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Paying for nature

Beijing’s strategy for clean water during the Olympics? Pay rural farmers to “grow” it. Katherine Ellison explores China’s new hope for conserving the precious natural resources it has left.

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Combine global warming with an already dry climate and a growing population, and you’ve got the nightmare haunting Beijing: the risk that the capital may run out of water, perhaps just in time for this year’s “green Olympics.” 

Drinking supplies are so precarious in this northern city of 15 million that officials are spending tens of billions of dollars to import water from southern rivers. Less publicised, however, is an innovative scheme in which Beijing pays residents of neighboring Hebei province to “grow” water as if it were an agricultural crop.

The plan is one of several strategic investments in nature that puts China at the forefront of a new way of thinking about environmental conservation. Until recently, most of the world left the care of nature in the hands of philanthropists. Yet in the face of abundant evidence that this approach has failed – including a warming climate, depleted soils and vanishing pollinators [pdf] – scientists and activists have switched to urging governments and businesses to pay people to care for the watersheds, flood plains and other landscapes on which we all depend. Healthy, forested watersheds, for instance, help filter drinking water and prevent soil erosion into rivers. Undeveloped flood plains protect nearby human settlements.

Necessity – in the form of some of the world’s worst environmental crises – has made China a leader in this new way of viewing nature. Throughout the country, land-use planners have embarked on bold and costly experiments to preserve hard-working “natural assets.” The results are already yielding lessons for the rest of the world.

Water for Beijing

“We’re spending a huge amount of money,” Xiaoping Wang, a high-ranking official at Beijing’s Parks and Forestry Department, said of the Hebei agreement, in which the Beijing municipal government essentially pays to increase water conservation in the neighboring province.

As part of the deal, two Hebei prefectures will switch from traditional farming to water-saving crops, meaning less rice, more corn and potatoes. Farmers will also plant and tend trees on their property and reduce pesticide use to help cut back on the sediment and pollution entering rivers that feed the capital’s two main reservoirs. In return, among other things, Beijing will provide some US$16 million in direct yearly payments to farmers for water stewardship, according to the amount of land they own; subsidise Hebei farmers’ chickens, eggs, and milk; and build two new highways for products from Hebei to reach the capital’s lucrative market more easily.

The plan highlights China’s awareness of how millions of individual decisions by landowners can affect human life-support systems, such as drinking water from rivers and lakes. Over the past few years, Beijing has moved many industrial factories out of its watershed, leaving the farmers as the main threat to water quality. Laws exist, of course, to punish polluters, but with sticks having generally proven ineffective, Chinese planners are willing to try carrots.

It is a tactic increasing in popularity throughout the world, as growing populations tax fragile environmental resources. More often than not, environmental benefits are delivered by one place to another, with poor people living in the rural source areas and richer people as urban recipients. Accordingly, many big environmental groups and multilateral lenders are focusing on conservation projects geared toward converting land-managers, like the Hebei farmers, into conscientious – and compensated – stewards.

Conserving natural assets

The Beijing-Hebei pact is one of several ways that China has embraced this concept. Others promise to be even more dramatic. For instance, the latest Five-Year Plan, for 2006-2010, involves mapping the entire country in terms of conservation priorities. According to the Plan, no development will be allowed on “ecological function zones” , which include forested watersheds, which purify drinking supplies through the filtering action of roots, and support flood control by limiting soil erosion.

In hopes of preventing the kinds of catastrophic floods that killed thousands of Chinese along the Yangtze River in 1998, China has banned logging on approximately 30 million hectares of land. It is also requiring farmers to switch from growing crops to tending forests on some 60 million hectares of so-called “sloping lands.”  However, compensation budgets aren’t intended to last forever, and an open question remains regarding how these farmers-turned-foresters will earn their incomes once they run out.

 

In the past eight years, China has spent more than US$17.4 billion on its Sloping Land Conversion Program, according to the State Forestry Administration. But the programme has had serious drawbacks, according to a 2005 report to the International Institute for Environment and Development, which revealed serious problems with the targeting of funds. Struggling to improve their results, China’s leaders increasingly have been working with US scientists and environmental NGOs who offer up-to-date techniques to identify and conserve natural assets. Last September, for instance, several Chinese government-affiliated scientists met with a team from the Natural Capital Project – a year-old partnership between Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy and WWF. The project has developed mapping and modeling software to pinpoint landscapes where conservation makes the most sense, a tool that has great potential to help the Chinese government fine-tune its concept of preserving “ecological function zones.”

“We’ve been doing only the simplest of evaluations so far, so these tools could be very useful for us,” said Wang Yukuan, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Pay as you go

The idea of paying farmers to help protect the environment has gained popularity in China as it has won support from NGOs with deep pockets over the past decade. In the restored antique town of Lijiang, for instance, in the Himalayan foothills of Yunnan province, He Yi, a young scientist with Conservation International, has been lobbying local officials to support a plan to help preserve local water supplies. The World Bank has contributed US$20,000 for initial research.

Lijiang is famous for its clear, clean water. Bright orange koi flash in the narrow canals that line the cobble-stoned streets of its Old Town, which is listed among the United Nation’s World Heritage Sites, as tourists – some 4 million a year – wander through a maze of shops selling jade, silver, weavings and tea.

As elsewhere in China, however, Lijiang’s water supplies are under pressure. Urban development encircling the Old Town is fast increasing, as are the flocks of tourists visiting each year. Local officials have recently turned to nearby Lashi Lake to supplement a pond in the Old Town, which has long been its sole water source. But farm pollution has made that lake’s water all but unusable, despite the fact that the area around the lake is at least nominally a nature reserve.

