Protecting the Yellow River Basin in the PRC

Water resources throughout the PRC are affected by the management of the country’s river basins.

With the right policies, the Yellow River can help the PRC achieve its goals for ecological sustainability and economic growth.

As the second largest river system in the PRC, the Yellow River transports more than 1.5 billion tons of sediment per year from its headwaters on the Tibetan Plateau to its estuaries on the Yellow Sea. The dynamics between water, land, soil and climate make it a unique, ecologically diverse, and fragile basin.

One of the most pressing environmental and socio-economic challenges surrounding the river is water scarcity. Today, the basin accounts for only 2% of the country’s total water but 26.5% of the national gross domestic product (GDP). Feeding a population of 420 million, it is vital for socio-economic development. People in the river basin depend directly on these water resources as a basis for their livelihoods, including for food production, hydropower, industry, and domestic supply.

In recent years, the river’s flow has greatly diminished, affecting the lives of millions. Land use changes have significantly contributed to ecological deterioration and ecosystem alteration. It is estimated that human activities, such as destruction of natural vegetation, have augmented natural soil erosion by about 40% in the basin.

Water-related disasters are another major issue in the basin. The July 2021 floods in Henan province – which sits in the middle course of the Yellow River – were triggered by a record-breaking rainfall over 24 hours, almost the equivalent of the annual average. Temperature in the basin increased faster than the global average. Climate models indicated that extreme events such as droughts and severe floods could become more frequent in certain areas of this region, with the probability of increasing in the future. Exacerbated by climate change, extreme weather events may threaten agriculture and animal husbandry, putting at risk both rural and urban livelihoods.

The lack of basin-wide planning is a key barrier to protecting the river’s environment. Addressing the challenges in the Yellow River basin requires a planning and management approach that spans the whole ecosystem. The basin should be treated as an ecological corridor: a clearly defined geographical space that is managed over the long-term to maintain or restore the ecosystem.

As part of this, nature-related aspects need to be an integral component of financial planning and fiscal policy reforms. Such investments must address nature’s complexity and maintain and restore biodiversity.

The Yellow River basin is a natural treasure to be preserved, a home to millions of people, and the foundation for economic progress.

River basins, such as the Yellow River, can help achieve the country’s targets for ecological sustainability and economic growth. Healthy ecological corridors improve biodiversity while enhancing food security, climate resilience, and disease resistance. There are four policy actions that are critical to achieving this.

First, ensuring that nature-based solutions (such as using constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment or ecological embankments to mitigate flood risks) are built into policies, planning and financial mechanisms. These measures can improve natural capital protection, restore fragile ecosystems, and foster sustainable agriculture, simultaneously building resilient and equitable rural economies for the most vulnerable communities.

Second, applying the gross ecosystem product (GEP), an accounting mechanism developed in the People’s Republic of China for valuing and pricing ecosystem goods and services, can improve ecological and spatial planning and inform decision-making.

Third, using governance and financing as incentive mechanisms, including eco-compensation and water funds, can expand natural capital investments by generating ecological benefits and economies of scale.

Fourth, integrating environment, social, and governance criteria into lending and investment decisions can increase private sector participation and private capital injections into projects to protect natural resources. Based on these criteria, investors can observe and evaluate the performance of enterprises based not only on their financial performance but also on their contribution in promoting sustainable development and fulfilling social responsibility.

The Yellow River basin is a natural treasure to be preserved, a home to millions of people, and the foundation for economic progress. Conceived as a single watershed, it can offer ecosystem services to people and nature and generate multiple benefits. Even though physical boundaries and human engineering have split the river into an upper, middle and a lower course, it is important to protect the entire basin as a single ecological unit from source to sea. Effective strategies for adaptation to climate change are essential for the sustainable development of water resources in the Yellow River.

Silvia Cardascia

Silvia Cardascia

Water Resources Specialist, East Asia Department, ADB

This blog is reproduced from Asian Development Blog.

Mass Extinction of Species is Happening, Should We Care? Episode 5. Measuring Biodiversity

Biodiversity and ecosystems are our natural capital, but we cannot fully appreciate their contributions if we do not measure them. We spoke to PRC experts on how this can be done via the natural accounting ofGross Ecological Product (GEP), and how organizations like ADB can help in the measurement of biodiversity?

Mass Extinction of Species is Happening, Should We Care? Episode 4. Implementing Biodiversity

Everyone, from the top to grassroot levels, should be involved in protecting biodiversity. We learned from PRC experts on how this can be done based on the , how different stakeholders may work together, and how experiences from the PRC’s innovation cases can be shared with others.

