Sustainable Development Success Stories

Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project


The project area covers 15,600 square km of land in nine tributary watersheds of the Yellow River on the Loess Plateau in Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Gansu Provinces, and the Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia, China.

The Loess Plateau covers an area of some 640,000 sq. km in the upper and middle parts of the drainage basin of the Yellow River. Before the project, most of the project area consisted of severely degraded and barren land and low productivity slope land. The loess soil has good agricultural properties, but drought is a major constraint in crop production. Slope lands in the Loess Plateau produce extremely high levels of sediment runoff per unit area. Broad flat terraces for crops and narrow terraces for trees and shrubs are essential for profitable use of lands in the project areas. Per capita incomes in the project area are mostly below the poverty line.

Responsible Organization

The International Development Association (IDA), Borrower: People's Republic of China: Ministry of Water Resources, the provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi, and Shanxi and the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia. The project began in 1994 and is scheduled to be under implementation until 2002.


The objective of the project is to help achieve sustainable development in the Loess Plateau by increasing agricultural production and incomes, and improving ecological conditions in tributary watersheds of the Yellow River, through: (a) the introduction of more efficient and sustainable uses of land and water resources; and (b) reducing erosion and sediment flow into the Yellow River. The project finances the integrated planning and treatment of small watersheds. The project creates high-yielding, level farmland for production of field crops and orchards and thereby replaces areas devoted to crops on erodible slope lands, and (b) plants the slope lands to a range of trees, shrubs and grasses for the production of fuel, timber and fodder. These measures increase per hectare productivity on the improved farmland, raise overall output and incomes, and have positive ecological impact. Comprehensive and integrated planning of individual watersheds in close consultation with the beneficiaries in the villages is a key aspect of the project. The provincial water conservancy bureaus, under the guidance of the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR), prepared the project.

Issues Addressed

Land use, agriculture, and poverty alleviation.

Results Achieved
  • Built 72,346 hectares of terraces, resulting in immediate and substantial benefits for project farmers. In an average year, grain yields on terraces are double those on the slope land. Higher and more stable grain production on terraces allows farmers to take steep slope land out of grain production and put it into more sustainable use such as tree plantations. The new terraces, and access roads to the terraces, give farmers the opportunity to grow a wider range of crops with higher yields than is possible on unimproved slopes or old inaccessible terraces.

  • Planted 270,000 hectares of trees, shrubs and grasses on degraded agricultural lands. This promoted soil and water conservation and produced much-needed fuel, timber and fodder.

  • Constructed several thousand sediment control dams, which has improved soil conservation and created valuable farmland.

  • Carried out training, technology transfer, monitoring and evaluation, and a research program to tackle soil and water conservation and production issues specific to the Loess Plateau through an institutional development component.

Lessons Learned
  • Project implementation and the impact of the various components exceed expectations in most respects.

  • The rapid progress and high quality of work confirmed the validity of a procurement strategy that relies on the joint efforts of the villagers and local bulldozer operators under the supervision of county technicians.

  • Survival rates of the tree and shrub plantings have generally been high except in some drought-affected areas where replanting was necessary. Overall seedling quality was a problem in the first years of the project, but has improved through enhanced cooperation with the Forestry Bureau.

  • Farmers in some areas have shown limited interest in planting shrubs because of low returns and the mid-term review did adjust some project components to achieve a better balance between on-farm and downstream benefits and to pay greater attention to specific social and natural conditions in the watersheds.


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