Restoring wetlands to improve livelihoods

Heilongjiang Province is situated in the northeast of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and has its capital in the Manchu city of Harbin. It is home to the Sanjiang Plain, a floodplain near the Russian border, whose wetlands and surrounding forestlands are rich in fascinating flora and fauna. After decades of decline in biodiversity, due to environmental damage, the Sanjiang Plain Wetlands Protection Project was set up with Asian Development Bank funding to encourage a more sustainable approach to the wetlands and forestlands and to promote ecotourism in the area.

The challenge

Heilongjiang Province is situated in the northeast of the People's Republic of China (PRC), bordering the Russian state of Siberia, with its capital in the Manchu city of Harbin. "Sanjiang Plain is a vast alluvial floodplain of 108,900 square kilometres in the northeast of Heilongjiang Province, where the Heilongjiang, Songhua, and Wusuli rivers join. The Sanjiang Plain wetlands and their surrounding forestlands are rich in globally significant flora and fauna."[1]

The wetlands and forestlands have suffered from an environmental crisis many years in the making. "Despite the establishment of nature reserves to protect these valuable flora and fauna, the wetlands and forestlands have shrunk to one-fifth of their size in the 1950s. Accelerating population growth and increasing grain production threaten the flora and fauna in the wetland nature reserves. Local communities exploit biological and water resources within the reserves and wetland habitats for their livelihood through unsustainable farming practices." [2]

The challenge is beyond the capacities of those employed in preserving the Sanjiang Plain: "the limited management capacity of staff in the nature reserves has exacerbated the deterioration of the resources in the reserves." [3] It has required the intervention of government, supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to protect the threatened ecology of the region.

The initiative

The solution was the ADB-funded Sanjiang Plain Wetlands Protection Project. Its primary aim was to enhance the management of natural resources in order to protect the area's biodiversity and to sustain its economic development. "The purpose of the project was to establish an integrated conservation and development model to protect the natural resources of the wetlands, i.e., biodiversity, water and forests from continued threats and to improve the wellbeing of local communities."[4]

The Heilongjiang provincial government (HPG), which was responsible for carrying out the project, devolved some of its direction to the 13 of the province's counties most affected by the wetlands' decline. "The counties conducted reforestation activities, and the nature reserves focused on protection of biodiversity and restoration of natural habitats in some deteriorated areas. The project comprised five components: (i) watershed management; (ii) wetland nature reserve management; (iii) alternative livelihood programmes; (iv) education and capacity building; and (v) project management."[5]

The public impact

The project included a number of green programmes:

  • "Watershed management - a total of 10,090 hectare (ha) of new forestry plantations were completed, which is 85% of the total targeted area...
  • "Wetland nature reserve management - pilot farmland-to-wetland restoration was implemented in the six model nature reserves, and 3,441 ha of farmlands were restored to wetlands.
  • "About 220 stork nests were installed in the six nature reserves."[6]

A number of local people were encouraged to leave their traditional occupations. "In the Zhenbaodao nature reserve, about 50 farmers and fishermen changed their livelihoods to ecotourism; and stopped farming on 1,025 ha of lands, out of which 899 ha were converted to wetlands; and catch of fish was reduced by 5 tons. Income levels of the farmers and fishermen who changed their livelihoods to ecotourism were maintained or increased."[7]

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.

Legitimacy

Stakeholder Engagement Strong

The PRC government, the HPG, the ADB and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) were the primary stakeholders. "A Fact-Finding Mission visited the PRC on 9-23 September 2002 and reached an understanding with the HPG and the central government on the objectives, scope, cost estimates, financing plan, and implementation arrangements of the technical assistance (TA)."[8]

The ADB and the GEF provided significant funding for the project. "ADB approved the loan on 14 March 2005. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) chief executive officer endorsed the GEF grant on 7 February 2005. The loan inception mission was undertaken from 22 to 28 November 2005, and the loan was declared effective on 9 December 2005. The project completion review mission was conducted from 1 to 12 August 2013."[9]

All the stakeholders - the funding NGOs and government from central to local levels - were consulted during all the phases, e.g., planning, design, implementation, monitoring and  evaluation. "A stakeholder analysis was conducted during the project preparatory technical assistance (PPTA) and the roles of each stakeholder were well defined... Their expectations and needs were identified, the potential project impacts on them were identified, and the resettlement plans, gender development plans, minority development plans, and public participation plans were developed in consultation with the stakeholders." [10]

Political Commitment Strong

There was strong political support for this project from central government: "during the 2002 review of the Country Strategy and Programme Update, the government of the PRC reconfirmed its request for ADB to provide TA to prepare a project for Sanjiang Plains wetlands protection". [11]

There was also commitment from the HPG to work with central government and the NGOs concerned to execute the project and, as stated in Stakeholder Engagement above, they reached a clear understanding on its content and performance.