Mass Extinction of Species is Happening, Should We Care? Episode 3. Mainstreaming Biodiversity

We spoke to stakeholders from UNESCO, NGO, and L’oreal to find out why is mainstreaming biodiversity important, how it can be done, and what roles partners can play. ADB’s launch of the Regional Flyway Initiative at COP15 exemplified these concepts.

Mass Extinction of Species is Happening, Should We Care? Episode 2. Special Interview with Yolanda Fernandez Lommen at COP15

RKSI spoke to Yolanda Fernandez Lommen, Country Director, ADB Resident Mission in the PRC, to learn more about the COP15 event, the balance between development and biodiversity protection, and the role of ADB in helping the PRC to pursue its ecological civilization goals.

Mass Extinction of Species is Happening, Should We Care? Episode 1. Biodiversity and ADB

RKSI attended Phase I of the 15th Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biodiversity (COP15) in Kunming, Yunnan in October 2021. In conjunction with this, we have produced a series of vlogs. Episode 1 looks at ADB’s role in protecting biodiversity loss and its participation at the Ecological Civilization Forum, a high-level parallel event held at the COP15. 

Mongolia’s Ulaanbaatar Breathes Easier After Cleanup of Air Quality

Ulaanbaatar is the most polluted capital city in the world. Many residents live in ger areas, where raw coal has been used for cooking and heating during winter months.

The Ulaanbaatar Air Quality Improvement Program of the ADB was implemented in two phases to boost public health and living standards by improving the air quality in the capital city.

With ADB’s help, reforms to reduce air pollution and protect human health were implemented in Ulaanbaatar.

Heart disease, pneumonia, and tuberculosis – these are just some of the diseases aggravated by the already hazardous level of air quality in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. Children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to pollution, which can stunt fetal growth, cause preterm birth, impair brain development, and lead to chronic respiratory diseases and premature deaths.

Some 46% of Ulaanbaatar’s residents are living in informal ger areas, or informal urban settlements, where raw coal has been primarily used for cooking and heating during winter months in what is on record as the coldest capital city in the world.

This leaves Ulaanbaatar also as the most polluted capital in the world. Average concentration levels of particulate matters and sulfur dioxide in the city during December 2015 and January in 2016 were up to 10 times higher than the limits recommended by the World Health Organization.

According to a 2019 study for the United Nations Development Programme, the welfare costs of air pollution are estimated at $486 million annually, the costs of lost productivity at $58 million, with a combined cost equal to 5.6% of Mongolia’s gross domestic product.

To address this issue, the government adopted the National Program for Reducing Air and Environmental Pollution in March 2017, with the ultimate target of 80% air pollution reduction by 2025.

Cleaning up the Air

In support of the national program, the Ulaanbaatar Air Quality Improvement Program of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) was implemented in two phases from March 2018 to December 2020 to improve air quality in the capital city.

The project’s aims were to boost the government’s National Program and the regulatory framework on air quality management; implement urgent measures to reduce air pollution and protect human health in Ulaanbaatar; and establish new mechanisms for environmentally sound and integrated urban, energy, and transport systems.

Under the first phase of the program, ADB provided a policy-based loan of $130 million. Phase 1 was instrumental in supporting the ban on raw coal burning by piloting of coal briquettes and establishing technical standards for vehicle pollution.

Phase 2 then embedded the strategies developed under Phase 1 into Mongolia’s legal and regulatory framework, supported by a policy-based program loan of $160 million approved in December 2019. According to ADB Senior Economist Annabelle Giorgetti, urban air pollution was reduced with the help of the project.

“There was a notable reduction in average levels of particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) and particulate matter less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) during the winter months between November 2019 and February 2020 compared to the same period in 2018–2019,” she says. The average ambient PM2.5 concentrations in the winter of 2019–2020 were 51% lower compared to the winter levels of 2016–2017, 46% compared 2017–2018, and 40% compared to 2018–2019, exceeding the targeted 30% reduction compared with 2016 levels.

Coal briquettes are now being used in Ulaanbaatar in place of raw coal. Compared to raw coal, the briquettes emit less smoke and ash. A city wide-ban on the use of raw coal for heating and cooking has been implemented by the government in Ulaanbaatar since May 2019.

