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Institutional Change in Water Rights in China: A Study of Water Rights Confirmation and Registration in Delingha City

Key Laboratory of Water Cycle and Related Land Surface Processes, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Water 2023, 15(3), 406;
Submission received: 17 October 2022 / Revised: 18 December 2022 / Accepted: 16 January 2023 / Published: 18 January 2023
(This article belongs to the Section Water Resources Management, Policy and Governance)


To achieve the transformation of water rights institution in China from the administrative management to the property rights institution, it is of high significance to discuss the principle of rights confirmation, institution connection, and change. In this paper, we present the process, result, experience, and problems of the authors’ involvement in water rights confirmation and registration in Delingha as the methods designer of water rights confirmation. The conclusions of this paper follow: (1) Equity must be the priority while considering the principles of water rights confirmation. Complying and verifying the results of historical water distribution, strengthening public participation, and selecting persuasive and scientific indicators are the main components that are embodied in the concept of equity. (2) Water rights confirmation is to recognize and revise the distribution result of the old institution. Macroscopically, based on the administrative upper limits set by the “Three Red Lines” and ecologically sustainable requirements, the dual-control method of “matching water use and the Three Red Lines” and “matching water consumption and available water resources” was used to control the total distribution of water rights. From a microscopic point of view, the water abstraction permit was the core indicator of water rights confirmation, after checking with other data. (3) The institutional logic, the responsibilities and roles of the government, and the intellection of water users have changed after the confirmation of water rights. Registration is the key to distinguishing water rights from the traditional administrative institution.

