Integrated ecosystem management
In March of 2010, Beijing residents awoke to skies turned an eerie yellow.
A dense fog of wheat-colored dust enveloped the city as choking whirlwinds filled Tiananmen Square, coating cars and bicycles and reducing visibility to near zero. With so many tiny particles in the air the pollution index reached 500 — the worst level possible.
Major cities in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) can have days like this, usually caused by burning soft coal to feed the country’s growing need for energy. In this case, however, the culprit was not coal, but sand. The topsoil from a huge swath of 16 provinces across west, central, and northern China blew east in sandstorms so large that some of the sand ended up in the Northwest United States, more than 10,000 kilometers away.
Much of the PRC is dry, so sandstorms are hardly unknown there, but they are becoming larger and more frequent. Sandstorms originating in the western region have increased from an average of one every two years in the 1950s to more than two each year in the 1990s. The storms stretch across 6.8 million square kilometers in five western provinces and autonomous regions, places that are naturally dry but now face growing pressure from low and erratic rainfall, fragile soils, scarce surface and groundwater resources, and sparse natural vegetative cover. Climate change and poor agricultural land management practices make all those problems worse. The dust and sand storms bring ecological, social, and economic harm, impacting 250 million people living in western China — and much of East Asia as well.
Drylands account for 71 percent of China’s land area, 31 percent of its forested land, and over 90 percent of its grasslands. Approximately half of this region — about 2.5 million hectares — suffers from moderate to severe land degradation. Desertification — defined as land under productive use that is progressively deteriorating, though not literally turning to desert — is spreading at an ever increasing rate. By the 1990s, the process was consuming land at twice the annual rate seen in the 1950s.
Pressure is increasing on these areas as demand for meat and other livestock products rises in conjunction with a growth in urbanization and a rise in living standards. Gansu, Qinghai, and Shaanxi provinces, and Inner Mongolia, Ningxia Hui, and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions account for 79 percent of the PRC’s desertified areas and 92 percent of the country’s degraded areas. While the western PRC contains large deposits of oil, gas, and coal, most people still live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. But given how little the land can produce and how susceptible it is to degradation, the drylands of western China are among the poorest parts of the country: approximately 100 million people here (40 percent of the population of the region) live on less than US$1 per day. While the northern and westerns provinces and autonomous regions are home to 17 percent of the PRC’s population, their combined GDP is only 7.2 percent of the national GDP. The economic losses due to land degradation in these six provinces and autonomous regions have been estimated at approximately 24 percent of their combined GDP.
Dryland degradation also has national and global consequences. In 2002, the direct economic losses due to land degradation were estimated at US$21.2 million per day, mostly due to erosion, as with little ground cover what rain does fall washes off immediately and takes the topsoil with it. China’s Ministry of Agriculture estimates that the loss of agricultural production due to land degradation is approximately 30 percent of agricultural GDP, excluding the downstream costs of damage to infrastructure and water quality.
The western region occupies an important ecological location: the provinces and autonomous regions cover 30 ecosystems, with more than 5,000 recorded species of wild animals and plants. The expansion of degraded areas is a growing threat to that diversity, particularly among endemic species in these fragile ecosystems.
The decline in forests and other vegetation in dryland areas that threatens biodiversity is also contributing to climate change through increased CO2 emissions. Rehabilitating vegetation and improving farming methods will benefit carbon sequestration. It is estimated that improvements in the management of agricultural land in the western region could store more than 25 million tons of carbon each year; improvements to forest quality and forest land management could sequester 87 million tons of carbon each year.
In the face of such complexity, with so many variables over so large an area and with so much potentially to be lost, or gained, no single approach will suffice. The government of the PRC recognized the need for a broad-based way of thinking about the problem of land degradation, and approached the GEF in 2003 for help. What emerged was an innovative ten year program to address desertification as major national priority and the first country partnership for the GEF.
The key to this partnership is the commitment of the PRC to its success. Since ratification of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in 1997, the PRC has progressively increased its efforts to slow and eventually reverse land degradation. The willingness of the PRC to drive the partnership with the GEF and to generate global benefits in the context of desertification provides important lessons on how to evolve effective mechanisms to coordinate policies, programs, and actions by various sector agencies operating in the areas of agricultural and rural development; land, forestry, and water management; and environmental protection, finance, and planning; and introduce effective and transparent monitoring and evaluation systems to assess the outcomes and impact of efforts to combat land degradation and reduce poverty.
