John Powell raising awareness of importance of water governance and policy in China

John Powell has been participating in the first ever workshop on commons to be held in China, which was attended by over 80 participants at Tsinghua University in Beijing on 14th and 15th October 2017.

The workshop, ‘Enhancing Water Governance and Policy‘, focused on water governance and policy in China and included presentations from senior and junior academics from across China and further afield, including Singapore, Pakistan, the USA, the UK and the Netherlands. Several of the participants were former research students of Elinor Ostrom (Nobel Prize for Economic Science 2009), including Prof. Shui-Yan Tang, Prof. Yahua Wang, Eduardo Araral and Frank van Laerhoven (Chief Editor of the International Journal of the Commons).

John Powell (centre left in the front row) with delegates at the 2017 Commons Workshop in Beijing, China
John Powell (centre left in the front row) with delegates at the 2017 Commons Workshop in Beijing, China

As president of the International Association for the Study of Commons (IASC), John made an introductory presentation at the opening ceremony, talking about how water is a vital but complex resource and the importance of bringing together policy makers, practitioners and academic researchers to generate understanding and improve commons governance. [ddownload id=”14967″ text=”Download John’s presentation speech”]

Professor Ye Qui (Director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Centre for Public Policy, Tsinghua University) chaired the opening session and discussion with four key note speakers. Asit Biswas (Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore) gave a presentation at the opening session of the conference noting that China had made huge advances in water management, but despite this could face major water scarcity problems in the future. He suggested that south to north transfers of water would only ‘buy 10 – 15 years of time’ for China before significant water shortage would again rear its head. Professor Biswas suggested that the ‘much cited’ global water shortage was more a case of poor resource management than lack of water itself. He argued that a stronger focus from academics on the synthesis of existing knowledge and improved application of knowledge, linked to integration of new technology could solve many of the water problems in China, and other parts of the world.

Professor Shui-Yan Tang (University of Southern California) drew on work undertaken from 30 years of studying irrigation and other water related problems (such as groundwater management) to address the potential application of Elinor Ostrom’s principles for collective action to China’s water problems. He noted that although the current state of the commons research provided a good micro-analytical framework, a missing link in designing water governance regimes was the lack of attention to the macro-institutional framework. He argued strongly for greater focus on the nature and scale of problems before designing governance institutions to achieve policy objectives. He drew some interesting observations from a comparison of USA and Chinese governance systems, noting that neither system was perfect. He contrasted the capacity of the USA to create long enduring institutions (and long-term failure to reach agreed solutions), with China that has the capacity for rapid resolution of problems in the short-term but faces difficulties in creating long-term and enduring solutions due to the administrative approach that regularly moves officials to different locations and posts, resulting in a loss of experience and knowledge.

Eduardo Araral (Vice Dean of Research, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore) finished the keynote speakers session with a critique of Elinor Ostrom’s work noting the difficulties of applying her principles to large-scale commons problems, and suggested that her critique of private property rights needed to be re-visited.

This was the first professional academic conference around Commons in China and was approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education. It was co-organized by the China Institute for Rural Studies at Tsinghua University, the International Association for the Study of the Commons, the Third World Centre for Water Management, the International Journal of the Commons, the International Journal of Water Resources Development, and the Center for Water Resources Research at Chinese Academy of Sciences.