Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 07/2008

Irrigation Water Pricing Policy in China

Richard Howitt, Jikun Huang, Qiuqiong Huang, Jinxia Wang

February 2007

Asia-Pacific Research Center


As water becomes scarcer in northern China, designing policies that can induce water users to save water has become one of the most important tasks facing China's leader. Past water policies may not be a solution for the water scarcity problem in the long run. This paper looks at a new water policy: increasing water prices so as to provide water users with direct incentives to save water. Using a methodology that allows us to incorporate the resource constraints, we are able to recover the true price of water with a set of plot level data. Our results show that farmers are quite responsive if the correct price signal is used, unlike estimates of price elasticities that are based on traditional methods. Our estimation results show that water is severely under priced in our sample areas in China. As a result, water users are not likely to respond to increases in water prices. Thus as the first step to establishing an effective water pricing policy, policy makers must increase water price to the level of VMP so that water price reflects the true value of water, the correct price signal. Increases in water prices once they are set at the level of VMP, however, can lead to significant water savings. However, our analysis also shows that higher water prices also affect other aspects of the rural sector. Higher irrigation costs will lower the production of all crops, in general, and that of grain crops, in particular. Furthermore, when facing higher irrigation costs, households suffer income losses. Crop income distribution also worsens with increases in water prices.

In summary, our paper provides both good news and bad news to policy makers. On the one hand, water pricing policies obviously have great potential for curbing demand and helping policy makers address the emerging water crisis. On the other hand, dealing with the negative production and income impacts of higher irrigation cost will pose a number of challenges to policy makers. In other words, if China's leaders plan to increase water prices to address the nation's water crisis, an integrated package of policies will be needed to achieve water savings without hurting rural incomes or national food security.