1. Introduction

Water rights confirmation and trade, a way to integrate property rights concept into water management, have been applied in many countries, basins, and regions around the world. Water rights belong to usufructuary right, which is the exclusive right of the right holder, including the right of ownership, usufruct, and transfer [1]. Water rights can be regarded as the mutually recognized behavior and interest connection of people in the process of water resources development, governance, protection, utilization, and management, which essentially reflects the rights and obligations relationship among water-related stakeholders [2]. Water rights and water market are important means to improve the efficiency and benefit of water resources utilization, which have become highly prevalent in the field of global water management [3]. For example, Australia has applied major reforms to its water sector for more than 15 years involving the adoption of “water rights”—with water users granted better defined, more secure, and often tradable entitlements to water [4]. Many studies have indicated the importance of water rights institution to water conservation, water use efficiency and farmers’ irrigation decisions [5,6,7]. Generally, a typical water rights institution includes two phases: water rights confirmation and registration, and operation and management of water markets. Water rights confirmation and registration are foundations of water rights institution. Rights confirmation refers to the verification and recognition of the agent and content of the right by the administrative department. Rights registration is the process of registering authority records and publicizing relevant matters following the law. There is a great need to establish appropriate initial water rights distribution methodologies and associated management institutions and policies to achieve equitable water allocation, in an efficient and environmentally sustainable manner, subject to hydrologic and other constraints [8].
China’s traditional water rights management is a multilevel control system of water abstraction management with administrative permission as the core. The authority of the central government also plays roles in controlling and allocating overall regional water abstraction rights. Water resources allocation is occurring across China, which has developed a legal framework that operates at the river basin/regional level, the water abstraction level, and within public water supply systems [9]. The irrigation district in the arid region with the most detailed management level can be used here as an example. Water rights management of irrigation districts is mainly manifested at three levels. The first level is to control the total amount of regional irrigation water abstraction, which is the upper limit of the regional irrigation water use by both basins and administrative divisions. The ownership of water resources belongs to the state and is entrusted to the central government, which adopts the policy of “dual control” of total volume and efficiency to implement water resource allocation to provinces. The quota is then allocated from provinces to prefectures and finally to counties under jurisdiction of each tier. The allocated quota for each administrative division is then distributed into basins within its administrative boundary, so the total amount of permissive abstraction can also be defined. The second level is the water abstraction rights of irrigation districts or farms. The total amount of water resource is controlled regionally, which is gradually distributed to irrigated districts and other water abstraction agents. According to the Regulations on Administration of Water Abstraction Licensing and Collection of Water Resources Fee [10] (hereinafter referred to as Regulations), water abstraction rights is the right obtained by different levels of irrigation agents after paying the water resource fee and applying for the water abstraction permit from the water administrative department or the river basin management agency. The third level is the water use rights within the irrigated district, including the village, the water users’ association (the WUA), farmers, and other water users. Water is allocated proportionally based on the irrigation area, irrigation quota, and other factors. According to historical documents, some unique rudiments of irrigation water rights have been developed in some areas of north China that lack water resources, such as the water rotation system of Heihe River Basin, the water ticket of Zhangye, etc. In some areas, water rights trading within the agricultural sector use water tickets as a form of trading, such as Minle County in Gansu Province and Huquanbi County in Xinjiang Province. Such trading is based on the fact that farmers have obtained an explicit water rights certificate (informal) and have purchased a water ticket from the irrigated district following their annual allocation of water.
In recent years, the market mechanism has gradually been adopted as supplementary to resource allocation, which has been become important to Chinese decision-makers. The unique political institution of China makes it possible for dual water governance, with the adoption of both market principles and government regulations to improve water allocation [11]. Since its introduction into the water sector (officially) in 1998 by the Minister of Water Resources (MWR), a water rights institution and associated framework have been gradually formulated in China, which provide measures for market functioning at water allocation. [12]. For water rights confirmation, the current research mainly focuses on the initial distribution method of water rights. Much research has applied a considerable amount of initial water rights distribution methods in the pursuit of a more scientific and effective scheme. Various methods of water rights distribution have been used in China, including the analytic hierarchy process, fuzzy method, and harmonious allocation method, among others [13,14,15]. In practice, further downward subdivision is not commonly observed in nonpilot areas. To achieve the transition of water resources allocation from the traditional administrative management to the water rights institution with a property right nature, there are still three problems in the whole process of water right confirmation that need to be discussed:
The first problem is how to set the principle of initial water rights confirmation. Wang thought that the initial allocation of water rights is determined by the principles of prioritizing the basic water demands, promoting fairness, complying with the status quo, and improving economic efficiency [15]. The critical problem is how to balance efficiency and equity. Water resource efficiency is a key evaluation indicator for decision-makers, while equitable distribution is critical for the water users at the grassroots level. The allocation systems performed the worst in equity, efficiency, and enforceability in river basins with relatively low resource density and high levels of exploitation, which may be contributed to severe water conflicts in arid areas [16]. It is of great urgency to evaluate water rights distribution fairness and find a plan to balance the interests of all parties, especially the village and water user levels. Much literature has examined the fairness of water rights distribution. Zachary proposed a water rights distribution mechanism based on equitable apportionment that is able to achieve a fairer apportionment of drought impacts among individual water users [17]. Guan used the Gini coefficient method to construct a water rights allocation model among farmer households based on the principle of fairness [18].
The second problem is how to connect the water rights institution and the existing administrative management institution. The new method of distributing water rights needs to be linked to water abstraction permits primarily, with the verification and acceptance of existing results. It is found that the water rights institution must be established based on the existing water abstraction permit institution from the authority of the distribution results, which aims at protecting the legal rights of existing water users and complying with the legitimate part of history. The water rights system cannot be distanced from China’s existing rules, namely the “Three Red Lines” in terms of the total amount. The “Three Red Lines” is the water resources management system formulated by The State Council, which evaluates total water use, efficiency, and pollution discharge. One “line” refers to the upper limits on water use at the national, provincial, and municipal levels in China. The total water control quo of 700 billion cubic meters in 2030 has been allocated to each province. This is the initial water rights allocation at the national level. “Three Red Lines” has not been comprehensively considered in current models of initial water rights allocation [19].
The third problem is how water resources management mode will change after water rights confirmation and registration. These changes include the variations in institutional mechanism, the role and responsibility of the government, and the rights of water users. It is found that water users and water administrative departments have low cognition and recognition of water rights in practice. The relationship between the certificate of water rights and the water abstraction permit is unclear, where the role of water rights cannot be fully played in the actual water resources management process. If the water rights confirmation only focuses on distribution rather than rights registration, it will make water rights indistinguishable from the traditional form of administrative management. Wang believes that China’s regional water rights transactions can be seen as intergovernmental agreements rather than water rights [20]. This also reflects that the rights attribute of water rights is much lower than that of water quantity in administrative management in China. The water rights can truly operate when the changes between the old and new institutions are recognized.
To answer the three questions above, we would like to present the process, result, experience, and problems of the authors’ involvement in water rights confirmation and registration in Delingha city, as the methods designer of water rights confirmation. The rest of this study is organized as follows: Section 2 briefly introduces the study area, and describes how the principle, framework, and indicators of water rights confirmation are determined. Section 3 describes the results and experience of water rights confirmation and registration. Section 4 discusses the problems that emerged after the institutional change, such as institutional logic, the government’s role, and the relationship between old and new institutions. Section 5 presents conclusions based on the three questions presented above.

