November 2009

The Greenline - Focus on Biodiversity


GEF-Country Partnership: Safeguarding Drylands in the People’s Republic of China

By Mohamed I Bakarr, Senior Environmental Specialist, GEF


Much of the land area in northwest of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is arid or semi-arid, and cover roughly 40% of the country’s total land area. These areas are highly vulnerable to drought and desertification, and account for a significant proportion of land degradation in the country.  About 27% of the country (more than 2.6 million km2) is now affected by land degradation, resulting in livelihood risk and vulnerability for several hundred million people.  A recent assessment of land use and degradation trends estimated that the area of degraded lands expanded at an annual rate of about 3,500 km2 between 1991 and 2001.  Land degradation is due mainly to a combination of unsustainable agricultural practices, deforestation, and mismanagement of water resources. 

PRC-GEF Partnership on Land Degradation in Dryland Ecosystems
GEF Investment (to-date): US$ 22.9 million
Co-Financing: US$ 378.62million
Total Investment: US$ 400.91 million
Participating GEF Agencies: ADB (Lead), IFAD, and The World Bank
Project Website:


The Government of China considers this a major impediment to productivity and livelihoods in rural areas and therefore tackles it as a national priority.


In 2002, the Government of the PRC requested support from the Global Environment Facility to develop a “Partnership on Land Degradation in Dryland Ecosystems” to foster a long-term, constructive approach for GEF investment in transformative actions on combating desertification in China. Under the Partnership, the GEF and other donors would support a 10-year (2003-2012) Country Programming Framework prepared by the Government to tackle land degradation, reduce poverty, and conserve biodiversity through capacity building and model demonstration investment projects. The program is implemented by the central government and brings together national and international partners, including three GEF Agencies: Asian Development Bank, International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the World Bank.

The program embraces an integrated ecosystem management approach to effectively address land degradation and desertification in the context of other global environmental concerns such as biodiversity and climate change. The goal of the partnership is to strengthen the enabling environment and promote an integrated approach to enhancing the protective and productive functions and services of dryland ecosystem resources in northwestern China. Overall focus of the PRC-GEF Partnership is on six provinces and/or autonomous regions affected by land degradation and desertification: Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Ningxia Hui, Qinghai, Shaanxi, and Xinjiang Uyghur.  The program was designed to support a sequenced set of projects during the 10-year period that will lead to institutionalization and mainstreaming of the IEM approach to safeguarding drylands in the country.  It is anticipated that the experience and lessons would serve as a model for advancing sustainable land management in the country and elsewhere within the region.

Creating the Enabling Environment

The first project funded and implemented under the PRC-GEF Partnership was a Capacity Building to Combat Land Degradation Project, which was designed to lay the foundation for subsequent investments in the CPF.  As a result of this project, the Government of China is now effectively promoting the IEM concept and approach as paradigm for increasing sustainability of productive land use in the drylands. As noted in a recent report prepared by the PRC-GEF Partnership Coordination Office, the Capacity Building Project has resulted in:

  • enhanced national and local capacities to combat land degradation,
  • increased coordination among the central and provincial agencies,
  • opened channels of cooperation from the central to the county level agencies, and
  • improved coordination between the sectoral plans and programs, and between central and provincial budgets.

Coordination of laws and regulations has been facilitated through formulation of a legal framework for combating land degradation at provincial and regional level, and the revision of relevant national laws and provincial policies. Land degradation issues have been integrated into the provincial plans, strategies and action plans for combating land degradation, and the participatory community development plans. Mechanism for land degradation data sharing is now in place, and existing data resources from various sectors and in the provinces/autonomous regions have been consolidated. At the same time, implementation of on-the-ground activities at pilot sites activities is empowering local communities to combat land degradation.

Toward Transformative Impact

The PRC-GEF Partnership has developed four additional sub projects to build on the successful introduction of the IEM approach and creation of enabling environment for implementation at multiple-scales. These additional projects will scale-up activities in targeted areas to deepen understanding of the IEM approach for sustainable land use, increase policy and institutional reforms, and increase cooperation and integration with other ongoing programs in and outside of China. At the same time, efforts to promote and develop the concepts and principles to a wider audience at the central, provincial and local government levels are continuing.  These efforts are all geared toward achieving transformative impact at scale, which is crucial for safeguarding ecosystem services in one of the world’s largest dryland regions.  The PRC-GEF Partnership is therefore emerging as a model for constructive by engagement multiple stakeholders in tackling global environmental problems based on national level priorities. Amongst the important lessons already gained from the partnership are the following:

  • Country-driven Framework – The development of a Country Program Framework by the Government was a vital starting point for engagement with the GEF.  This enabled the value-added of GEF investments to be more effectively articulated in the context of provincial and national development.  In addition, the 10-year timing allows for the Government and partners to more appropriately target co-financing options based on investment priorities within the framework.
  • Innovativeness – The approach to combating land degradation was based on principles for integrated ecosystem management, which meant that interventions could be designed to target multiple global environmental benefits.  From the GEF perspective, the IEM approach increases the potential for synergies across Focal Areas while at the same time facilitating cross-sector and multi-agency engagement in natural resource management.  This is essential for ensuring long-term sustainability of project interventions.
  • Institutional framework – The PRC-GEF Partnership has full engagement of the Central Government, Provincial/Regional Administration, and Communities.  As a result, the policy and legislative environment is influenced by grassroots realities in the regions affected by land degradation.  This implies a high degree of ownership and accountability by relevant stakeholders, which is crucial for implementation of projects and scaling-up successful interventions under the IEM approach. 
  • Knowledge management – Application of the IEM approach is knowledge intensive, and this was recognized earlier on by the partnership.  As a result, science has played a major role in defining targets, establishing baselines, and designing interventions. The establishment of mechanism for data management and sharing is therefore a crucial achievement in this regard.  The project has also reached out to other initiatives for synthesizing knowledge on best practices, tools for monitoring and assessment, and lessons from sustainable land management. 





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Editor: Patrizia Cocca
Contributing Editor: John Wickham
Contributing Writers: Mohamed I Bakarr, J. Quintana, F. Jalfim, L. C. Mattos, I. Cossio, M. Seely, N Gaseb, P Klintenberg, B Kruger, Zhihong Zhang, Heitor Matallo, Hakan Marstorp, Sara Minelli