In recent decades, debate over how to promote water conservation in irrigation has increased as water has become scarcer and competition for water has increased - between neighboring locales, between farms and cities, and between people and their environment. The irrigation debate is particularly salient as agricultural water use is directly tied to food production and rural livelihoods in many of the world's poorest communities. Despite widespread reforms to promote irrigation efficiency and large influxes of infrastructure investment to improve water distribution, China's record for increasing irrigation-related water conservation and alleviating poverty, without disrupting agricultural production, remains poor.
This dissertation examines local irrigation infrastructure provision processes to better understand how China's decentralized fiscal structure impacts regional irrigation development distribution and on-the-ground irrigation system performance. This is accomplished by investigating the case of northern China where roughly 42% of the nation's population lives, 250 million small plot farms operate, yet where water availability is only 757 cubic meters per capita, about one-tenth of the world average. To unfold the relationship among investment, fiscal structure and irrigation performance, this dissertation uses descriptive and multivariate analysis of a panel data set for seventy villages in northern China to track irrigation investment patterns and outcomes over a ten-year period. Analysis reveals that despite increasing amounts of investment overall, irrigation provision disparity between villages in northern China is growing. Further, analysis of the determinants of village irrigation investment portfolios indicates that water shortages do influence farmer investment behavior and upper-level government targeting for investment funds. Results further reveal a shift in the locus of decision making over village-level irrigation projects in recent years, from village level decision making, to irrigation districts and county-level water resource bureau agencies' direct involvement in village irrigation development. This re-concentration of fiscal decision making has many implications for regional irrigation coordination, poverty alleviation and northern China's precarious water resource future.