2. Materials and Methods

2.1. Study Area

Delingha city is the capital of Haixi Prefecture in Qinghai Province, which has been chosen as a pilot area for water rights reform in Qinghai province. Delingha is an arid area with an average annual precipitation of 177.5 mm. The Bayin River Basin in Delingha city is within a fragile ecological environment area. The main reason for the ecological problems there are the excessive exploitation and utilization of water resources, in which agricultural water consumption accounts for the largest proportion. During a field survey of water use in Delingha, we found that some farms and water users received water in a large scale without abstraction permits. It is necessary to standardize, safeguard, and restrict the rights of water users by using water right confirmation for the chaotic water use situation in Delingha city, especially to make agricultural water rights clear to each user.
The water rights confirmation covers the whole administrative region of Delingha city. The main river basins in Delingha city are the Bayin River and Balegeng River basins. Water sources include surface water and groundwater, providing resources for urban and life, industry, farmland, forest and grass irrigation, and ecological environment. The total amount of water resources in Delingha city is 505 million m3. As the northern mountainous (Hala Lake basin) and the southern mountainous areas are uninhabited and water resources are rarely used, only the water rights for the basin area outside these two areas are confirmed. Therefore, apart from the two uninhabited areas, the amount of groundwater in Delingha city is 326 million m3, the surface water is 410 million m3, the overlap part is 251 million m3, and the total amount of water resources is 485 million m3.

2.2. The Principle of Water Rights Confirmation

The principle of water right confirmation is to ensure equity. Historical rules need to be complied, in other words, to recognize and protect the existing water rights of legal users. The achievements of the water abstraction permit institution and the legal customary use of water should be observed to reasonably guarantee the inherent right of water users. Under the premise that the water market has not been established, to establish a totally new system without considering historical facts may cause an imbalance in the distribution of existing productivity, bring chaos to industrial and agricultural production, and cause unnecessary confusion, panic, and new disputes for existing water users. However, fair and reasonable distribution of water rights may be missing in the future if only considering the historical rules. The water rights confirmation is also the correction of unfair water distribution in the past. It is necessary to give priority to the legitimate parts of the existing system. Selecting high-authoritative indicators to adjust the unreasonable and unfair parts is important to ensure the public’s acceptance and scientific distribution.

2.3. The Framework of Water Rights Confirmation

The framework of water rights confirmation is shown in Figure 1. There are five levels of water rights confirmation: the first level considers regional water rights, the second level are sector water rights, the third level are water abstraction rights, and the fourth and fifth levels are water use rights.
The first level refers to the dual control of “matching water use and the Three Red Lines” and “matching water consumption and available water resources”. To meet the dual requirements of administrative management and ecological protection, water consumption and water abstraction should be used together to control the total amount of water rights. Water rights confirmation based on water abstraction corresponds to the administrative management of water abstraction permits and the “Three Red Lines”, which is convenient for matching the management and implementation. However, exclusive consideration of water abstraction may cause out-of-control water loss, which is not conducive to guarantee the ecological flow of the basin. From the perspective of ecological sustainability of water resources, it is necessary to consider water rights confirmation based on water consumption as well. Therefore, the availability of water resources should be considered. It refers to the maximum amount of water that can be used as part of the total water resources of a basin in a foreseeable period by taking economically reasonable and technically feasible measures, based on the overall consideration of water use for life, production, and ecological environment, which is of high significance to ensure a stable water supply [21,22].
The second level is the division of water rights among different sectors. Since water management is ultimately the responsibility of different administrative departments of water use sectors, the division of water rights by sector is more appropriate than that by administrative area. According to the status quo of water abstraction permit management and the division of labor in the management departments of Delingha city, we consolidated the water use sector into four categories, including domestic, agricultural, industrial, and artificial ecological water rights. Domestic water rights include residential and the public water use parts (service industry use). Agricultural water rights are divided into irrigated districts and forestry. Industry includes all industrial enterprises that have water abstraction permits. Artificial ecology refers to the part for artificial river and lake replenishment. The remaining water use sectors are reserved for future water rights. The third level refers to further subdivision of the second level to the nonagricultural agent, who has the legal right to intake water in irrigation areas, including urban domestic water supply departments, the enterprise with their own water source; industrial enterprises; and the agricultural irrigation areas with water access permits. The fourth level includes agricultural and public network users. The distribution of agricultural water rights is subdivided to the third level of agricultural water rights to each village or the WUAs in the irrigated area with mature conditions (complete supporting facilities and measuring facilities). Public network users are divided into life, industry, construction, greening, and so on. The fifth level is based on the irrigation water rights of the fourth level. Combined with the confirmation of irrigation area rights for Delingha city, the irrigation water rights are implemented for farmers, providing the basis for the end-users to issue the water rights certificate.
Water rights confirmation follows the hierarchical control of combining “top–down” and “bottom–up”. “Top–down” refers to the initial water rights distribution that conforms to a hierarchical system of administrative management in China. The water rights are controlled from the first level to the fifth level. The top to bottom types of water rights are regional water rights, water abstraction rights, and water use rights. The “bottom–up”, that is, rights confirmation mainly started from the users’ level, and the upper-level water rights holder can be the right agent of their subordinate water rights holder. In the process of total water rights statistics, the last level of water rights in each industry should be firstly confirmed, which will then be summarized upward, step by step. To confirm water rights with authority and acceptability, China’s water abstraction permit management should be combined integrally. Therefore, water abstraction rights confirmation in the third level is the crucial link for the multilevel framework, mainly involving the verification of water withdrawal permits, irrigation area verification, water use statistics, and other works. It upwardly provides the total amount calculation basis for regional and sector water rights, and downwardly provides the total amount control basis for water use rights.

