Managing the Unseen: Information Transparency and China’s Groundwater Crisis

A/Prof Matthew J. Currell2

2RMIT University, , Australia

This paper will examine the topic of data transparency and public information disclosure associated with China’s efforts to address its considerable groundwater quality and quantity challenges over the last decade. Examples point to significant tension between the need to adequately characterise problems and gain public trust for new water-related policies and infrastructure, and a desire to avoid divulging information or data deemed not to be in the public or government’s interest to disclose. Exposés by independent journalists and NGOs at key moments appeared to force the Central Government’s hand in acknowledging and dealing with major pollution problems severely impacting peoples’ health. This to some extent led to improved data and information transparency, in conjunction with the government’s ‘War on pollution’ and ‘Water ten plan’. At the same time, there appears to have been limited or selective transparency with regard to data critical to the assessment of other key groundwater related problems, policies and infrastructure. The Central Government has, for example, used groundwater data to promote the need for, and environmental benefits of certain projects (such as the SNWT), while simultaneously limiting access to data needed required to verify other impacts of these, and assess other major projects – such as massive expansion of irrigated agriculture in Xinjiang. While advances in satellite-based methods are providing a means to circumvent data access restrictions, the concept of information control as a critical dimension of political power rings as true in the domain of water management and politics as it does in many other areas of life.


Matthew J. Currell is an associate professor of environmental engineering at RMIT University whose research focusses on groundwater quality and sustainability, particularly in China. He received his PhD in 2011 from Monash University, focussed on the groundwater quality and quantity impacts of intensive irrigation with groundwater in northern China.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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