context: Responding to a late October call from Premier Li Keqiang 李克强, most provinces are ready to move forward on ‘comprehensive agricultural water price reform’, a convoluted euphemism for putting a fair price on agricultural water use.

Thirty provinces have developed detailed implementation plans for comprehensive agricultural water price reform, says Tian Xuebin 田学斌 Ministry of Water Resources vice minister; all are aimed at ensuring an appropriate price for agricultural water use within ten years. Beijing and Shanghai, along with Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, will implement planned reforms by 2020, with Shaanxi, a key pilot area, planning full agricultural water pricing by 2022. Implementation plans cover

  • setting agricultural water use quotas
  • developing water conservation incentive mechanisms
  • developing oversight mechanisms
  • estimating total cost of irrigation services and setting water prices in over 400 irrigation districts and counties
  • allocating funds for ‘precision’ irrigation subsidies

Shaanxi province has piloted a number of related water price reforms, says the coverage. Bai Pengxiang 白鹏翔 Shaanxi province Agricultural water management department director says that in the past the irrational water price formation system made normal operation of irrigation districts impossible and led to ‘brain drain’ among qualified staff. Seeking alternatives, Shaanxi province experimented with a number of models, including both direct subsidies to agricultural water users and to irrigation districts. A water conservation reward system was also successfully employed. Extensive investments in irrigation infrastructure were necessary to ensure efficient water delivering as well as water use monitoring was in place. The province invested 16 million in upgrades to water use monitoring infrastructure in medium and small irrigation channels (Note: specifically dou, nong, and mao channels: the third, fourth, and fifth categories by size), upgrading 7,052 channels across 13 province-owned irrigation districts.