What could China learn from Dutch water management?

Yingying Ma

The Netherlands has a long history in water management. Many Dutch citizens use the opportunity to actively express their opinions on water management. The birth of such public participation systems can be traced back to the thirteenth century. Public participation (PP) is regarded as the core element for successful construction of the projects and is defined as a process in which people are allowed to influence the outcome of plans and working processes.[i] More recently, PP refers to a range of procedures that involve the public and/or stakeholders in the preparation of plans and decision making.[ii] In China, however, people cannot present their ideas to the government in effective ways. Many projects have failed because of this lack of a clear and constructive relationship between the government and the people. This article shows the defects in China’s water management. By using the Dutch public participation in water management as an example, I want to come up with appropriate solutions for these problems.

Public participation in the Dutch water management
The Dutch Water Act is one of the best examples to show that in the Netherlands public participation in water management is embedded in legislation. There are several points in the Water Act that embody elements of public participation. The focus of the Act is to provide an integrated water management system. It allows individuals and companies to provide opinions on  upcoming decisions and claim compensation for damage caused by the authorities. Chapter 3 of the Water Act indicates that information must be disseminated in time in order to coordinate and facilitate regional people’s involvement in water management. In addition, when it comes to the consultation process, the Act stipulates that

 The draft plan shall be prepared in joint consultation with representatives of the management of all provinces and water boards as well as the municipal councils; consultation of the competent authorities of the other states in the Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt and Ems river basin districts; and public consultation of residents and interested parties.[iii]

 Moreover, regarding compensation, it dictates that

Any person who suffers or will suffer damage as a consequence of the lawful exercise of a water management duty or competence shall, at his request, be awarded compensation by the administrative authority.[iv]

 The Water Act has incorporated public participation into its internal law. The consultation rights and access to information rights owned by the public are to be respected and protected by the government. Lastly, articles in Dutch Administrative Law also contain rules ensuring Dutch citizens have the right to get information on the decision making processes.[v] It is the right of the Dutch citizens that their voice is heard and that policy makers listen to and act according to the wishes of the people.

The institutional perspective: water boards
Historically speaking, Dutch people with common interests cooperated to stay safe from water threats. Water boards first emerged in the thirteenth century as loosely created organizations. They were local organizations comprised by local people, familiar with the local environment. In the middle Ages, inhabitants were charged fees by the water boards. These water boards were established on an ad-hoc basis, for example following a flooding or another water management problem. When a new problem occurred, a new cooperation was created, sometimes overlapping the territory of the existing water boards.[vi] Water boards have a tradition of stakeholder participation; members were recruited or selected by the board depending on local demands. Decision making was open to public scrutiny.[vii] Members of water boards monitored the local or regional water government. This has led to the participation of representatives of households and industry in the administrative and executive bodies of the water boards.[viii] The participation in governance makes the water boards the oldest form of democratic government in the Netherlands.[ix] Recent water boards have built up their own financial resources and institutional position and every polluting unit in the country has to pay waste water treatment fees.[x]

Concluding, the Netherlands has concrete and practical measures in its public participation systems and because of those measures people’s opinions are reflected in national laws. In coordinating water management tasks, the local Dutch organizations respect people’s participation rights.

Public participation in Chinese water management
China has no statutory rules regarding public participation in national laws. However, some of the legislations do refer to this concept. These regulations are implemented loosely without supervision. Legislations concerning public participation in China are as follows:

Firstly, in the Water Law of the People’s Republic of China, revised in 2002, article 11 states that

 The people’s governments shall award the entities and individuals that have made outstanding achievements in the development, utilization, preservation, protection and management of water resources and in the prevention and control of water disasters, etc..[xi]

 This only involves people’s contributions without referring to participating in decision-making.

Secondly, as for the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law of the People’s Republic of China, which was revised in 2008, article 10 states that

All entities and individuals have the obligation to protect water environment, and have the right to report to authorities acts polluting or damaging water environment.[xii]

 This article only puts emphasis on people’s obligations without endowing participation rights.

In view of the Dutch example mentioned above, in the Netherlands anyone can participate in water management control through administrative law or civil law’s protection. Dutch citizens can participate in water protection and management through legal channels. In China however, only people or organizations that have significant interests in specific water plans can be – indirectly – involved in water decision-making.

Results of the Acts implementation
In current Chinese laws and regulations, there are only general principles regarding public participation. The cause of this lack of public participation in Chinese water management lies in the focus on government control. The tasks are mostly distributed by the government and are carried out by different departments directly; the government seems to be the leader. Drawing from lessons from the Netherlands, we should consider that the government should act as an organizer and director that organizes communication and discussions among stakeholders and gathers and integrates their ideas into the water management plans.