The PRC, GEF, and their partners, particularly the Asian Development Bank (ADB), saw an opportunity to address the connected problems of land degradation and rural poverty through Integrated Ecosystem Management, or IEM. This holistic approach includes multiple sectors, institutions, and governance frameworks based on understanding the natural resource characteristics of individual ecosystems, the services those systems provide, and the opportunities for — and obstacles to — sustainable utilization of an ecosystem’s natural resources to meet people’s welfare and economic needs. IEM thus represents an ecological approach to natural resource management that aims to ensure productive and healthy ecosystems by integrating social, economic, physical, and biological needs and values.
Rather than treat each resource in isolation, IEM seeks to treat all ecosystem elements together to obtain multiple ecological and socioeconomic benefits. That requires integrating natural and social science disciplines, such as agronomy, animal husbandry, silviculture, ecology, sociology, and economics, offering hope for a better understanding of the natural properties of ecosystems and society’s dependence on them, and the social, economic, and political factor that contribute to their disturbance.
Integrated Ecosystem Management also makes explicit the trade-offs inherent in practically any decision regarding how to use natural resources: planting too many trees may diminish the local water supply; a focus on agriculture may have an impact on the other ecosystem services the land provides. In drylands, be they in western China or anywhere else on Earth, understanding these tradeoffs and their consequences is essential to both conserve biological diversity and to provide benefits to people.
The GEF and ADB sought initially to lay the foundation for applying IEM to dryland ecosystems in China. A five-year project led by ADB helped improve policies, laws, and regulations for controlling land degradation, fostered better coordination and planning among the institutions responsible for land management, and established systems for monitoring and evaluating land degradation in western China, all within a common IEM agenda. As a result of the project, the PRC Government has essentially embraced IEM as the approach to combating land degradation and desertification in drylands, and for which the government is channeling major investments as part of the country’s development strategy in the affected provinces and autonomous regions. GEF financing has played an important role in advancing the Government’s vision, and could serve as an important driver for other countries.
The project provided a mechanism to institutionalize IEM across the government of the PRC, from local to provincial to national levels. The initial US$25 million grant from GEF has also become a model for its catalytic effect, as it generated US$300 million in funding from the government, and changed how the government approaches the broad issue of sustainable land management. The fundamental idea of using diversified practices can be applied in other natural resource sectors as well, such as forestry, and the willingness to measure results over a long time frame marks an important change in perspective for resource management in general.
The GEF/ADB project piloted innovative ideas to link components of the ecosystem — land, vegetation, and water, for example — directly to communities that depend on them. This included providing new land management technologies, new animal breeds and crop varieties, and new skills and methodological approaches for the communities. Each village was provided with a better understanding of land degradation, was introduced to the IEM approach, and was helped to collectively choose locally appropriate IEM-based interventions.
Although limited in area, the pilot demonstration sites strengthened the PRC-GEF Partnership by showing how to build IEM capacity through testing and validating locally appropriate small-scale technical interventions. Overall, household livelihoods improved as a result of the technical interventions and vocational training. Furthermore, efficiency improvements, new technology, and skills training provided farmers with opportunities to realize additional income through increased yields and livestock weights while reducing erosion and improving soil quality.
In the provincial pilot sites, the PRC–GEF Partnership played an incremental role in introducing a range of alternative natural resource-based enterprises to local populations that conformed to the requirements for IEM. In Huangyuan County, Qinghai province, for example, the project helped initiate a series of greenhouse and mushroom farm trials. Villagers saw net profits increase their annual income per capita by CNY$1,100. In 2008, a further 80 greenhouses and mushroom farms were built. Farmers are now considering establishing a cooperative to sell directly in Xining, the provincial capital. With the support of the PRC–GEF Partnership, more than 500 greenhouses were built at the pilot sites.
In Minhe County, also in Qinghai Province, and other pilot sites introduced courtyard vegetable gardens. Courtyards are a traditional PRC architectural feature, but they are rarely utilized for vegetables. These gardens have improved household nutrition and reduced expenses, and provided opportunities for small-scale experimentation with new crops.
Land degradation is a multidimensional problem that demands multidimensional solutions. As the experience in China demonstrates, a piecemeal, sectoral approach in which individual technical agencies follow strategies focused on only part of the wider problem will not succeed over the long haul. Tackling land degradation in drylands requires developing strategies that respond to local environmental and economic realities but that fit within a broader and commonly understood framework. That will form the basis for development and implementation of a comprehensive, multisector, and interagency action plan for restoring, sustaining, and enhancing the productive capacity, protective functions, and biodiversity of natural ecosystem resources.