China’s institutional structure consists of multiple departments and agencies arranged by region and sector. With both horizontal and vertical lines of responsibility, there is frequent overlapping of duties. This, combined with poor communication and lack of co-ordination, hinders policy and regulatory enforcement. Compounding the problem, delegation of duties is often unclear and limits the government’s ability to address water pollution issues, such as urban and agricultural non-point source management and cross-boundary river basin management.
Enforcement challenges also arise when agencies have dual roles. As an example, the Ministry of Water Resources whilst charged with water resource protection is also the agency charged with development and utilization of water resources such as hydropower projects.
The regulation of state-owned enterprises (SOE) by government agencies can further complicate matters. Empirical data suggest that SOEs have a poor record of environmental performance when compared to foreign enterprises – in part because of the SOEs’ greater bargaining power with regulatory authorities1. Prior to the establishment of MEP, SEPA’s political status was similar to that or lower than some of the SOEs it was trying to regulate, in which case the latter often would simply ignore SEPA directives.
Too many cooks in Taihu Lake
Poor interagency coordination combined with local protectionism have been blamed for the failure of a ten-year campaign to keep Taihu Lake clean2.
With a catchment and water surface area extending over 3,500 km2 and 2,300 km2, respectively, Taihu is the third largest lake in China and provides drinking water for a population estimated at 30 million.3 Located in the East of the country, about 100km to the west of Shanghai, the lake has been continuously polluted for two decades as a result of industrial, municipal and agricultural activities.
In 2007 it suffered a particularly serious and poisonous algae bloom that affected 2.3 million people. Clean up efforts were complicated due to lack of coordination and conflicts of interest among the many government agencies with varying responsibilities relating to water management in this vast catchment.
Departments with responsibilities included:
- Ministry of Water Resources
- Ministry of Environmental Protection
- Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development
- National Development and Reform Commission
- Ministry of Science and Technology
- Ministry of Finance
- Ministry of Transport
- Ministry of Agriculture
- State Forestry Bureau
- National Tourism Administration
2 Go, Kimberly, Suzuki, Mayu and Qu Xiaoxia, “Trial by Fire: A Chinese NGO’s Work on Environmental Health Litigation in China,” China Environment Forum, 2008.
3 Bi, June and Liu, Beibei, “Building Effective Governance for Water Environment Conservation in China – A Social Experiment in Community Roundtable Meetings in the Tai Lake Basin –Chapter 1 Water Pollution and its Control in the Tai Lake Basin.”