Institutional arrangements related to public participation
Regarding water management, China has complex institutional arrangements. According to Chinese laws, only in the process of environment impact assessment, authorities should ask the relevant people for opinions regarding a project. In the process of administrative license only citizens who are directly involved may express their ideas. People can comment on government’s actions in restricted ways, however they will never be advocated by the government to take part in the real decision making. When it comes to overlapping areas, different institutions and ministries will always hold ‘the other party’ responsible. In general, there is a lack of communication and local people’s interests are ignored. Dutch environmental law, on the contrary, specifies government advisory bodies utilizing their knowledge and strengths to provide the required and guaranteed science and technology for the government.

Solutions for China
Based upon the above explanations, I recommend that China takes measures regarding the implementation of public participation in the water management system.

Firstly, the government should initiate campaigns to raise people’s awareness of water management, stimulate a sense of urgency and increase knowledge of water management policy. Environmental consciousness in China is not as strong as we might expect it to be. The government should therefore initiate multitudinous activities to improve people’s attention to water management. They can for example hire famous celebrities, who represent the government, to call for water management participation in the whole state.

Secondly, who should be involved in the decision making process? I think not only residents who live close to the project should be involved, but also other relevant ministries dealing with related fields. Water supply companies and industries for waste water treatment should also be considered actors in the decision making process.

Thirdly, the focus should be on the moment when people have the possibility to get involved in the decision making process. A project should ideally be divided into three phases; the preparatory phase, the execution phase, and the later stages. At the beginning, leaders of the project should call for relevant ideas. Throughout the implementation part, stakeholders should also be regularly interviewed to express their thoughts on the project. Finally, the target group should also be investigated to see whether their living standards have improved and if the negative effects of the project have been avoided effectively.

Lastly, what kind of approaches should be adopted concerning these plans? News broadcasts and TV shows could be used as direct ways to popularize this concept. Water management education training is another essential point for promotion and can be implemented in universities. There are many resident committees in China, and they are local governed organizations. These committees can distribute leaflets in communities, generalizing the concept of public participation in water management.

In the Netherlands, projects obtain social acceptance through public participation, and in the process raise awareness. Water boards encourage people to engage in fair and democratic decision-making processes. For the Chinese case, mandatory public participation is necessary; the laws should be made in a communicative process and leave no space for double interpretations. The government should launch campaigns to motivate people’s deep social responsibilities. In this way Chinese people will be more aware of their responsibility, task, and ability to take care of water management.

Yingying Ma (1990) studies Law at Fudan University in Shanghai and has won a scholarship to study at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

[i] Guidance on public participation in relation to the Water Framework Directive, Directive Cadre Européene Eau 2015 Rhin Meuse (2002) online available via: http://www.eau2015-rhin-meuse.fr/fr/ressources/
(consulted on August 26, 2014).

[ii] T. Webler,  and S. Tuler, ‘Public Participation in Watershed Management Planning: Views on Process from People in the Field’, Human Ecology Review 8 (2001) 29-39, online available via: http://www.humanecologyreview.
(consulted on August 23, 2014).

[iii] Water Act, Report Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management (2011) 22, online available via: http://www.helpdeskwater.nl/publish/pages/24783/wateract_total.pdf (consulted on August 26, 2014).

[iv] Water Act, 51.

[v] Administrative Code, Report of Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Home Affairs (1994) 7-8, online available via: http://www.juradmin.eu/colloquia/1998/netherlands_annex.pdf  (consulted on August 26, 2014).

[vi] Unie van Waterschappen. Website: www.uvw.nl (consulted on June 14, 2014).

[vii] C.A., Madramootoo, W.R. Johnston & L.S. Willardson, Management of agricultural drainage water quality (Rome 1997).

[viii] J. de Heer, S. Nijwening and S. de Vuyst, Towards Integrated Water Legislation in The Netherlands. Lessons from other countries (2004) online availiable via: http://ucwosl.rebo.uu.nl/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/
(consulted on August 23, 2014).

[ix] Water Management in the Netherlands, Rijkswaterstaat, (2011) online available via: http://www.rijkswaterstaat.nl/
(consulted on on August 23, 2014).

[x] R. Helmer & I. Hespanhol, Water Pollution Control – A Guide to the Use of Water Quality Management Principles (WHO/UNEP 1997).

[xi] Water Law of the People’s Republic of China (2002 Revision), Article 11. Website: http://english.gov.cn/
(consulted on June 14, 2014).

[xii] Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law of the People’s Republic of China (2008 Revision) article 10, online available via: http://www.google.com.hk/… (consulted on August 26, 2014).

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