Rainwater Harvesting in China

Organization: Gansu Research Institute for Water Conservancy
Project Director: Li Yuanhong
Geographic Area: China

When a girl is to be married to a boy in Ganzu province of northwest China, her parents ask the boy a vital question: How many Jiaos (underground tanks) do you have?

Gansu province is one of the driest – and poorest – states in China. The loess (wind-blown soil) plateau in its central and eastern parts is the worst hit. Most of the river runoff is much too salty for drinking or irrigation purposes, and agriculture is rainfall-dependent. Groundwater too is rare, and most of it is bad quality.

The Gansu Research Institute for Water Conservancy's (GRIWAC) four-year research findings suggested a rainwater harvesting system (RWH) – tapping the only potential water source, the seasonal rains – as the answer. Its pilot program in the early 1990s helped 2,000-plus households set up RWH systems. They acted as true-life demonstrations of what could be achieved by harnessing water for supplemental irrigation and domestic use.

GRIWAC's successful project was launched rather quickly by the provincial government in the wake of a drought of 1995. It provides each rural household with a $50 subsidy to build one rainwater collection field on their roofs or on a paved courtyard, two underground tanks, and a piece of land for courtyard economy.

Design modifications in the structures were made to suit local conditions. Cement tanks were built instead of clay ones, as the latter are labor-intensive and prone to quality control problems. Rainwater collection efficiency was enhanced by adopting special measures of seepage control on the rainwater collection surface, or by using existing structure surfaces with less infiltration rates.

The impact of the project has been phenomenal. On average, it has saved 70 water-fetching labor days per year per family. Supplemental irrigation yields have gone up by 20-40 percent for normal years, and is much higher for dry years. The cropping structure has undergone modification with farmers growing cash crops.

By 2002, the farmers in the area built 23,500 greenhouses and planted 40,440 hectare of fruit trees and 22,500 hectare of cash crops. The average per capita income has increased from $100 in 1995 to $182 in 2002. Food and livelihood security is finally a reality.

The Gansu success has caught the country's imagination as well as that of the international RWH community. By 2001, 12 million water cellars, tanks and small ponds were built throughout China with a cumulative storage capacity of 16 billion cubic meters, supplying water for domestic use to 36 million people, and providing supplemental irrigation for 2.6 million hectare of drylands, helping 30 million people secure a relatively stable water source, and with a prerequisite for poverty alleviation.

The large-scale and quick replication of the Gansu experiment throughout the country is due to GRIWAC's step-by-logical-step research/experiment-demonstration-training-replication strategy.

The key success factors included motivation of and active participation in planning, construction and operations on the part of the farmers. Their labor and the donation of local construction materials provided two-thirds of the total cost.

The springboard was the local government that recognized water as key to fundamental social and economic change and took it up in that spirit. They donated the subsidy money and spearheaded a hugely successful fundraising media campaign under this slogan: "Let us give our love to those suffering from thirst and poverty."

Almost all government officials and employees of many enterprises, as well as donors from outside the provinces, contributed. Moreover, the participation of all sectors – universities, citizen groups, health departments, water and agriculture institutions – was sought.

Beyond this, setting up demonstration projects to showcase the benefits of this system, coupled with every household's ownership of it, are major reasons for success in engaging and motivating increasing numbers of farmers.

Clearly, the pre-nuptial question about the number of Jiaos is not heard as much nowadays.

For more information, you can contact Mr. Li Yuanhong (, who is the director of the Gansu Institute for Water Conservancy. In September 2003, the Institute will run an international training course on RWH for developing countries.

Information about the contributor:

Prof. Quiang Zhu is research professor at Gansu Research Institute for Water Conservancy China and vice president of International Rainwater Catchment System Association (IRCSA). In 1997 he retired from the post of director and chief engineer of Gansu Institute for Water Conservancy. Email: .

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