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Environmental Policymaking Needs to Factor In Balance of Biophysical and Socioeconomic Perspectives

By 2050 we would need to double global food production to keep up with the projected population increase. Meanwhile the land from which our food comes from is decreasing in quality.

Land degradation is a major global concern as our demands for food, fodder, and fuel continue to accelerate.

Drylands face particular pressure as population growth in these regions are expected to outpace that in more humid areas. At Nexus Seminar No. 26 on 18 December 2017, Dr Lulu Zhang, Research Associate of the Soil and Land-Use Management Unit shed light on “Environmental Restoration Impacts on Hydrological Services in Drylands – Biophysical and Socioeconomic Perspectives” at UNU-FLORES.

In her lecture, Dr Zhang presented the realities of global land degradation with particular attention given to drylands – the socioeconomic conditions in dryland areas are on average way poorer than the rest of the world and their ecosystem very vulnerable to changes such as unsustainable land use and climate change.

Efforts to restore land are therefore necessary to reverse the trend and improve degraded environmental resources.

However, while there is land to be restored, it must be done in a way that guarantees a sustainable as possible a solution. In her presentation, Dr Zhang elaborated on the case of the Loess Plateau in China, a region that – with its very sparse land cover and water scarcity – additionally faces severe soil erosion and land degradation.

In response to these developments, the Chinese government developed a long-term strategy to increase forest cover for combating soil erosion with eco-compensation schemes and by building terraces and check-dam farmlands for agriculture. On the Loess Plateau, forest cover increased from 6 per cent in 1949 to nearly 20 per cent in 2009.

While forest cover has increased and soil erosion minimised, discharge of the Yellow River Basin that flows through it has significantly declined, particularly after the implementation of the afforestation programmes.

Dr Zhang cited that 70 per cent of the reduction is due to anthropogenic activities, while 20 to 40 per cent of the reduction is due to soil and water conservation measures. To investigate the effects of different land cover on annual streamflow, her team studied a small catchment on the Loess Plateau called the Zhifanggou catchment, a small agriculture dominant catchment that has been affected by soil conservation measures including afforestation and construction of terraces.

Based on the study, land-use change is responsible for 74 per cent of streamflow reduction while climate change is only responsible for 26 per cent (Zhang et al. 2014). Observing the land-use change, the proportion of woody plantation increased over the years, while slope farmland decreased as they have been converted into terraces. With regard to water yield, grassland and slope farmland have been found to sustain a certain level of water supply services due to relative higher runoff coefficients. In comparison, forests tend to reduce water yield.

Changes in land cover are the main driver for the decline in water supply, including both surface flow and baseflow. In addition, forest structure also plays an important role in partitioning of water balance.

After explaining the biophysical processes involved, Dr Zhang went on to discuss the socioeconomic aspects of the project. Through the “Grain for Green” programme, farmers are given cash benefits for up to eight years for afforestation. They receive three kinds of subsidies for converting their land: grain (which is converted to cash compensation), livelihood cash compensation, and free seedlings.

While government incentive schemes have good intentions for rural development as farmers stand to gain financially from the compensation, the effects are not sustainable.

It was found that the proportion of the traditional cultivation-based income of total income has significantly declined. Economic benefits therefore risk being short-term; in post-payment time they are still unknown – if participants are incapable of establishing an alternative income source during the period of compensation, they will be trapped in deeper poverty. The incentive programme’s “one-size-fits-all” approach also faces critique as it means that the compensation standard is applied across several provinces without considering local specific conditions (Zhang and Schwärzel 2017). Without training and support, farmers are also not equipped to manage the forests.

UNU-FLORES book on Multifunctional Land-Use Systems for Managing the Nexus of Environmental Resources (Springer 2017) presents current research and knowledge on managing forests, grasslands, and agricultural ecosystems, suggesting an alternative approach to harmonise sustainable natural and social development.

Presenting the path forward, Dr Zhang raised the need for forest transformation and better governance mechanisms to enhance land and watershed management in the Loess Plateau region. The former involves being more selective about land-use type, forest structure, and type of vegetation. The shortcomings of current compensation schemes call for their revision; to increase water security, we need to ensure a balance between environmental and socioeconomic benefits (Zhang 2015). To enable farmers to manage forests in a sustainable way, education, training, and capacity development need to be carried out. Designing incentive schemes with farmers’ input – thus through a participatory approach – would increase their chance of sustained success.

The seminar culminated in a lively Q&A session, with participants enquiring inter alia about the selection of tree species, agroforestry, and synergies and trade-offs when considering ecosystem services (food production, water supply, soil).

This Nexus Seminar is part of the joint seminar series of UNU-FLORES and TU Dresden, delivering thought-provoking lectures and stimulating discussions on the Nexus Approach to environmental resources management.