2.4. Indicator Selection and Checking

2.4.1. Indicator Selection

Indicator selection varies in different sectors. Indicators in the domestic water use sector include water abstraction permits, water resource use in the most recent three years, regional population planning, and water quota [23,24,25]. For the industrial water use sector, water abstraction permits, water resource usage in the most recent three years, industrial output values, and water quota are selected [23,24]. Agricultural water indicators include water abstraction permits, agricultural land area (confirmed area, irrigation area, etc.), water quota, and planting structure [23,24,25,26,27]. In the artificial ecological water use sector, indicators include artificial river and lake areas, evaporation, and water resource usage in the most recent three years [28,29].

2.4.2. Indicator Checking

Indicator checking is shown in Figure 1. There are three levels of verification: sector, water abstraction, and water use. The sector level is to stipulate the lower limit for the total amount. Water rights must guarantee the minimum water demand of each sector. Water abstraction license is the prior basis for indicator selection in various sectors. The total amount of water rights should be checked and reduced in proportion if exceeding the control target of water consumption or water abstraction, in combination with water consumption, quota, and other indicators. If there is no water abstraction permit, then indicators are selected after the authoritative and scientific evaluation of data. The amount of water resources in the water resources assessment report of project construction (hereinafter referred to as the assessment report) and water resources utilization in the last three years are the indicators of water use, which is used as references or data backup.
Considering the future increase in domestic water use, the minimum domestic water right is calculated by planning population and the domestic water quota. The water withdrawal permits will work as the indicator when the sum of the domestic water withdrawal permits meets the minimum domestic water rights. If the domestic water rights are not satisfied, the insufficient part will be included in the reserved water rights, which will be given the highest priority. Industrial water rights are mainly determined by water abstraction and verified by water use data and the assessment report from recent years. If there are further demands for water in the future, and the information in the relevant augmentation is out-of-date, the water reserve rights will include this part. Artificial ecological water rights confirmation is determined by the evaporation of artificial rivers and lakes, which will be verified by the historical water use data from the last three years. As for agricultural water rights, many comprehensive factors need to be considered in the confirmation, where the verification of land area is the most important. The existing data varies for agricultural land area, such as the current cultivated land area, irrigation area, land rights confirmation area, etc. Additionally, the data for land rights confirmation is relatively reliable according to the data authorization. Then, the water rights of each farmer are allocated in proportion to land area, irrigation quota, and planting structure. In terms of legality, the irrigation water rights are determined based on the water abstraction permit and land rights confirmation data, to ensure the unification of water and soil resources in spatial data and administrative license.

3. Results

3.1. Water Rights Confirmation

3.1.1. Ecological Water Demand and Human-Available Water Rights

Ecological water demand in this study refers to the runoff volume consumed by ecosystems that require runoff to feed them, excluding precipitation supply. The scope includes rivers, lakes, wetlands, and also the consumption by ecosystems in shallow groundwater. In the inland river basin, no spare water resources will be abandoned; even flood water will ultimately flow into the terminal lake in flood season for the ecological environment. Therefore, the ecological water requirement of Delingha city is a requirement of the rump marsh wetland and lake. With the constraints of maintaining the freshwater characteristics of Keluke-Tuosu-Gahai Lake (the salinity in a dry year is not more than 5‰), lake evaporation is also calculated. The ecological water demand for the whole basin is 295 million m3, accounting for 61% of the total water resources (485 million m3). After deducting ecological water demand, the available water rights for human production and living are 190 million m3, of which 176 million m3 is in the Bayin River Basin and 14 million m3 is in the Balegeng River Basin.

