IUCN Project Examines Potential of Forest Restoration to Protect Beijing Water Supply

 With growing populations and expanding industries hard hit by climate change, China’s megacities are facing an unprecedented water crisis. IUCN and partners in China are examining how nature can be part of the solution. In at least one city, the municipality of Beijing, the restoration of forest landscapes has an important role to play.

The Chinese capital of Beijing is growing - and so is its demand for water. Forest landscape restoration can be part of the solution.

Two thirds of China’s large cities now suffer from periodic water shortages, according to Ma Jun, director of a Chinese environmental think tank and author of the book China’s Water Crisis. According to Jun, of the 32 largest megacities in China, 30 now permanently lack adequate water supplies.

Worse still, for many in China when water does flow it is often contaminated with dangerous pollutants. "The situation is not sustainable," Jun told the English-language newspaper China Dialogue in 2006. "70 percent of the rivers we have monitored have been polluted at various levels." At that time, according to his group’s statistics, one out of five Chinese cities relied on water that did not meet international cleanliness standards. “300 million peasants’ drinking water is not safe,” he said. Little progress has yet been made.

The Chinese capital of Beijing epitomizes the problem. Last summer, city water supplies dropped "well below the United Nation’s absolute water scarcity threshold," according to China Dialogue's analysis of official statistics. “Beijing water shortage worse than the Middle East," read one headline.

But this megacity among megacities also epitomizes at least one response to the problem: forest restoration. Building on long-term efforts to improve forest management in Northern China, IUCN’s Global Forest and Climate Programme has partnered with IUCN China, the Beijing Forestry Society, and the international non-profit Forest Trends, to determine how and where restoration of degraded forests can bolster Beijing’s threatened water supplies.

“We know from experience in many countries that forest landscape restoration can be an incredibly effective approach to improving drinking water supplies,” says Miguel Calmon, restoration program manager at the IUCN. “For water quality it’s often cheaper than building treatment plants,” he says, “And it’s an approach that brings other natural benefits, from sequestered carbon to improved local economies.”

Beijing’s 21 million residents draw the majority of their water from the Miyun Reservoir, a lake several miles to the north and west of the city. Occupying former farmland, the Miyun is fed from rivers and springs that wind down from steep, iconic mountains. How land is used in these mountains – and whether healthy trees are part of the landscape – will determine how much water reaches the reservoir, and what state it's in when it does.

Trees are notoriously important in mountains: their strong roots dig into hillsides and trap soil that would otherwise wander. The resulting matrix of dirt and plant absorbs and filters water traveling the path of gravity, leading to more and cleaner water “downstream.” This process can mean the difference between taps that run and taps that don’t in water-stressed megacities.

“What sites in the Miyun region offer the best potential for forest restoration?” asks Yan Zhang, watershed program coordinator at IUCN China. “We are examining this question,” he says, “from both a bio-physical and a socio-economic perspective. We want restored trees to clean Beijing’s water and to supply more of it. But we also want the most opportunities for local communities to benefit from strengthened forest resources.”

IUCN and partners have been working in the Miyun region for nearly a decade to support and improve management of forests and ensure that locals benefit from the results, which can include new spaces for recreation or more quality trees available for timber harvests or fuel wood. Now, analysis of the Miyun Watershed’s opportunities for “restoration for water” will include not just large and fine-scale mapping but also workshops and meetings with key stakeholders throughout the region. This will keep locals involved in the process and help ensure that once trees are planted, they will be cared for.

A report of this collaborative assessment project will be released soon. In it you will find details on sub-basins that should be priorities for restoration in the Miyun region and what a long-term process for achieving restoration success might look like.

Next, “we’re going to replicate this process across China,” says Zhang. IUCN China and partners are now at work mapping other important megacities, to determine where else restoration of forest landscapes can be a natural solution to an increasingly common problem: polluted water or not enough of it.

The Miyun Watershed Forest Landscape Restoration project is supported in part by the UK Government. For more information on what IUCN is doing to improve urban water supplies or foster the restoration of the world’s degraded lands, visit our Forest Landscape Restoration homepage. Or write to flr@iucn.org

Work area: 
Forest Landscape Restoration
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