Good Practices

Mitigation of soil erosion and water shortage in the Yangou watershed, Loess Plateau of China

Posted on: 7 Feb 2017 / Submitted by: Ms. Diwen Tan
Map of Loess PlateauPLOS ONE
Map of Loess Plateau

Soil erosion is one of the most serious environmental problems in China. In 2000, the area prone to erosion by wind and water was 3.57 million km2, accounting for 37.6% of the national territory, and the annual volume of soil erosion reached 5 billion tonnes (Li et al., 2009). This severe problem was partially due to the over-farming on steep slopes and continuous reclamation of forest and grassland for cultivation during the late 1900s. Devastating environmental and socio-economic impacts to communities were observed. The severe droughts in 1997 and the massive floods in 1998 have drawn the country’s attention, and driven China to take strong initiatives.

In response, in 1999 the central government initiated the “Grain-for-Green programme” to combat soil erosion, ecological degradation and to alleviate poverty, through reconverting cropland back into forest and grassland as well as afforesting barren land. This programme started in the western China in three provinces – Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu – the most ecologically fragile areas after the serious flood in 1998 and with high levels of rural poverty. It became nationwide in 2002 (Liu and Wu, 2010) and is still ongoing until today. It is among the biggest programmes in the world (Liu et al., 2008), owing to its ambitious goals, massive geographical coverage, huge payments, and potentially enormous impacts.

Policy support and financial support provided from the national level are the two major significant interventions. The central government has issued laws to prohibit cultivation on steep slopes in ecologically fragile areas and to regulate the right of land management (Order No.367t of the State Council, China). In addition, China has adopted an innovative Payment for Environmental Services (PES) mechanism, providing farmers with, for example, cash and grain subsidies and tax incentives for converting cropland on steep slopes to forest and grassland (Liu et al., 2008; Gauvin et al., 2010).

Overall, this programme has generated both immense positive ecological and socio-economic effects. It has reduced surface runoff and soil erosion, enhanced carbon sequestration, reduced nutrient loss for maintaining soil fertility and ultimately increased food productivity (Lü et al., 2012; Liu et al., 2008). In the Loess Plateau region (covering parts of 7 Chinese provinces, including Shaanxi and Gansu), by 2008 surface water runoff has decreased with an average of 10.3 mm/year and around 3.44 billion tonnes per year of soil has been retained. Moreover, carbon sequestration in both soil and the rehabilitated vegetation has found to be 35.30 teragram (Lü et al., 2012). In addition, this programme has helped alleviate poverty through the PES mechanism, and supported numerous farmers to change their income structure by shifting farming to alternative industries, such as transportation and restaurant businesses.

Yangou watershed is located in a priority area for the programme, the Loess Plateau, where slope gradients are greater than 25 degrees and suffers soil erosion, ecological degradation, water scarcity and poverty, plus additional pressure from climate change. As an exemplary case, the project in Yangou watershed focused on a variety of interventions including: i) financial support set up; ii) land use adjustment on slopes; iii) water conservation for agriculture; iv) improvement of fertilizer efficiency; v) industrial structure adjustment; and vi) demonstrations.

Key lessons

  • Combining Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) encouraged the participation of households and promoted the implementation of project activities. The financial support attracted local communities to participate in the project. Furthermore, funds were also vital for the sustainability of interventions as they were invested in the construction of infrastructure and ecosystem restoration.
  • Cooperation between research organizations and local government is fundamental to seek solutions at the community level. This is vital for solving problems fundamentally. For the Yangou project, research-demonstration-transfer is a good‑practice principle to mitigate watershed degradation. Research organizations provided both support for applying current technology and developing new technologies to solve challenges. To complement the work of research organizations, local government provided opportunities for local communities to participate in training and demonstrations as to encourage these communities to adopt new technologies. 
  •  A joint sponsorship from multiple sponsors is more realistic and necessary. Multiple stakeholders including administrative departments at different levels played their own roles with relevance to their respective mandates. For example: The State Forest Agency of China sponsored the Grain-for-Green project, which promoted the sustainability of land use adjustment;  The Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China sponsored The National Key Technology Research and Development Programme; The Technology Department of Shanxi Province sponsored the key projects as to support scientists to conduct coordinated research experiments to demonstrate the necessary techniques in the Yangou watershed and transfer knowledge to local communities; Local government provided communities with basic infrastructure and funding to initiate activities. In addition, some private donors also sponsored certain mitigation actions.
  • Educating and training local communities on multi-benefits of eco-restoration and relevant technologies – and thereby increasing their adaptive capacity to climate change.
Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences (Yu Liu, Xiubo Yu) for EbA South 
Cross Cutting:
Community participation