Protecting infrastructure and communities in China, naturally

07 November 2013 | Article

While many communities instinctively use ecosystems such as forests, coral reefs and mangroves to protect themselves against natural hazards, others are suffering because environmental degradation has taken these ecosystem services away and left them exposed.

Investing in ecosystem services for disaster risk reduction is a growing priority in a world where variable weather patterns are increasingly exacerbating the impacts of hazards such as storms, floods and landslides.

Sound management of protected areas such as national parks, reserves or community conserved areas is a well established and increasingly recognized method of maintaining natural habitats and preserving ecosystem functions such as reducing soil erosion and stabilizing slopes.

There is increasing recognition of the role protected areas play in reducing social and ecological vulnerability to disasters and the impacts of climate change. But there is an urgent need to document more evidence that demonstrates this critical role. Without enough evidence, it is difficult to influence policy and advocate for better management of protected areas.

IUCN’s EPIC (Ecosystems Protecting Infrastructure and Communities) project in China is working in the Salween River valley, near Daxingdi village, north of Liuku town, which is one of the world’s richest areas in terms of plant biodiversity, but slope degradation through recent road building is leading to massive soil runoff and landslides.

This part of China is under the influence of the Indian monsoon, described as a ‘warm-dry climate’ – a combination of subtropical and alpine climates. Numerous landslides occur during the monsoon season and soil erosion is severe, largely due to the cutting of roads through the steep slopes.

As a consequence, the Salween River, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is heavily polluted by sediment runoff. Although deforestation and agriculture are often blamed for soil degradation, by far the biggest problem is road building. The new policy of improving infrastructure in the Chinese interior has resulted in rapid road building with little thought of the consequences.

Road building will continue over the next two to three years, and together with severe weather events which are predicted as a result of climate change, will lead to more and more catastrophic events and sediment pollution of this once pristine valley.

The EPIC project aims to produce a framework which can be used to determine plant traits that are useful for bio-engineering slope stability and outline the best planting patterns to use along unstable slopes to reduce soil loss.

IUCN is preparing a publication on Protected Areas, Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation, to be launched at the World Parks Congress next year and is calling for case studies from all over the world. The subject will be discussed at the Asia Parks Congress which takes place 13 to 17 November

For more information contact
Camille Buyck, IUCN Ecosystem Management Programme camille.buyck@iucn.org