Policy

Clear Objectives Strong

The objective of the Sanjiang Plain Wetlands Protection Project was to reverse as far as possible the environmental damage to the wetlands and forestlands of the Sanjiang Plain that had been occurring over several decades. "The goal of the Sanjiang Plain Wetlands Protection Project was to improve the management of natural resources so as to protect globally significant biodiversity and sustain economic development." [12]

As stated in The Initiative above, "the purpose of the project was to establish an integrated conservation and development model to protect the natural resources of the wetlands". [13]

Evidence Good

Pilot projects were an important source of evidence for the restoration projects. For example, a manual was prepared based on these pilot projects and disseminated to all nature reserves in the Sanjiang Plain for implementation. "Pilot farmland-to-wetland restoration was implemented in the six model nature reserves, and 3,441 ha of farmlands were restored to wetlands. Based on the pilot restoration, a wetland restoration guideline manual was prepared and disseminated to all nature reserves in the Sanjiang Plain; and wetland restoration was conducted in six nature reserves other than the six model nature reserves using the manual."[13]

Pilot projects for alternative livelihoods, such as the one in Qixinghe nature reserve, were conducted prior to full implementation on the entire wetlands area, and these pilots informed the overall project strategy. "To reduce farmlands and agricultural water use in the experimental zone of the Qixinghe nature reserve, a water- and land-intensive eco-agriculture pilot project was conducted. Reserve staff constructed 40 greenhouses in a 9  ha area, then leased them to 40 farmer households who had conducted traditional large-scale agriculture on about 400 ha of rented lands in the experimental zone. Both the farmers and the reserve can thus maintain their incomes. The rented lands were returned to the nature reserve for wetland restoration. Ecotourism pilot projects were also implemented in the Xingkaihu and Zhenbaodao nature reserves." [14]

Feasibility Good

In the TA report, information is provided on the feasibility study and its parameters, although no information was available on the results of the study. "The feasibility study will include economic and financial viability, potential environmental impacts, mitigation and monitoring of potentially adverse impacts, and the potential impact of such investments on social wellbeing and income levels of local communities, and the impact on economic development of the area and the province."[15]

The financial feasibility of the project was secured by funding from the ADB and GEF. The logistical feasibility was guaranteed by the involvement of the PRC government from the design and planning phase until the final implementation.

Action

Management Strong

A clear organisational structure was defined, with the (HPG) being the executive agency. A steering committee was established to oversee implementation. "The Project Management Office (PMO) [was] responsible for the day-to-day implementation of the project under the guidance of the steering committee." [16] Project Implementing Agencies (PIA) were set up to implement the sub-projects and one project implementation unit  was established for each PIA. There were also Nature Reserve Technical Working Groups, which comprised representatives of "the state forest farms, state farms, or project villages; and local schoolteachers of project-affected areas."[17]

There were also consultants who "drew up guidelines for project monitoring and evaluation (M&E), prepared detailed work plans, established an M&E database, and developed internal M&E procedures". [18] The M&E coordination consultant produced monthly and semi-annual M&E reports.

Measurement Fair

There were effective measurement functions incorporated in the delivery of the project and in the M&E function. Indicators were included in functions such as watershed management as in the following example. "A total of 10,090 hectares of new forestry plantations were completed, which is 85% of the total targeted area; and out of which 3,853 ha were farmland-to-forest conversion. 39,769 ha of existing young trees on existing forestry were treated and maintained, which is 91% of the total targeted area."[19]

As regards alternative livelihoods, there were metrics to assess the environmental benefits of farmers and fishermen changing their occupations and also the incomes of these local people when they switched to ecotourism. "In the Zhenbaodao nature reserve, about 50 farmers and fishermen changed their livelihoods to ecotourism; and stopped farming on 1,025 ha of lands, out of which 899 ha were converted to wetlands; and the catch of fish was reduced by 5 tons. Income levels of the farmers and fishermen who changed their livelihoods to ecotourism were maintained or increased."[20]

It was more difficult to measure the achievement of environmental population targets, for example: "a 10% increase in the population of native species; and a 10% increase in the occurrence and population of key threatened species".[21]

Alignment Fair

All the stakeholders cooperated effectively and executed their own parts of the project. Also, all the actors were well-equipped to perform their roles. The ADB and GEF were committed to the restoration of the wetlands and the project objectives, and had a reasonable working relationship and understanding with the central and local governments. However, there was a delay of 20 months in project implementation due to delays in agreeing the funding arrangements. "Project implementation was delayed about 20 months from the appraisal estimates. It experienced an initial setback due to constraints relating to the reallocation of loan and grant proceeds, the revision of loan and grant financing percentages, and the lack of financial resources from the GEF grant funds. This delayed implementation of the GEF-funded activities, particularly those relating to consulting services, training, and nature reserve management."[22]

Once the project was under way, the collaboration worked more effectively. "During implementation, the steering committee met 23 times. It effectively acted as an inter-agency working committee. In 2009, an advisory committee was established in the Heilongjiang Province Finance Department for technical support and evaluations for the project. The PMO comprised four divisions — Accounting and Planning, Administration, Coordination, and Management — and was operated by 12 full-time staff... These units... implemented the sub-projects, including budgeting and financial management, successfully."[23]