From local knowledge to national policy: how can China’s mountain communities better adapt to climate change?

Kristi Foster

Faced with increasing rainfall variability – especially continuous, four-year droughts – mountain farmers in Southwest China’s Yunnan province have developed innovative strategies to minimize water-related threats to their livelihoods.

Yufang Su, Jianchu Xu and a team of World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) scientists conducted case studies of three mountain communities in rural Yunnan, each with different socio-economic and ecological characteristics and water-related vulnerabilities. Their results are published in a new study Coping with climate-induced water stresses through time and space in the mountains of Southwest China.

Farmers developed new strategies to cope with water-related climatic risks – from changing cropping varieties and cropping patterns, to using water-saving technologies, improved irrigation methods and engaging in off-farm income generation. At the same time, communities now use collective action to cope with water stresses, including social organization and cooperation, village-level water-management rules, water storage and hiring irrigation managers.

In one high-elevation village, community leaders have introduced afforestation activities to control landslides and erosion. In some other communities, agroforestry practices are not only reducing the risks of climate-induced water stress, they are diversifying income sources, too.

Socioeconomic, political and geographical factors have greatly impacted individual and collective responses to water stresses. In rural China, the past 50 years have witnessed a shift from state-planned centralized agricultural communes to a decentralized, market-driven economy. Water demand spiked following agricultural intensification and urbanization, leading to shortages, while decentralization cut central government funding for rural water infrastructure and community institutional development. Yet these challenges also opened the doors for local leadership and household-level innovation.

Despite this multitude of innovations, the researchers predict that not all coping strategies will be sustainable in the long-term.

“Economic drivers combined with easy access to fertilizers and pesticides and government extension services biased towards cash-crop production are causing farmers to focus on high-input agriculture. These monocultures of vegetables, tobacco and high-yield corn rely on optimal weather and large quantities of chemicals, increasing crop vulnerability to pests. The high fertilizer inputs also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and potentially threaten water quality and human health,” said Yufang Su, lead author of the paper and project manager with ICRAF’s East-Asia Program.

According to the researchers, current coping strategies will need to be supported by long-term ecological and socioeconomic adaptations, including technological developments such as drought-tolerant crops and trees, agroforestry and water-efficient conservation agricultural practices, as well as investment in water infrastructure and management, stakeholder participation and government programs.

Moreover, the Chinese government has a responsibility to assist rural communities’ long-term adaptation. According to Jianchu Xu, principle ecologist and coordinator for ICRAF’s East-Asia Program, China’s afforestation policies should support rural livelihoods and promote healthy ecosystems.

“Large scale afforestation may be a poor investment, or worse, it could have negative consequences on watersheds and biodiversity if it involves exotic monoculture plantations whose ecological toll has not been well studied through research,” said Jianchu.

Instead, Jianchu advocates for dual forest-management programmes: one for recovery and restoration of natural forests, and one for incorporating trees into farmlands, both of which are based on robust research.

For example, government funded tree planting, such as through the “Grain for Green” program, needs to be better integrated into local watershed plans and disaster-risk management. “China can’t afford to wait for new extreme climate events or water crises. We need to develop integrative policies and practices that link local and state-level adaptation in order to reduce community vulnerability to climatic events in the long-term,” said Jianchu.

“With climate change and climate change adaptation emerging as new policy domains, we see a great opportunity to integrate climate science and adaptation into sectoral policies that can inform local-level action,” added Yufang.

Scientists from the Centre for Mountain Ecosystem Studies, a partnership between ICRAF and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, have already launched case studies in China, Nepal and Pakistan to explore how trees on farms can help mountain communities adapt to climate change. This research will facilitate learning between different countries, generate knowledge about the policy context needed to achieve more resilient farming communities and help inform national adaptation strategies in the greater Himalayan region.

In the face of a climatically uncertain future, understanding communities’ historical adaptive responses and current vulnerabilities, and integrating this knowledge to shape adaptation policies, will help China and respond more effectively and equitably to water stresses in the long-term.

Edited by Daisy Ouya


Read the full journal articles:

Coping with climate-induced water stresses through time and space in the mountains of Southwest ChinaYufang Su, Jianchu Xu, Andy Wilkes, Juliet Lu, Qiaohong Li, Yao Fu, Xing Ma, R. Edward Grumbine

China’s new forests aren’t as green as they seem - Jianchu Xu

Related Reading:

Rising temperatures on the ‘Roof of the World’: how Tibet’s grasslands are responding to climate change

Are restoration efforts in China halting soil erosion?

More trees may actually be harming the environment in China

Rivers without borders – transforming the way we manage shared watersheds


Centre for Mountain Ecosystem Studies

Chinese Academy of Sciences

Grain for Green program