chinese organizations, doing it alone or jointly with others. ‘Initiatives are cropping up randomly’, says Mol.
In such a situation, it is not clear who calls the tune, who fixes the prices and who controls the quality. Sometimes, provincial authorities position themselves in the market and join forces with private companies, whereupon the central government now and then brings corrupt practices to the light, says Mol.
There are no well-developed systems to measure and pay according to the amount of water used. In many Chinese cities, water meters cater to entire housing blocks. Block dwellers who pay for individual use now want their own water meters.
This situation creates ‘initial forms of democracy’, says Mol. There are court hearings in various cities where non-governmental organizations and occupants can negotiate the water prices. Mol is aware of cases of public hearings in which occupants can veto a price increase if the water management cannot provide a good reason for it. In other cities, water managers hardly bother with such occupants’ groups, or the city council arranges to have allies in occupants’ committees. ‘This works well in a number of provinces’, says Mol. ‘And that’s a typical Chinese system. I have yet to come across this in other countries.’
Mol thinks that the central government in Beijing is purposely giving the Chinese regions some slack and initiative to allow a market-oriented water policy to develop. ‘The central government sees the need for some opposition in the private sector. My guess is that the government will impose more rules in a few years’ time to enforce and make way for citizen involvement.’
Mol and Zhong have published three articles about the transformation of the water policy.

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