The decline of canal irrigation in China: Causes, impacts and implications

Yahua Wang
School of Public Policy and Management, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China; wangyahua@tsinghua.edu.cn

Mengdi Cao
School of Government, Peking University, Beijing, China; caomengdi868@gmail.com

ABSTRACT: Irrigation is key for agricultural production and public affairs in China. Canal irrigation has been the dominant form of irrigation in China for over two thousand years, but this is changing dramatically in contemporary China. Official government data and observational studies prove that canal irrigation has sharply declined in China in the past several decades. This paper explores the causes and influences associated with this decline. We use the social-ecological systems (SES) framework to diagnose the causes of the decline of canal irrigation and identify the significant influences on it. The broader contextual variables of industrialisation, urbanisation, policy, marketisation and technological progress influence resource systems, farmers and governance systems, which, in turn, have jointly led to the decline of canal irrigation. This study also considers the economic, social and ecological consequences of such a shift in irrigation pattern. The decline of canal irrigation may be inevitable in the transformation from a rural to a modern society. However, we must be aware of its costs and risks. To maintain the effectiveness of rural irrigation during the transformation to a modern society, we propose three implications of the decline of canal irrigation.

KEYWORDS: Irrigation transformation, commons, social-ecological systems (SES) framework, rural governance, public systems, China