3.1.2. Water Use Rights Confirmation in Different Sectors

The total domestic water rights for Delingha city are 15.43 million m3. This includes domestic water for urban and rural residents, the service and construction industry, and urban greening. Among them, the water rights of Delingha Water Supply Company (Delingha, China) are 15 million m3. The remainder belongs to the township’s reasonable water abstraction for human drinking project, which is 361,500 m3 (Xuji and Huitoutala township), and the rest are self-provided water abstraction projects.
Agricultural water rights are divided into irrigated districts and forestry. Combined with the confirmed area of land management rights of farmers and farms in Delingha city (a total of 140 km2) and the water quota for each irrigation district, the irrigation water rights are 172.98 million m3, including 155.64 million m3 in the Bayin River Basin and 17.35 million m3 in the Balegeng River Basin. Excluding urban greening, the total irrigated area of forestry is 6.03 km2 (5.39 km2 for flood irrigation and 0.64 km2 for drip irrigation). The forestry water rights are 12.61 million m3 in total, including 11.85 million m3 in the Bayin River Basin and 00.76 million m3 in the Balegeng River Basin.
The total industrial water rights are 35.3 million m3, which wholly belong to the Bayin River Basin. Industrial water rights are allocated to the third level of water withdrawal, including industrial enterprises with independent water withdrawal permits and the Delingha Industrial Park. The water rights of the enterprise customers who use the public network are temporarily owned by Delingha Water Supply Company.
Artificial ecological water rights are 0.88 million m3. The main artificial rivers and lakes in Delingha city cover an area of 613,300 m2. The average annual evaporation of Delingha city is 1429 mm.

3.1.3. Dual Control of Water Use and Water Consumption

The water rights for water consumption are calculated by the water consumption coefficient: WC = WU × c, where WU indicates water use, WC is water consumption, and c is the water consumption coefficient. Referring to the assessment report of the irrigation area and relevant research results of the Qinghai Hydrology and Water Resources Survey Bureau [30], which was approved by the Delingha Water Authority, the water consumption coefficient for various sectors is shown in Table 1.
Table 2 shows the water rights confirmation of water use and water consumption in Delingha city. Domestic water use rights are 15.43 million m3, and the water consumption rights are 7.14 million m3. Industrial water use rights are 35.3 million m3, and water consumption rights are 34.98 million m3. Agricultural water use rights are 177.18 million m3, and water consumption rights are 114.53 million m3. Artificial ecological water use rights are 0.0088 billion m3, and water consumption rights are 0.0088 billion m3. The total amount of water use rights in Delingha city is 229 million m3, which is under the control target of the 2020 water red line (255 million m3). The total water consumption rights are 157.53 million m3, which are less than 190 million m3 of available water resources. Therefore, the reserved water rights are 26.22 million m3 (water use rights) and 32.47 million m3 (water consumption rights), respectively. According to the development plan and water use for Delingha city, it is suggested that this part is mainly reserved for industrial development, and to meet the increasing requirements of forestry and artificial ecological water.

3.2. Water Rights Registration

3.2.1. The Agent of Water Rights Registration

According to the division of responsibilities between the ownership and administration power of natural resources in China, water rights are confirmed by the water administration department. The department for water rights registration is the natural resources department as the agent of water resources ownership, which is also responsible for the development and related supervision of the implementation program for water rights registration. Local governments are responsible for coordinating and resolving major issues, such as responsibilities, funding, etc.

3.2.2. Procedure of Water Rights Registration

(a) Verify the content’s legality of water rights registration: The object of registration is water resources. For water users, the content of the rights includes the right to use, dispose, benefit, etc. For water abstractors, the right to intake water also needs to be included. For agricultural water rights, it also needs to correspond spatially to the results of land titling. Field surveys, resolving tenure disputes, or delineating tenure dispute areas are needed when the additional or disputed tenure rights arise. (b) Public announcement: The information of water resources, different levels of water rights owners and other contents should be publicized to ensure no objection. (c) Registration and issuance of certificates: After the expiration of the announcement period, to ensure that there are no objections, the registry will register and issue water rights certificates to water rights holders. (d) Data maintenance and update: Create a database to associate other information and perform real-time updates and maintenance.

3.2.3. The Level of Water Rights Registration for Different Sectors

According to the water resources management basis and the future market mechanism needs of different sectors, there are differences in the grades of water rights registration. Whether the agent of water rights registration is the lowest water user or the agent at the higher level, needs to be analyzed in combination with the actual situation. In principle, water rights should be confirmed to the level of water users who have the actual rights to use water. However, the registration should be combined with the existing water abstraction permit management. The period of water rights management in different sectors should be reasonably considered to achieve the optimal efficiency of water rights management as well.
The final level of registration in different sectors has been confirmed. Based on the water abstraction permit, certificates of domestic water rights and industrial water rights were issued to the level of water abstraction agent with water abstraction permits for management convenience. The registered domestic agents include Delingha Water Supply Company, various drinking projects, and self-provided domestic water sources. The registered industrial agents include enterprises providing water sources and exclude enterprises using public pipe networks (the water rights temporarily belong to Delingha Water Supply Company). The artificial ecological water rights were given to the ecological management department. Agriculture is the sector with the most complicated and meticulous regulation of water use. It is evidently revealed in the water rights confirmation that the registration in irrigation water rights is much more complicated and has the maximum number of levels, which need to be confirmed to the last level. Water-saving potential and water rights trading are both factors that need to be considered for the levels of water rights registration in irrigation areas. Irrigation water rights registration should play a role in strengthening farmers’ abilities in self-water management, encouraging water saving, embodying the value of water resources, and promoting the activity of water rights trading among farmers. Therefore, water rights should be distributed to the level of end water users. Considering the maturity of land ownership confirmation, irrigation and metering facilities construction in each irrigation area, we selected the farmers in 5 irrigation areas including 34 villages (or WUAs) and 5 farms in Delingha city, to issue water rights certificates. The database of water rights of users in the irrigation district was established, including the irrigation area, irrigation quota, water rights, and geographical location of each user.

