Trading Natural Riparian Forests for Urban Shelterbelt Plantations—A Sustainability Assessment of the Kökyar Protection Forest in NW China

Missall, S., et al., 2018. Water

Original research (primary data)
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Cities at the fringe of the Taklimakan desert in NW China are prone to dust and sand storms with serious consequences for human well-being. The Kأ¶kyar Protection Forest was established in the 1980s as an ecological engineering project with the intent of protecting the city of Aksu, NW China, from these impacts. It is designed as a combination of poplar shelterbelts and orchards, irrigated by river water from the Aksu River, the main tributary of the Tarim River. Prevalent literature describes it as an afforestation project for combatting desertification with manifold positive effects for the economic, social, and environmental dimension of sustainable development. This paper sets out to challenge these claims by a sustainability assessment in which the plantation is examined from a broader perspective, embedding it to the wider context of social and environmental problems in South Xinjiang. Methods comprise evapotranspiration calculations, interviews, a socioeconomic household survey, stakeholder dialogues, and literature research. Results affirm its economic sustainability, but see a mixed record for the social sphere. From the nature conservation point of view, it has to be classified as unsustainable because its high irrigation water consumption results in the downstream desiccation and desertification of natural riparian forests along the Tarim River, causing a forest loss in the downstream area twice the size of the forest gain in the upstream area. There is a trade-off between artificial shelterbelt plantations for urban ecosystem services on the one hand side, and natural riparian forests and their biodiversity on the other hand side. The paper recommends restricting agricultural extension, and using locally adapted less water consuming agroforestry schemes to protect urban dwellers from dust stress.

Case studies

Basic information

  • Case ID: INT-177-1
  • Intervention type: Created habitats
  • Intervention description:

    As a response to the dust problems, in the 1980s the local authorities decided to lay out a peri-urban shelterbelt plantation, called Kökyar Protection Forest. Work began in 1986 and was completed in 1990, the plantation then covering an area of 1308 ha [2]. From 1990 onward, the project was extended by three more project periods, each of which converted more patches of desert land into forest plantations (cf. Figure 3). The four project periods and their corresponding areas were then chronologically labelled Kökyar I to IV, while the complete title, Kökyar Protection Forest, usually refers to all four project areas together. The Kökyar Protection Forest is designed as a raster of shelterbelt strips in which rectangular orchard plots are embedded. The shelterbelt strips consist mainly of white poplar (Populus alba var. ‘Pyramidalis’), while the orchard plots are mainly planted with apple and pear. Jujube, walnut, and grapes and others play a minor role (Kökyar socio-economic household survey). The share of the shelterbelt strips in the plantation has dropped from 52% in Kökyar I to 42% in Kökyar II and to only 10% in Kökyar III, in favour of increasing orchard shares (comp. Table 1). the Kökyar Protection Forest is an artificial forest plantation that depends fully on regular irrigation fed by river water. Since its irrigation water is diverted from the Tarim River’s main tributary Aksu River, every drop of water spent on the upstream Kökyar Protection Forest is directly missing in the downstream areas. By this, it contributes to the ongoing degradation and desiccation of the natural Tugai forests in the middle and lower reaches of the Tarim River, consequently reducing ecosystem services there. This makes clear that the ecosystem services at Aksu are not created out of thin air, but rather translocated from downstream

  • Landscape/sea scape ecosystem management: Yes
  • Climate change impacts Effect of Nbs on CCI Effect measures
    Other climate impact  Unclear results sand/dust storm reduction - analysis taken from lit and a secondary data set "An improvement is perceived and described by local inhabitants [40,43]. Additionally, a data set from 1996 shows a decrease of annual windborne sand events from 11.4 before the establishment of Kökyar down to 4.3 since its establishment [2]. However, the data does neither reveal the intensity and duration of each event nor the precise contribution of the Kökyar plantation to this reduction [40]. The precise metrics of the protective effect therefore stay unknown. "
    Reduced water availability  Negative Water availability - "The water use calculation is the core argument of the paper. By comparing the water consumption of the Kökyar Protection Forest at Aksu with the water consumption of the natural Tugai forests at the middle and lower reaches of the Tarim River, it reveals the area of Tugai forests that are sacrificed for the Kökyar plantation. It was executed as an evapotranspiration calculation using the Penman-Monteith equation [44,45], which can provide a good estimation of long-term evapotranspiration but should not be understood as an exact assessment of actual evapotranspiration."
  • Approach implemented in the field: Yes
  • Specific location:

    around the city of Aksu is a river oasis on the northern edge of the Taklimakan Desert, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Northwest China

  • Country: China
  • Habitat/Biome type: Created forest |
  • Issue specific term: Not applicable


  • Notes on intervention effectivness: In relation to the climatic impact targeted by this intervention (sand/dust storms), the reported findings are taken from a separate dataset, and other findings reported in the literature; see outcome measure. The original findings brought forth in this study pertain to the created forest’s impact on water availability (water consumption), in comparison with that of the natural forests, and then of the economic dimensions they conducted a household survey. They also did stakeholder workshops and key informant interviews to provide a holistic analysis of effectiveness – ecological, economic, and social. The overall issue is desertification but the specific climatic impacts are sand storm dust storm which impacts the cities, and water shortages (predominantly a result of intensive agriculture). Desertification is framed as the overall issue. Based on previous data the planted forests are effective at reducing sand storm, but they reduce water availability thus compounding the broader issue of desertification. Should we code for the lowest climatic impact relevant - other / (for dust or sand storms) and water shortages or should we code for desertification – mixed because positive for dust storm reduction but negative for water availability? Check with Beth 8.12.2019
  • Is the assessment original?: Yes
  • Broadtype of intervention considered: Not applicable
  • Compare effectivness?: No
  • Compared to the non-NBS approach: Not applicable
  • Report greenhouse gas mitigation?: No
  • Impacts on GHG: Not applicable
  • Assess outcomes of the intervention on natural ecosystems: Yes
  • Impacts for the ecosystem: Negative
  • Ecosystem measures: The assessment is based on the fact that this created forest consumes a lot of water depleting it from the natural environment, so they frame it as negative fort he native ecosystem “Severe harm, however, has been done to the natural Tugai forests at the Tarim River’s lower and middle reaches. “ Downstream, this led to a loss of 8023 ha of the native ecosystem they claim.
  • Assess outcomes of the intervention on people: Yes
  • Impacts for people: Mixed
  • People measures: Qualitative synthesis using a variety of data/observations, refer to paper. Mixed because different groups are differentially affected
  • Considers economic costs: Yes
  • Economic appraisal conducted: Yes
  • Economic appraisal described:
  • Economic costs of alternative considered: No
  • Compared to an alternative: Not reported

Evaluation methodology

  • Type of data: Quantitative
  • Is it experimental: No
  • Experimental evalution done: Not applicable
  • Non-experimental evalution done: Empirical case study
  • Study is systematic: