The rise of tube wells

According to national statistics, the installation of tube wells began in the late 1950s and, although the number of wells has grown continuously, the pace of increase has varied from decade to decade (Ministry of Water Resources and Nanjing Water Institute, 2004). During the 1950s, the first pumps were introduced to China's agricultural sector. Although still fairly limited, the growth rate was fast. During the Great Leap Forward (the late 1950s and early 1960s), however, statistical reporting was suspicious and many irrigation projects that were started during the period were badly engineered and often abandoned. After the recovery from the Great Leap Forward and the famine that followed, statistical agencies recovered, and statistical series since the mid-1960s are relatively consistent.

Since the mid-1960s, the installation and expansion of tube wells across China has been nothing less than phenomenal. In 1965, it was reported that there were only 150,000 tube wells in all of China (Shi, 2000). Since then, the number has grown steadily. By the late 1970s, there were more than 2.3 million tube wells. After stagnating during the early 1980s, a time when irrigated area, especially that serviced by surface water, fell, the number of tube wells continued to rise. By 1997, there were more than 3.5 million tube wells; by 2003, the number rose to 4.7 million.

The path of tube well expansion shown in the official data is largely supported by the information we have from the NCWRS. During the survey we asked the village leaders to tell us about the initial year in which someone (either the village leadership or an individual farmer) in their village sank a tube well (Fig. 3.4). According to the data, we found that by 1960, less than 6% of villages had sunk their first tube well. Over the next 20 years, between the early 1960s and the onset of reform, the number of villages with tube wells rose to more than 50%. During the next 10 years, between 1982 and 1992, the number of villages with tube wells rose by only 7%. After the early 1990s, however, the pace of the expansion of groundwater accelerated, and by 2004 almost 75% of villages had wells and thus access to groundwater.

While the growth of tube wells reported by the official statistical system is impressive, we have reason to believe the numbers are far understated. According to the NCWRS, on average, each village in northern China contained 35 wells in 1995. When extrapolated regionally, this means that there

Fig. 3.4. Share of villages with wells over time. (From authors' survey in 2004.)

were more than 3.5 million tube wells in the 14 provinces in northern China by 1995. According to our data, there has been a rapid growth of wells.11 By 2004, the average village in northern China contained 70 wells, suggesting that the rise in tube well construction since the mid-1990s has been even faster than indicated by official statistics. By 2004, we estimate that there were more than 7.6 million tube wells in northern China. At least in our sample villages, the number of tube wells has grown by more than 12% annually between 1995 and 2004.

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