3.3. Experience

3.3.1. Necessity of Public Participation in Decision-Making

The methods of water rights confirmation need to be discussed and modified repeatedly. The recognition of results also requires four stages: public announcement of the preliminary results, solicitation of opinions, modification, and final public announcement. Then, the results will be used in the rights registration. In this complex process, as the designer of the method and the provider of the final results of water rights confirmation, we verified the rationality and acceptability of the water rights confirmation method through discussion with the government, review of experts, and supervision of public participation in decision-making. Under the premise that the main principle of water rights confirmation remains unchanged, we can continuously improve the concrete implementation details dynamically. In the process, public participation in the decision-making was very important. We shared the preliminary proposal with representatives of important water users in different sectors, such as water supply companies, business representatives, industrial parks, irrigation district managers, WUAs, and even legal workers. The most important institutional driver is the end water users, so it is essential to hear from them and to strengthen their understanding of water rights in the mutual discussion.

3.3.2. Application of Equity Principle in Correcting Historical Results

To ensure the equity of water rights confirmation, it is necessary to correct the forepast illegal or unreasonable water resources allocation results. In the process of confirming agricultural water rights, some farms had the certificate confirming land rights but do not apply for the water abstraction permits. Although it was customary water use, it was illegal, which was a mistake of administrative management. The farm’s water use data reported to the water administration department every year without supervision did not correspond to the actual situation. If all this part of the water use is legalized, the total amount of water rights will exceed the “Three Red Lines”. Therefore, water use verification is carried out based on data from the assessment report, irrigated area, and water quota for each farm. Combined with requirements of future regional economic development and agricultural development planning, agricultural water rights were uniformly reduced without affecting basic agricultural irrigation. Water use of farms was brought into the scope of supervision.

4. Discussion

Water rights confirmation and registration have had positive effects on water resources management in Deilingha city. The amount of water used by each user is clearly defined. Water disputes were reduced, and the order of water use was better regulated. The clear water rights stimulated the consciousness of water users as protagonists. Water rights institution in Delingha city has entered the next stage, that is, the operation and management of the water market. The local water rights trading platform has been established. However, traditional administration management is still functions by inertia even after the new phase that began in 2020. So far, no trading of water rights has taken place. Water rights only produced the effect on the initial allocation of water resources, but do not play a role in the secondary one. We next discuss the problems and causes from the perspective of institutional change.

4.1. Fundamental Changes in Institutional Logic

First of all, we must analyze the background of the problem, that is, the underlying logic that has changed after the institutional change. From the behavioral logic of the institution, the traditional management under the administrative power and the water rights institution with the property right has very obvious differences in China. Public power emphasizes top–down control, while private rights focus on autonomy. Administrative management is top–down logic, with planning, hierarchical control, and assessment mechanism as the main way. The higher-level government can control the management behavior of the lower-level government through vertical administrative instructions. The “Three Red Lines” are used to control the total amount of regional water use. The performance of relevant water resources managers is assessed by these “Lines”. This kind of assessment of water resources managers allows stronger management to the behavior of water users, in terms of achieving regional water resources utilization goals. Additionally, water users’ behaviors can also be affected by the assessment mechanisms that are formulated by the government. Institution of water abstraction permits is used to limit the rights boundaries of water users. In the management of water users, targets of water use are established, supervised, and assessed.
After the institutional change, the management logic also changed. Water rights institution is a kind of bottom–up management logic. Owing to the confirmation of property rights at the users’ level, water users can rationally use, distribute, transfer, and trade the water resources within the water rights according to their own needs. The subjective initiative of the end user is improved. Water resources are allocated for the second time through a market mechanism such as water rights trading. The independent treatment of water rights by micro-users will make a difference in regional water resources utilization and efficiency. This change will be finally counted and analyzed by the regional government, which will lead to the adjustment and improvement of the policy by the higher government.

