Environmental Considerations for Post-earthquake recovery action in China

17 July 2008 | News story

Two months after the devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi Provinces, the Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China and the United Nations hosted a joint workshop in Bejing to help develop a recovery plan for the affected areas. Killing 69,000 people and rendering more than 5 million people homeless, the 12 May earthquake also had an immense environmental impact on the area, known for its rich biodiversity.

While the focus of the discussions at the meeting were on means by which to support the people affected by the disaster, IUCN and UNEP, the only representatives speaking on behalf of the environment, noted that the recovery effort should also take into account the needs of nature. Other participants included 22 government ministries as well as UN agencies, representatives from many of the foreign missions in Beijing and various international organizations.

“We should consider these impacts not just in terms of the ecosystems but also in terms of the incredible loss of goods and services that these ecosystems provide” said Dr. Sue Mainka, Senior Coordinator for IUCN’s Global Programme. “We know that sustainable livelihoods, both in the short and longer term, will depend on ecosystem services, and that
restoring habitats will improve the capacity of both ecosystems and people to withstand future disasters.”

This part of China is a biodiversity hotspot but one with many existing challenges for biodiversity conservation. Sichuan province, alone, has more than 800 threatened species according to the China Red List and the specific area hit by the quake includes 12 nationally listed animals and 24 listed plants. Before the quake, this region of China used to be an important part of the national watershed as a key area to feed the Yangtze river. It is also an important focus for China’s ecotourism industry.

Initial results from a rapid assessment suggest serious loss of forests due to landslides. More than 400,000 ha of arable land have also been damaged. The Sichuan earthquake affected 35, or more than 60 percent, of giant panda reserves. In fact, giant pandas which had been housed in captive breeding facilities in the affected areas have now been re-located to zoos and stations in other provinces of China.

The Chinese government has set a goal of recovery within the next three years. IUCN noted that while in terms of the human-made infrastructure that is an achievable objective, we need more time for land and water resource restoration. IUCN urged the government to make use of the Union’s expertise and experience in ecosystem recovery and rehabilitation.

Climate change should not be left out of the recovery plans either. “The earthquake-affected region of China is projected to become both hotter and drier in the coming decades and this will influence choices in ecosystem management, “according to Dr Sue Mainka. “In addition, we should remember that China is the 2nd largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the earthquake response should not exacerbate this situation.”

It will take an immense and coordinated effort to support recovery from the human and environmental impact of China’s deadly earthquake. But it is also an opportunity to create a better future based on sustainable ecosystem services and to take measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change.


Note for editors:

Key principles conveyed during the meeting:

• Take the opportunity to do things better
– Don’t assume that you are planning to re-create what was there before

• Choose the most viable areas in which to work
– Don’t assume that you need to rehabilitate all areas affected by the earthquake

• Create a plan with flexibility to adapt
– Don’t assume that your plan won’t change as it is being implemented

• Don’t assume a “one size fits all” strategy
– There is no single solution that will be appropriate in every circumstance.

• Avoid further damage to the environment through your actions