The intricate ingenuity of ancient Chinese water management systems has been recognized on a global platform, with four venerable irrigation structures across China being designated as World Heritage Irrigation Structures (WHIS). These sites, embodying more than two millennia of hydraulic history, reflect China’s advanced understanding of sustainable water resource management long before the term entered the modern lexicon.
Qimenyan in Anhui Province, known colloquially as the “seven-door weir,” is a marvel of hydraulic engineering set against a hilly wetland backdrop. It is a complex of channels, ponds, ditches, and canals ingeniously interconnected to store and distribute water efficiently across the region.
Moving eastward to Jiangsu Province, one finds the Hongze Lake Irrigation System, which has been controlling the waters since AD 199. Further north in Shanxi Province lies Huoquan, a quintessential spring-type water system. And in the heartland of Central China, the Baini Weirs, a duo of 1,000-year-old dams in Hubei Province, continue their service in flood control and water supply. These weirs stand as a testament to the large-scale stone construction techniques that were prevalent in ancient China.
The scattering of these sites across vast geographic expanses and varying topographies speaks volumes of ancient China’s national-level approach to water management. Yuan Han, an authority on architectural and urban planning, emphasized to the Global Times the alignment of ancient Chinese practices with modern sustainable development. The principle of “Yin Di Zhi Yi,” which advocates adapting construction to local environmental conditions, underpins the enduring wisdom emanating from China’s historical water management strategies.
The recent accolades at the 74th International Executive Council Meeting of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID) in India bring China’s tally to 34 irrigation projects honored as part of the WHIS list. In 2023 alone, a diverse array of 15 projects from several countries, including India, Iraq, and Turkey, were recognized. China’s contributions stand out for their breadth and historical richness.
Jia Boyang, an environmental expert, delineated the criteria for heritage status, indicating that mere historical significance or unique features are insufficient. Heritage sites must demonstrate enduring value to humanity, contributing to social and cultural evolution. According to Jia, these ancient irrigation systems not only bolster China’s agricultural prowess but also mirror the nation’s lengthy and influential history in agronomy.
The recognition of these water management systems allows for a deeper exploration into China’s agrarian past, which played a pivotal role in the country’s economic and cultural prosperity. These systems supported agricultural yields that fueled China’s economic engine and facilitated cultural exchanges, underpinning the nation’s historical trajectory.
In addition to these functional marvels, the iconic Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, carved during the Spring and Autumn Period, stands as a conduit of significant social value. Stretching from Beijing to Hangzhou, this grand watercourse is a crucial component of the contemporary South-to-North Water Transfer Project, stimulating economic growth and fostering the exchange of cultural traditions between the north and south.
Established in 1950, the ICID serves as a hub for global expertise in the development and management of sustainable irrigation and flood control systems. As an active member, China leverages its technological advancements and manufacturing capabilities to contribute to international projects, as evidenced by collaborative efforts with nations such as Egypt and Kazakhstan.
Yuan encapsulates the essence of these endeavors, stating that Chinese water engineering projects not only mirror the innovative spirit of the nation but also the continuous thread of an ancient and profound civilization. These structures stand not just as relics of the past but as enduring examples of the harmonious relationship between humanity and nature—a legacy of sustainable innovation that continues to inspire the world.