China’s legal and supporting institutional framework consists of a web of ministries, departments, bureaus and other agencies in a hierarchy expanding both vertically and horizontally – from the highest powers in the central government, through provincial, prefectural, municipal and county levels to the town/village level. The complexity of China’s institutional structure has meant that implementation and enforcement of China’s environmental regulations continues to be a challenge.
Laws, such as the EIA and Water Law, are passed by the NPC or its standing committee. The Regulations on Open Government Information were passed by the State Council. Measures, Provisions and Notices are passed by the ministries. However, to complicate matters, the provincial level People’s Congress can also issue Regulations (tiao li).
Water policy and regulation is primarily created and implemented by the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR), under which there are several agencies including Water Resource Bureaus (WRBs) that operate at provincial, prefectural and county levels as well as River Basin Commissions; one for each of China’s main river basins. The WRBs serve to implement water policy and regulations at a local level and the River Basin Commissions were established to provide some oversight and authority over the Water Bureaus. How much power they actually have at the local level would, however, appear to be up for debate.
In addition to MWR, there are a number of ministries that have some influence to a lesser or greater extent over different aspects of the management of China’s water resources. Foremost is the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). Created in 2008 to replace the State Environmental Protection Administration, MEP has substantive responsibilities regarding urban and industrial water pollution, through its role in formulating environmental protection policies and regulations as well as in the implementation and enforcement of environmental laws. In addition to these two ministries, at least seven other ministries and agencies have a role in water resource management. As a result, there exist notable overlapping functions in planning, standard setting and monitoring that leads to conflicts of interest and inefficiencies in policy implementation as well as legal enforcement. To further complicate matters, the WRBs at the local level also create and execute water policy and regulations based on jurisdictional needs1.
Several authoritative papers (written before the Ministry of Environmental Protection was created in 2008) provide succinct accounts and critiques of water policy and related institutional structures in China including the World Bank’s discussion paper published in 2006 titled China Water Quality: Policy and Institutional Considerations.
The development of environmental protection law in China is tracked by Xin Qiu and Honglin Li in their 2009 paper: “China’s Environmental Super Ministry Reform: Background, Challenges and the Future.” The paper highlights the strengths and weaknesses in the creation of MEP.