The Reform of the Urban Water Supply in Southern China

Globalization Monitor, April 2010

This report aims to identify the problems of Chinas current water supply sector reforms from a grassroots perspective and to present an overview of the issues caused by water privatization in Southern China.

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Our world is facing a water crisis due to pollution, climate change and a surging population growth of such magnitude that close to two billion people now live in water-stressed regions.  China is not excluded from the impending water threats – she has almost one-quarter of the world’s population but only 6 per cent of its fresh water.  Industrialization and urbanization have raised the demand for water and the pollution level to new heights. When we talk about the water problems in China, however, people often think of the severe pollution problem, i.e. the water resources management problem. People seldom pay attention to another equally vital problem: water supply management.  

In light of the internal pressure of capital shortage and the external pressure of globalization, the public sectors in China have experienced several stages of reform and undergone a certain degree of privatization. For example, the water supplies in many big cities today are now being ran as Joint Ventures by the government and transnational water corporations. Due to lack of transparency and public participation, however, we have found that people are generally ignorant about the water management problems in China. The majority of citizens still believe that their cities’ water supply service is provided by the government, and this is far from the reality of the situation since the Chinese government is gradually treating water as a commodity instead of a public good.  

The aim of this report is to identify the problems of China’s current water supply sector reforms from a grassroots perspective in the hope that it will alert the public and the government to the problems of the current water reforms. It also serves as a pilot study to understand the water privatization issue in China, and paves the way for further action including public education, networking, exchanges, lobbying and campaigning.

In this report, we try to answer and unveil the following questions related to China’s urban water reform:

o After decades of private involvement in urban water sector, what does China’s water sector look like today?

o What are the problems associated with her water sector?

o What is the impact of privatization on the general public?  

We have chosen six cities for in-depth investigation into the water supply sector: Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Dongguan in Guangdong province; Fuzhou, Xiamen and Quanzhou in Fujian province. Our fieldwork has included observation, in-depth interviews and questionnaire interviewing.