Achieving Reforms

The project helped generate political consensus on the need for cleaner coal, with the government announcing a ban on raw coal and preparing for its replacement with cleaner coal. With ADB’s help, the implementation plan action efficiency and air pollution control regulatory framework in Ulaanbaatar was improved. An Air, Environmental Pollution Reduction Equipment, Technology and Information Center was also established at a shopping center.

The Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) meanwhile developed and implemented an education and outreach program, targeting at least 50% female participation to increase awareness on air pollution. MET approved a strategy to upgrade Ulaanbaatar’s air quality and emission compliance monitoring networks, including the required financing. It also developed a strategy to upgrade its monitoring capacity.

In August 2020, an Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies (EDGE) system was adopted through the Building Code for the Thermal Performance of Buildings. The new building code mandates the application of thermal protection requirements to new buildings, renovation of apartment buildings, and public, industrial, and warehouse buildings.

Key measures on air pollution reduction and health protection were implemented under the project. The government adopted resolutions to disband 68 heating boilers and connect consumers to the central heating system.

The Ministry of Energy (MOE) procured 80,000 tons of semi-coke briquettes, or lower-emitting fuel, for distribution to households in Ulaanbaatar ger areas, targeting the poor and households headed by women.

The program supported other development partners’ initiatives, including promotion of energy efficiency and awareness raising on indoor air pollution, health impacts and mitigation measures. It also complemented other ADB investment in the urban sector aimed at promoting better urbanization for improved air quality outcomes.

Environment and Health

The government allocated budget to ensure pneumococcal conjugate vaccine for about 40,000 children in Ulaanbaatar. The PCV13 vaccine was administered nationwide in three doses to children under the age of 1. “As vaccination was conducted nationwide for children, pregnant women, and elders, the coverage well exceeds the target of 60% of all children and pregnant women,” says ADB Senior Urban Development Specialist Maria Pia Ancora. “Nationwide immunization was particularly important to help protect the public against COVID-19.”

Through the project, mechanisms for environmentally sound and integrated urban and energy systems were also implemented. On January 2018, the State Secretary of MOE submitted a work plan to carry out urban planning, energy policy coordination, and energy saving programs aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Two new credit guarantee products to small and medium-sized enterprises undertaking green and energy-efficient projects were also created in February 2018.

The National Committee and MET operationalized the green financing mechanism, subsidizing loans to eligible low-income households and entities to promote the use of electric heaters, insulation materials, clean heating solutions, improved stoves, and other clean and green solutions to reduce air pollution and improve living and working conditions in ger areas. Preferential access was given to women.

“Through continuous implementation of all policy actions, the program has achieved improved air quality, cost savings, and socio-economic and health benefits,” says ADB Country Director for Mongolia Pavit Ramachandran. “By cleaning the air quality in Ulaanbaatar, public health and living standards were improved. Other secondary cities in Mongolia facing similar air pollution issues are going to benefit from this successful approach in Ulaanbaatar.”

Pima O. Arizala-Bagamasbad

Pima O. Arizala-Bagamasbad

Associate Communications Officer, Department of Communications, ADB

This article is reproduced from Asian Development Bank.

Government Policy, Industrial Clusters, and the Blue Economy in the PRC: A Case Study on the Shandong Peninsula Blue Economic Zone

Eliminating Plastics in the Era of Food Delivery: The PRC’s Solutions on Reduce, Reuse, and Substitute

Ten years ago, online food delivery services barely existed in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In 2020, it grew to become a $51.5 billion industry representing half of the global market share. The PRC is not alone. The Southeast Asian market tripled in 2020 accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the booming industry has powered economic activity and brought unparalleled convenience to hundreds of millions of consumers, it has also generated a significant amount of waste that litters cities, chokes rivers, and threatens wildlife.

Figure 1: Ecosystem Services of Nature-Based Solutions.

Source: China Dialogue.

In the PRC, we estimated that 37 billion plastic containers were discarded in 2020, based on the 17.12 billion online food orders made. 1 If we were to line up each piece, this would be equivalent to about 37 times the distance between north to south pole. As disturbingly, the containers take centuries to biodegrade, but about an hour to use.

In response, companies in the PRC have adopted innovative ways to combat environmental and health issues created by plastic waste.

Reduce—Immediate Solutions

In 2017, Meituan, the PRC’s leading food delivery giant with 628 million active users and 7.7 million merchants, became the first company to launch the “opt-out for disposable cutlery” feature on its app. Users who choose this option are given points that can be donated to a green initiative fund.

