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Changting County is a success story in ecological recovery. Environmental expert Lan Siren explains how it can be used as an example to improve soil and water conservation

By Long Min Updated Jun.1

In October 2021, the experience of reducing water loss and soil erosion in Changting County, East China’s Fujian Province, was one of 18 cases of ecological recovery in China presented at the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity held in Kunming, Yunnan Province.  

Lan Siren, an advisor to the National Forestry and Grassland Administration and president of the Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University, explains why Changting is successful and what China has done to address water loss and soil erosion. He cautioned that environmental issues know no borders, and no country can tackle it alone.  

NewsChina: What is the situation of water loss and soil erosion in China? What has China done to deal with the problem?  

Lan Siren: The situation in China is improving, with continuous declines in size and intensity of water and soil loss, as well as reductions to water and wind erosion. This shows continuous improvement in the ecological environment in China. Soil and water losses along the Yellow River and the Loess Plateau (where water and soil losses are severe) have reduced by nearly half. The region is turning from yellow to green. According to monitoring data, the total area in China suffering from soil and water loss has declined from 3.67 million square kilometers in the 1980s to 2.69 million square kilometers in 2020. Its share in the country’s total land area has dropped from 38.48 percent to 28.15 percent, and the share of the area of soil and water loss graded as severe or above has fallen from 28.16 percent to 19.48 percent of the country’s land area.  

China has had good experience in controlling soil and water loss. First, the country has prioritized people’s livelihoods. By using water and soil resources more efficiently, it integrated soil and water loss control with efforts to boost agricultural capabilities and develop specialty rural industries.  

Second, it has established a stringent legal system for prevention, protection and regulation of water and soil conservation, and made sure the rules are enforced strictly. Illegal behavior and irregularities have been curbed. In this way, economic and human activities are limited within the tolerances that soil and water resources can afford.  

Third, China has developed a systemic approach that ensures coordinated management of mountains, rivers, forests, farmlands, lakes, grasslands and deserts. The technical solution integrates engineering, planting and farming in a small river basin (normally less than 50 square kilometers) to bring about ecological, economic and social benefits. Among the outstanding examples are Changting County in Fujian Province, and Gaoxigou Village in Mizhi County, Shaanxi Province (on the Loess Plateau). They have become a Chinese ‘brand’ and success story used for exchanges and cooperation with other countries.  

NC: How has Changting County become a ‘brand’ for soil and water conservation?  

LS: Changting was once one of the worst areas for soil and water loss in South China’s hilly red soil areas. Plants couldn’t grow on the barren red soil that covered the mountains. It suffered from denuded mountains, muddy water, barren fields and poverty. Since 1985, Changting has reduced soil and water loss by 764.5 square kilometers, and the share of areas suffering from water and soil loss dropped from 31.5 percent in 1985 to 6.78 percent in 2020. Its ecological environment has seen fundamental improvements.  

With the once barren red hills turning lush green with fragrant fruits, Changting has become a model for soil and water loss control in China. This green miracle is due to concerted local efforts.  

First, soil and water conservation were prioritized on the county’s ecological protection agenda. The purpose is to turn barren hills green. To achieve this, public participation is essential. This is key to addressing the global challenge that poverty goes hand-in-hand with ecological deterioration.  

The second factor is fostering local industries, which has generated more income. The county has combined soil and water loss control with poverty alleviation and development of green industries. Locals are encouraged to make a living by growing trees rather than cutting them down as they did in the past. As a result, the mountains are covered with fruit trees, for example, waxberry and chestnuts.  

The county has also developed rural tourism. In the mountains where Sanzhou Village is located, there is a large orchard of waxberry trees, and at the foot of the mountain is Changting National Wetland Park which attracts many tourists.  

This prosperity-based ecological restoration pays economic dividends, which further boosts the region’s ecological protection.  

For areas that suffer soil and water loss, Changting provides a new model for ecological restoration, ecological poverty alleviation and ecological revitalization. It not only offers a good example for China, but the rest of the world can draw from it too.  

NC: What can China learn from the West in soil and water control and ecological restoration?  

LS: China and the West have commonalities and differences in these areas and should learn from each other. China’s political and institutional systems make it possible to mobilize resources to solve major historical problems concerning ecological and socio-economic sustainable development, such as soil and water loss control. Western countries attach more importance to public initiative, as well as coordination and correlation in its prevention, control and planning. 

In recent years, Western countries have developed many measures for soil and water conservation, which are worth drawing on for China.  

In the US, the government takes primary responsibility for funding ecological protection and offers farmers free technical support and services.  

Australia monitors and analyzes soil erosion via advanced technologies and equipment, using radar remote sensing systems, computers, databases and mathematical models. This generates timely information for decision-makers to work out prevention measures. It has established observation and information systems from states to farms, which enables research institutes and decision-makers to know the situation on the ground.  

Canada’s soil and water conservation efforts focus on analyzing causes and conditions of soil erosion, which provides the basis for planning.  

NC: What should countries do in response to worsening ecological challenges? How could China play a bigger role?  

LS: Environmental issues know no borders, and cooperation is the only choice. The world is overshadowed by unilateralism, trade protectionism and de-globalization, which threaten the joint efforts to promote global ecological governance. Under these circumstances, countries should bear the idea of a ‘community of a shared future’ in mind, and work together to protect our planet.  

Countries should strengthen policy coordination by taking full advantage of multilateral and bilateral cooperation mechanisms and deepen dialogue and exchanges in areas such as ecological civilization, green development, laws and regulations and policy standards. They should work together to create global ecological protection strategies and action plans, and over time turn them into global cooperation and global action.  

In the meantime, cooperation platforms should be set up to formulate universally accepted rules, build global big data service platforms and strengthen information sharing for ecological protection. Countries should carry out exchanges at all levels in diverse fields, and share their ideas and practices in green development, so that successful experience, including the ‘Changting practice,’ benefits more countries and people.  

Countries should develop green trade by strengthening green guidance for businesses, promoting mutual recognition mechanisms for environmental product labels, and pushing forward the building of a green supply chain cooperation network. With a set of unified rules, countries should establish demonstration bases for green supply chain cooperation and promote ecologically friendly cooperation on global production capacity.  

As an active participant in global climate governance, China has made significant achievements in green development. From 2000 to 2017, it contributed about a quarter of the world’s new afforestation, the highest among all countries. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has acknowledged its Three-North Shelterbelt Forest Program (also known as Green Great Wall covering over four million square kilometers in China’s arid north, northeast and northwest) as a global ecological economy demonstration zone. UNEP has also bestowed China’s Saihanba afforestation community with the Champions of the Earth Award, the UN’s highest environmental honor.  

As China ramps up its ecological drive, it should also more actively and deeply take part in global environmental governance, promote a fair, rational and win-win system for global ecological governance, and contribute more to international cooperation and sustainable development.

Fruit trees grow on the hillsides, Changting County, Fujian Province

A view of Xiyuan Reservoir, Changting County, Fujian Province, July 27, 2019