“We’d like to make Lijiang a positive example for the rest of China,” says He Yi. His idea is to substantially increase the fees paid by tourists visiting the area, and use the money to pay farmers to try out less-polluting practices.

Lashi Lake farmers already receive small monthly payments to reward them for not killing the exotic birds that spend winters in the reserve, and often eat some of their crops. In interviews, they showed little understanding of the dynamics of agricultural pollution, but all appreciated the promise of subsidies. As one farm worker said: “The more, the better!”

What do you think: Is China taking the right approach? Can paying for “ecosystem services” be sustainable over the long-term?

 

Katherine Ellison is the co-author of “The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable,” and a consulting writer with Stanford’s Natural Capital Project. She traveled to China with scientists from the project last September.

Homepage photo by Natmandu

 

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

中国的GDP与水资源管理

谢谢,这是一篇很有用的文章。我好奇中国每年GDP怎么看上去像将那些花费在人类生存最基本的元素“水”上的“大笔资金”(王晓平)纳入重要因素。说句离题的话,在2005年12月,中国出版了一本有几分争议的书。它主要说的是西藏的水如何能拯救中国(《西藏水救中国》,ISBN 7-80175-358-5),详细描写了在西藏高原,四川省等地的水干线。这本书34页上的一副参考地图呼吁建大量的水库(和更多大水坝)。在2006年,这本书被列为处于决策层的高干必读书。西藏未来的主要商业也许不是锡,不是木材,亦不是言或者其他任何矿藏,而是最重要的水。

Thomas H.Hahn/康奈尔

China's GDP and water management

A useful article, thank you for posting.

I wonder how China's annual GDP actually looks like factoring in (or out) those "huge amount[s] of money" (Wang Xiaoping) being spent on one of the very basic ingredients of human existence: water.

As an aside, in 2005/12 a somewhat polemical book was published in Chinese on how Tibetan waters will save China (Xizang zhi shui qiu Zhongguo, ISBN 7-80175-358-5), describing in great detail the western water trunk line between the Tibetan highlands, Sichuan province and beyond. A suggestive map on this book's page 34 calls for the construction of vast reservoirs (and more huge dams). The book was made required reading in 2006 for high-level cadres in policy and decision making positions. Tibet's future main commodity appears to be not tin or timber or salt or whatever else is mined there now, but, most importantly, water.

Thomas H. Hahn/Cornell

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

为“生态系统服务”付账

这篇文章提供了很好的信息,发人深省。我认为人们就是应该花钱享受生态服务,而不是认为这都是理所当然的。比如像北京这样的大城市水费就应该贵一些,来迫使人们意识到环境危机就在身边而不得不节水,而多出的收入则可以付给农民,鼓励他们“种”水。

Paying for services

This article provides a lot of good information, and is thought-provoking. I believe people need to pay for the ecosystem services they receive, instead of taking them for granted, or letting them deteriorate. For example, people living in big cities like Beijing should pay more for the water they use, which will make them more aware of the water crisis, and learn to conserve the resource. And the extra revenue could be used to pay farmers in neighboring area to encourage their act of "growing water."

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

北京水资源萎缩严重

在北京湿地普查项目中发现,北京的水资源严重萎缩。具一位老专家称,十几年来,他在北京周边调查鸟类活动,水库和河流干道年年的减少,拿野鸭湖来说吧,现在的野鸭湖只有原来的一半大小,而裸漏出的地面被用来种植
苜蓿,严重的影响了野鸭湖的生态。也影响了来此的鸟类的种类、数量和迁徙习惯。

Decreasing water resources in Beijing

Water resources are seriously declining in Beijing, according to a survey on the local wetlands.

A veteran expert, who has been conducting studies in areas surrounding Beijing for more than a decade, said that sizes of local reservoirs and rivers are shrinking every day. The Wild Duck Lake is a good example as it is now half of its original size.

Increasing growth of clover poses a threat to the ecosystem of the lake and also affects the variety and number of birds and their migratory habits.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

回复:向服务付款

“住在大城市里的人,譬如说北京人,应该支付更多水费”。这可能在所有市民生活质量都很高的大城市起作用。但是在北京,这会造成一些穷人连基本生活都保障不了。

Re: Paying for services

"people living in big cities like Beijing should pay more for the water they use" Maybe this would work in cities where everyone enjoys the same high standard of living, but in Beijing this would mean poor people unable to afford a basic resource necessary for survival.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

西藏高原之水

我认为这个推论已经是其中一个理由,来解释花费在“生态移民”计划上的巨大款项。该计划在于帮助补贴放弃牧群生活而搬到城市中的西藏人。我知道某些国际非政府组织支持这一政策。但是,有一个问题是,在西藏牧民离开他们土地的同时,为什么还要以支付的方式来督促河北省和许多中国其它地方的农民采纳较无破坏性的实践以及森林保护呢?难道藏民不能变成有效的“土地管理者”么?依我来看,在较少的费用,同时不增加依靠政府救济金失业人口的情况下,这也许是可行的。

Water from the Tibetan Plateau

I think that this reasoning is already one of the justifications for the huge sums of money being spent on "ecological migration" to subsidize Tibetan herders who give up their herds and move to towns. I know certain INGOs support this policy.

One question that occurs to me, though, is why farmers in Hebei and many other parts of China are paid to adopt less destructive practices and protect forests, while herders in Tibetan areas are simply moved off their land. Could they also not become effective "stewards of the land?" In my experience, this may be entirely possible, at considerably less cost, and without creating unemployed households dependent on government poverty alleviation.