4.2. Inadaptation of Change in Government’s Roles

In addition to water users, the government could also perform more roles while obtaining water rights according to the water rights agency mechanism after the change in institutional logic.
First, because of the exclusivity of legal rights, water resources can be formally distributed under water rights compared with administrative directive. After the superior agent within the government devolves the water right to the inferior agent through the hierarchical agency mechanism, the disposal behavior of the lower agent cannot be randomly interfered. For water users, the government is the agent entrusted by the people to carry out public management. During water rights trading by water users, the government acts more as a “referee” and performs the work entrusted by administrative management powers such as guidance, coordination, and supervision through rules-making and platform building. As long as the water users’ behavior is within the scope of their water rights, on the premise of ensuring regional water security, the government does not set additional indicators for rigid assessment, but gives the initiative to each water user.
Secondly, as the agent of regional water rights, the government can dispose the water rights owned by the government according to the law, such as trading with other agents to obtain legal profits. As the owner of water resources, the government can obtain reasonable interests of water resources, and choose to delegate ownership to different levels of government and water users. At this time, the government emerged as the agent of property rights and a member of economic agents, without the privilege. A division must be explicit between the agents of water ownership and the implementers of water management within the government, to avoid a dual role of government department that acts as both athlete and referee. When the government participates in water rights trading, the higher government departments should supervise.
However, it is difficult for the government to change its role immediately because of the administration stereotype. The unnecessary performance appraisal system is decreasing, but the administrative method of planning and assessment is still dominant. To make water rights trading active, the relevant institution extended by administrative planning power at the microlevel may need adjustment. For example, after the water rights confirmation of water users, if a strict target of the water use plan is assessed each year, water users will not be able to flexibly adjust their water use behavior and dispose water rights due to the changes within the year.

4.3. Incomprehension of the Relationships between Water Rights and Water Abstraction Permits

While communicating with water managers, water users, and even legal workers in Delingha city, we found that many people believe that it is unnecessary to establish a water rights registration system because of the existence of a water abstraction permit system. The occurrence of this misconception is not a regional phenomenon. This is a problem caused by the long-term neglect of the ownership and use rights of natural resources in China. Executive power played an excessive role during this period.
(1) The definition of water use rights fails in relevant laws and regulations because of China’s traditional administration management mode. There is no clear relationship between water rights and water withdrawal permits in Regulations or relevant rules and regulations. Water use rights are even the rights that are conducted after water abstraction under the traditional management concept. Water rights are collections of rights including the use of water, abstraction, disposal, and so on. Water abstraction rights are parts of water rights, which are rights of behavioral choice for water users beyond the scope of the urban pipe network. Although in China the water abstraction permit appears before the water rights confirmation (because in China’s current laws and regulations, water use rights have not been clearly defined), but from the logical sequence of rights, the water user is granted with the water abstraction rights after holding the water rights (use rights).
(2) After the establishment of the water rights institution, the proper sense of water rights registration is not properly explained to water users. In traditional consciousness, water allocation has always been viewed as administrative management rather than empowerment behavior. Awarding a water abstraction permit is the action that the government, as water resources manager, endows the applicant with the qualification and quantity of water. In essence, it is one of the ways that the government uses its administrative power to grant water users the right to abstract water. Although the rights to abstract water can be guaranteed, it is administratively granted. Rights registration is the delegation and confirmation of the state’s ownership (water use rights) of its water resources. It covers all water rights with the character of property right as long as it is legal, whether acquired by license, contract, inheritance, or enforcement. This is a hierarchical agent system of property rights, which is completely different from the conferment of administrative power. Endowment of water rights to people is a way for the state to dispose water use rights as water owners. After registration, water rights are long-term and stable rights that protected by the law where the government has no power to interfere with it in general. In contrast, water abstraction permits can be changed and reviewed periodically based on transferring, trading, and changes in water rights. Although the water abstraction rights are confirmed by the Property Law, the certificate is only the administrative licensing that cannot be traded.

