Sanjiang Plain wetlands, located in the northeastern Heilongjiang Province, comprise one of the richest areas of globally significant biodiversity in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) but also one of the country’s most important food production regions. The area of the wetlands has been reduced by 80% from its original size since the 1950s due to multiple pressures, most notably drainage to reclaim land for farming. In support of these challenges and at the request of the PRC, an Asian Development Bank loan for $15 million was cofinanced by a Global Environment Facility grant of $12.14 million that was administered by ADB.
The project’s main goal was to improve management of natural resources in order to protect globally significant species and sustain economic development. The purpose of the project was to achieve an integrated conservation and development model to protect the natural resources (biodiversity, water, forests) of the Sanjiang Plain wetlands and their watersheds from continued threats while improving the well-being of local communities. The key target beneficiaries of the project include local communities living and working within and around the nature reserves, nature reserve and forest farm staff, county level local authorities, and provincial level authorities. The project comprised five components: (1) watershed management, (2) wetland nature reserve management, (3) alternative livelihood programs, (4) education and capacity building, and (5) project management.
Wetland protection in the Sanjiang Plain continues to be challenged by both exogenous and endogenous factors. There are competing demands and pressures from other sectors, most notably agriculture, for the plain’s land and water resources. During the evaluation, groundwater over extraction, pollution, and land use legacy issues were also identified as significant pressures on many of the wetlands. Systematic, harmonized, and long-term monitoring of both wetland habitat and bird species across the Sanjiang Plain is not currently in place. Such monitoring is needed across the nature reserves so that the true impact of this and similar projects can be better measured and managed. Individuals and communities involved in using the wetlands’ natural resources need alternative livelihoods, and, in the case of farmed areas, appropriate compensation. Currently, there is no national policy on cash compensation for farmland-to-wetland conversion. The project has performed well and had a significant impact on wetland protection, but the challenges for these precious wetlands remain.
Strong leadership and ownership is central to project success. The involvement and support of the provincial and county governments along with backing from the central government provided a strong basis for project success. At all stages of the project process (planning, implementation, and evaluation), a strong relationship needs to be maintained between the implementing partners and managing partners based on an open working relationship. For a successful outcome, ownership must at all times be with the government agencies and regional and/or local stakeholder groups and not the implementing agency.
Alternative livelihoods and resettlement issues must be dealt with early on. The survey and focus group discussions with affected people yielded high satisfaction to the project. It clearly demonstrated that the project’s pioneering and successful provision of alternative livelihoods through noncash compensation or in-kind support can work in wetland restoration projects.
Careful consideration of monitoring challenges is required at the design phase of the project in terms of resources, training and technology. To achieve global-based goals proposed in this project, the project design would have needed to take into account the conservation activities and ecological monitoring taking place on the other territories where the species are present. This is best achieved through the design and implementation of transboundary projects, where full cooperation among partner countries could be achieved and monitoring data shared. Improving bird monitoring in the Sanjiang Plain calls for a long-term investment to establish a harmonized and systematic approach following international standards.
Clear communication is essential for co-financed projects. The assessment of process efficiency highlighted the need for clear communication, understanding and training on administrative and financing arrangements during the design of co-financed projects, particularly for complex natural resource management projects, to avoid subsequent delays in implementation.
Coordinated and planned efforts enhance a project’s success. Coordination is needed not only among the nature reserves within the project’s scope but also other nature reserves and protected areas located within the area. Disseminating good practice experience and enhanced know-how in areas such as wetland restoration, ecotourism, species monitoring, and livelihood development would require a coordinated and planned effort by the project implementers. Project design should make a special effort to include actions that promote improved coordination among all of the nature reserves within a biogeographical area (e.g., Sanjiang Plain) and, where feasible, with nature reserves located in adjacent provinces or countries in order to strengthen and coordinate conservation actions or ecological monitoring.
The project is rated successful. The project successfully increased and improved upland forest cover, restored degraded wetlands, improved wetland hydrology, increased incomes of affected households through alternative livelihoods, undertook wetland conservation education, and established wetland management capacity. Some shortcomings in design led to less conclusive outcomes on improving biodiversity in the Sanjiang Plain. Overall, however, the project represented a significant step forward in addressing the challenges facing the Sanjiang Plain wetlands.