Other food delivery platforms have since followed suit. And the feature has received widespread acceptance. For example, more than 70% of the average 1.2 million daily orders received by Meituan in Shanghai use this feature., another food delivery platform, has experimented with edible cutlery (Figure 2). The chopsticks are made of flour, sugar, milk, and butter, which customers can eat as desserts. And they come in three tasty flavors: matcha, wheat, and taro. Each pair is covered by recycled paper.

Within the first six months of its launch, had attracted more than 100 participating restaurants and distributed 10 million pairs of chopsticks.  

Figure 2.’s Edible Chopsticks.

Source: Adrien Goris.

Reuse—Midterm Solutions

In addition to the reduction efforts, businesses have experimented with reusable containers. ShuangTi, a startup based in Shenzhen, created an intelligent “shared lunchbox” business model. It employs reusable containers made of highly durable polypropylene with a microchip inserted to track location and usage time.

After an order is placed on the app, the food is delivered to a heat-insulated smart locker (Figure 3) for collection. When it is finished, customers return the containers to the locker. The containers are then gathered, sanitized, and reused for another delivery.

Figure 3. ShuangTi’s Heat-Insulated Lockers.

Source: Tencent News.

Since 2017, ShuangTi has delivered over 30 million orders mostly to university students. They estimate that if the project is introduced to 500 campuses, around 5,000 ton of plastic waste could be eliminated each year.  

YIKO Eats, a community kitchen startup in Beijing, takes a similar approach by reusing ceramic containers (Figure 4). Customers select a timeslot to return the containers when they place an order. YIKO Eats’ popularity has grown among busy young professionals, who enjoy the coziness of dining in fine china, but dislike the hassle of cooking and cleaning up.

Figure 4. YIKO Eats’ Meals in Reusable Containers.

Source: Yuchen Wen, YIKO Eats.

Recycle and Beyond—Long-Term Solutions

Worldwide, only 1%  of polypropylene (the plastic mainly used in delivery containers) is recycled. Oily stains and food residue make the process difficult and costly as the material must be separated and cleaned. As such, containers placed in the recycling bin often end up in landfills or incinerators, representing a major source of pollution.

To address this, Meituan and top chain restaurants have established 350 recycling sites  close to customers, typically near office buildings, communities, and campuses, where most orders are placed. The most successful site has a 74% recycling rate.

To turn the waste collected into other useful products, Meituan works with factories to make bicycle baffles (Figure 5), handbags (Figure 6), and cups.

Figure 5. Bicycle Raffles Made from Recycled Containers.

Source: Polypropylene People.

Figure 6. Handbags Made from Recycled Plastic Cups.


Companies have also raced to find a substitute for plastic. Much of this has followed after the government announced to ban the use of disposable plastic in e-commerce, express delivery, and takeaway food by end 2022.

Figure 7. Packaging Film for Cornstarch Containers.

Source: Hualong Packaging Materials Co.

Cornstarch container is biodegradable and a popular substitute, but it is not leak and less oil resistant—less suitable for Chinese food. A smart solution offered by Hualong Packing Materials Co. is to insert a film, made of polyethylene and done by a machine, onto the containers (Figure 7). After a meal is finished, customers can easily remove the film and clean it. Both the film and container can be recycled.

Meanwhile, other companies have also innovated using paper-based materials. Zhongshan Dongyu New Materials Co. has worked with BASF to launch specially designed paper containers (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Zhongshan Dongyu-BASF’s Paper Food Containers.

Source: BASF Trade News.

Stora Enso, a global paper manufacturer, has made containers that are heat and oil resistant (Figure 9). Its products won top honors in Meituan’s Food Delivery Packaging and Incubation Competition in 2021.

Figure 9. Stora Enso’s Paper Containers.

Source: Stora Enso.

Moving forward, the end of takeaway plastic containers in the PRC is near even amid rising demand for food delivery. More new ideas and products will surely surface as the country strives toward achieving the goal of greener and higher quality development. As in other areas of e-commerce, the PRC’s rich experience provides useful lessons for other developing countries facing similar challenges.

1 The estimate was also based on the average number of plastic containers used for an order (3.27 pieces), how common is plastic container used for food ordered online (over 80%) , and the plastic recycling rate (17.6% for all types). 

 Hsiao Chink Tang

Hsiao Chink Tang

Senior Economist, ADB

Xiaowei Zhuang

Xiaowei Zhuang

Knowledge Analyst, RKSI, ADB

Green Bonds, Air Quality, and Mortality: Evidence from the PRC

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