5. Conclusions

Based on the method design, process and result presentation, and discussion of water rights confirmation and registration in Delingha city, the conclusions can be summarized as follows:
(1) Equity is the priority in the principles of water rights confirmation. Equity is embodied in complying and verifying the results of historical water distribution, strengthening public participation, and selecting persuasive and scientific indicators. During the water rights confirmation in Delingha city, it was found that water rights confirmation can be highly authoritative and acceptable only by combining existing management and complying with local water use history. It has been practically proved that the principle of legality priority is highly recognized in ensuring the fairness of water rights confirmation. On the premise of the legitimacy of water rights, it is particularly important to evaluate the data of rights-confirming indicators. A set of water rights confirmation schemes with strong operability was developed after comparing data authorities. The water abstraction permit was taken as the core indicator, with the checking combined with land rights confirmation data, water quota, water use, and other indicators. It is recommended that the authorities should guarantee the right to know of water users through public participation in decision-making. Such an open and transparent process also improves equity for water users.
(2) Water rights confirmation is to recognize and revise the distribution result and management status of the existing institution. Macroscopically, the “Three Red Lines” is the upper control institution for both water rights and the existing administrative management institution. In addition, to ensure that the ecological water demand cannot be encroached by the total amount of water rights, the scheme of water rights confirmation also needs to meet government planning in administrative management. Therefore, the dual-control method of “matching water use and the Three Red Lines” and “matching water consumption and available water resources” were used to control the total distribution of water rights. From the microscopic point of view, there is a close relationship between water abstraction permits and water rights. It does not imply that the former one will be replaced by the latter, but to make better connections. Additionally, water rights confirmation should repair the unreasonable and missing parts in the original administrative management. Water abstraction permits should be the core indicator for water rights confirmation, after checking with other data. It makes sense to improve the connotation of water rights in laws and regulations, except for the water abstraction rights commonly used in administration. For any region that needs to reform the water rights system, it is important for the authorities to determine the status of the new system in the entire management system and its relationship with the old system.
(3) After the water rights confirmation, the institutional logic, the responsibilities and roles of the government, and the intellection of water users will be changed. The traditional administrative management mode will be gradually transformed into a new one of “property rights management and administrative management”. On the premise of complying history and considering future needs, the efficiency and flexibility of water resources management are improved by supplementing the notion of property rights management and relevant connotations. Water rights registration is the key to distinguish water rights from traditional administrative institution. To separate the water rights system from the administrative power of the government, it is necessary to change the traditional belief of the government and water users. Further, the most important is to strengthen the status of rights registration in the process of water rights confirmation. For the government, it is crucial to make clear the difference and boundary between ownership and management power. For water users, it is a priority to differentiate between the essential features of the water rights certificate and water abstraction permit. For the authorities, water rights confirmation and registration are only the beginning and a foundation for the institutional change. In the future, government should embrace additional novel notions in management, and guide water users to actively integrate into the new system. The market mechanism can perform better roles in the allocation of water resources under such circumstance.

Author Contributions

Data curation: J.D.; formal analysis: J.D.; methodology: J.D. and S.J.; funding acquisition, S.J.; supervision, S.J.; writing—original draft, J.D.; writing—review, S.J.; writing—polishing and editing, Z.S. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research was funded by the National Key R&D Program of China, Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China, grant number 2021YFE0103900.

Data Availability Statement

Not applicable.


The authors would like to thank the Water Resources Bureau, Natural Resources Bureau, Forestry Bureau, and Agriculture Bureau in Deilingha city for their data support. Thanks to the Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research of Qinghai Province for providing help in fieldwork and data checking.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. Framework and indicator selection of water rights confirmation.
Figure 1. Framework and indicator selection of water rights confirmation.
Water 15 00406 g001
Table 1. Water consumption coefficient for different sectors.
Table 1. Water consumption coefficient for different sectors.
SectorSubclassWater Consumption Coefficient
Industrial water useSoda ash industry1.0
General industry0.3
Domestic water useCities and towns0.3
Rural residents1
Agricultural water useBaishui River irrigation district0.7
Huaitoutala irrigation area0.65
Delingha irrigation district0.6
Gahai irrigation area0.6
Zeilinggou irrigation area0.6
Urban greening water use0.6
Construction water use1.0
Service water use0.3
Table 2. Water rights confirmation for Delingha city.
Table 2. Water rights confirmation for Delingha city.
SectorWater RightsBayinBalegenTotal
Domestic water rightsWU0.15230.00200.1543
Agricultural water rightsWU1.59070.18111.7718
Industrial water rightsWU0.353000.3530
Artificial ecological water rightsWU0.008800.0088
Total water rightsWU2.10470.18312.2878
Reserved water rightsWU--0.2622
The reserved water rights of WU are determined based on total water rights controlled by the “Three Red Lines”, which are not subdivided according to the Bayin and Balegen basins.
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Deng, J.; Jia, S.; Song, Z. Institutional Change in Water Rights in China: A Study of Water Rights Confirmation and Registration in Delingha City. Water 2023, 15, 406.

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Deng J, Jia S, Song Z. Institutional Change in Water Rights in China: A Study of Water Rights Confirmation and Registration in Delingha City. Water. 2023; 15(3):406.

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Deng, Jieming, Shaofeng Jia, and Zikun Song. 2023. "Institutional Change in Water Rights in China: A Study of Water Rights Confirmation and Registration in Delingha City" Water 15, no. 3: 406.

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