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Climate, water, biodiversity: the unity of life

For the first time, IFGR gathered its experts in Asia at the invitation of the Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC), last October. At the head of a delegation of about forty people, Erik Orsenna, President of the association, hailed the great progress achieved to control the river in his closing speech at the conference. Known for its catastrophic floods and more recently for its droughts, the Yellow River no longer kills. But a new battle has begun to preserve its wetlands. China has proved that efficiency is possible in the case of an emergency. The conditions for ensuring shared progress remain to be known. Solutions must also go further, so that rivers can provide even more life. The following are the main lessons learned from our exchanges based on the case of the Yellow River and other examples from around the world.


The conditions of efficiency

  • Target the causes rather than the effects

The first condition for ensuring efficiency is to stop fighting the effects and turn to their causes, by taking into account the general evolution of climate change and anthropisation. It is necessary to understand the root of the problems to avoid partial solutions. The water available in rivers will be decrease over time, while extreme phenomena will be increasingly frequent. What is the point of raising levees if no action is taken to reduce soil erosion? The immense works carried out on the Loess plateau on the middle course of the Yellow River, demonstrate nature’s incredible powers of resilience.

  • Choosing the right spatial and temporal scale

It is always necessary to encompass more whereas fragmentation is synonymous with impoverishment. This is true from the spatial standpoint: the right scale is that of the inhabited basin, covering upstream and downstream, from the source to the mouth, within the same country or across countries. The other scale is temporal, since rapid results are required. We no longer have the time to act slowly! But the temptation to change everything must be resisted as what’s essential must be conserved, by remembering the lessons of history. The time-scale involved also obliges us to ensure that our decisions regarding the future are not made in isolation. For example, the classification of protected areas and the demarcation of red lines are not enough in themselves and must be accompanied by protective measures implemented in the field and by management plans, without which biodiversity will continue to decline. This was the observation made for the Mediterranean basin regarding 40% of its protected areas.

  • Simplifying governance, by overriding institutional fragmentation

Integration is also a political initiative. Biodiversity is a global problem that is now affecting China, but this is also the case in many other countries whose administrative realities weaken management, prevent the efficient data sharing to aid decision, and dilute responsibilities.

It is necessary to simplify governance to ensure integrated water resource management. It is also important to better explain and launch mechanisms of appropriation.

This is the challenge that China must face, in order to associate all the stakeholders in the river’s management, a fact acknowledged by Professor Wan Yi, Vice-President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Development: “For the future, the challenge is to build a global governance system that integrates the different stakeholders in the decision-making process and a system for implementing the action plans. Lastly, the actions implemented have to be subjected to scientific evaluation and a monitoring system at the level of civil society.”

  • Fighting against the temptation to dominate everything

Rivers have always been fashioned by the hand of men but it is necessary to set a limit to the will to power. Replacing domination by partnership between human beings and nature seems to be the best strategy for the long-term, notably by resorting to nature-based solutions.


Conditions for sustainability 

  • Developing space harmoniously

Half the world’s population live in cities, soon it will be two thirds. Creating an ecological civilisation therefore means creating an urban civilisation too, by forging better relations between rivers and cities to ensure a good quality of life. Rivers are just one facet in the relationship between cities and nature, though this facet is scarcely exploited in China. Its major cities are heavily polluted and very concentrated. They could find models in Europe, for example Copenhagen and Hamburg, on which to base their development.

China is also facing the issue of territorial development, with considerable internal migration from the rural areas in the west to the industrial and urban areas in the east. Furthermore, the authorities are becoming aware of the harmful effects of these territories emptied of any human presence or left to the elderly and are developing policies to revitalise the countryside.

  • Renaturing without devitalising

Managing fragility does not mean preserving nature at any price by excluding human activities.

What will happen to China’s food security and independence in the future if the surface area of its agricultural land continues to shrink, and if most of its peasants migrate to the cities, accompanied by the disappearance of rural culture? Arable land serves as the habitat of 80% of its biomass, it recharges the groundwater and filters carbon. Wouldn’t it be better to change practices in certain regions and educate their populations rather than exclude them systematically?

  • Maintaining a balance between ecosystems

The danger in China could stem from a crisis of biodiversity, not due to the disappearance of ecosystems but rather to a lack of diversity. Do reforestation activities promote biodiversity, in addition to consolidating soils? It is necessary to avoid monocultures and find a balance between forests, prairies and cultivated land. This supposes knowledge gained through sharing data, and knowhow gained through training.

From the Yellow River, we have understood the huge challenge that life demands: partnership.

  1. Partnership between humankind and nature: biodiversity means the biodiversity of all living things, including human beings. Biodiversity must not be limited to only protecting species but also englobe the dynamics of the relationship between human beings and habitats.
  2. Partnership between countries to write a common narrative: cooperation must be forged at the international level so that China and other countries do not repeat the mistakes made elsewhere and so that the nuisances confined to one country are not exported beyond it, as in the case of plastic.
  3. Partnership between fields of knowledge: environmental data must be crossed with societal, historic, geopolitical and geographic data, among others, to ensure the success of transitions. It appears necessary to bring together data, experiments and evaluations among countries to build together the knowledge required for transitions.

If we only care for part of the planet and we transfer our scourges elsewhere, if we care for the environment locally while allowing the situation to worsen in other places, we can only be subjected to a flow of negative reactions. Indeed, we are Geonauts, that’s to say we share one and the same vessel.

Erik Orsenna

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