How to Have Healthy and Age-Friendly Cities in the People’s Republic of China

A new ADB publication proposes health impact assessments as well as healthy and age-friendly city action and management plans as holistic tools to improve urban livability, services, and public spaces.

As the world and the PRC continue to urbanize, sustainable development will depend on making cities livable, environmentally sustainable, low-carbon, climate resilient, and socially and age-inclusive.

Making cities healthier requires clean and walkable environments, accessible health-care services, and infrastructure that improves the urban environment promoting healthy lifestyles.

Rapid urbanization and aging in many countries have highlighted the urgency of making cities healthier and more accessible for the elderly and also more friendly for children. A new ADB report offers an operational framework for creating an urban society fit for four generations in the People’s Republic of China – and elsewhere.

In 2018, the United Nations reported that 55% of the world’s population resided in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. In the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the urban population has been increasing at a particularly high speed, from 17.9% in 1978 to 60.6% at the end of 2019.

Urbanization in the PRC is coinciding with an aging of society, with about 20% of the urban population projected to be over 60 years old by 2030; and many of these older people will live to very advanced ages.

As the world and the PRC continue to urbanize, sustainable development will depend on making cities livable, environmentally sustainable, low-carbon, climate resilient, and socially and age-inclusive.

“Integrating health and aging as part of sustainable city planning and urban design will deliver specific additional health and urban livability benefits,” says ADB Senior Urban Development Specialist Stefan Rau. “It is a great opportunity to bring together many agencies and specialists to use the emerging four-generation urban world as an opportunity for transforming urban community life.”

Health and well-being have been shaping urban development since cities existed and they can now be considered critical factors contributing to competitiveness of cities, especially in high-income and upper-middle-income countries such as the PRC.

A new ADB publication, Healthy and Age-Friendly Cities in the People’s Republic of China, proposes health impact assessments as well as healthy and age-friendly city action and management plans as holistic tools to improve urban livability, services, and public spaces. Integrated with urban planning, these practical tools can help make cleaner, healthier, and safer cities that are more pleasant for people of all ages, and more attractive for businesses, and economic development.

Healthier cities and integrating the needs of the elderly and also children

According to the report, making cities healthier requires clean and walkable environments, accessible health-care services, and infrastructure that improves the urban environment and promotes healthy lifestyles. All of these will help ease public health management in an era when infectious diseases such as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, noncommunicable diseases, and the challenges of increasingly aging populations are converging, as is the case of the PRC.

“Well-planned, decentralized, and conveniently located urban health services ideally within walking distance to many residents and public transport, early detection of infectious diseases, and measures for vulnerable groups such as the elderly can help reduce noncommunicable diseases, control infectious diseases, and promote well-being,” says ADB Health Specialist Najibullah Habib.

Cities need to combine an age-friendly public transport system with safe and convenient sidewalks, bicycle parking, parks, public spaces, and public service facilities. This effort needs to be integrated with universal urban design to ensure that public spaces, sidewalks, parks, and buildings are accessible for people of all ages and the physically impaired. This much-needed low-carbon, climate-resilient urban planning and design would also contribute to improved health from reduced emissions and lessened risk of climate-related disasters such as flooding, droughts, heat waves, and storm surges, which also endanger lives and safety.

“Cities would greatly benefit if they govern, plan, and invest holistically in the promotion of public and community health, healthy lifestyles, gender and age equality, disease prevention, and improved social services,” says Susann Roth, ADB Chief of Knowledge Advisory Services Center.

Figure 1: A Hierarchy of Urban Health and Well-being

The report says healthy cities should first ensure that basic health needs are met (i.e., physiological needs and safety, and the elimination or reduction of exposure to infectious diseases). Then, healthy lifestyles and healthy communities should be promoted, and the risks of noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer should be reduced, resulting in longer life expectancies (Figure 1).

Healthy cities should enable a high quality of living; heathy lifestyle choices that are easy to make; and the self-fulfillment of citizens, families, and communities. The planning of healthy cities should consider all aspects of physical and mental health, vibrant and diverse human interactions, and culture and education to ensure that all urban residents can develop to their full potential.

Operational framework

The framework combines two practical tools for urban planners and city governments: a health impact assessment (HIA) and a healthy and age-friendly city action and management plan (HACAMP) as step-by-step guide. The framework is applicable to existing urban areas and proposed urban master plans for new areas and projects. It  builds on city health sector plans, fits within the context of sector operations and plans, and contributes to urban master development plans and local institutional arrangements and responsibilities.

“While the initial target country of this report is the PRC, the objectives and framework developed here could also be applied to other countries in Asia and the Pacific and beyond,” the report says. “They are highly relevant for cities at all development stages, especially given the recent pandemic and the demographic transition that has been occurring for some time.”

Author
Pima O. Arizala-Bagamasbad

Pima O. Arizala-Bagamasbad

Associate Communications Officer, Department of Communications, ADB

This article is reproduced from Asian Development Bank.

Supporting Primary Health Care in Mongolia: Experiences, Lessons Learned, and Future Directions

Healthy and Age-Friendly Cities in the People’s Republic of China

Child-Centering Road Safety: Making Sure It Works for Girls and Boys

Child-centering road safety education in three primary schools in the People’s Republic of China empowered girls and boys to drive their own learning. Photo credit: Shaanxi Gender Development Solution.

They are seen, they are important road users, and their voice and agency can help make roads safer.

Overview

Infrastructure improvements are key to improving road safety for children. Yet, it does not start or end there. Road safety interventions need to go beyond infrastructure to assist government agencies to better manage and enforce road safety, and improve education, vehicles, emergency response, and post-crash care. Interventions are more effective when combined across the system to guide users to act safely.

From 2015–2020, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) supported a project in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that made system-wide improvements to road safety, including infrastructure, institutional strengthening, and education interventions. The perspective of children—and the different views of girls and boys—were made explicit in the process so that the risks for this group of road users were understood and addressed. For this, child-centered and participatory methodologies were used in three primary schools and their communities along #102 Provincial Highway in Xunyang County, South Shaanxi.

Project information

46042-002: Shaanxi Mountain Road Safety Demonstration Project

Project snapshot

      • Approval date: September 2015
      • Completion date: December 2020
      • Total cost: $400 million
      • ADB loan: $200 million
      • Executing agency: Shaanxi Provincial Department of Transport
      • Financing: Asian Development Bank(link is external)
      • Implementing agency: Shaanxi Provincial Finance Bureau, Shangnan County Traffic Bureau, Ankang City Traffic Bureau, Xunyang County Traffic Bureau, Hanbin District Traffic Bureau, Xunyang County Education Bureau, Xunyang County Traffic Police Brigade of Public Security Bureau

Challenges

Often, age and gender nuances in road safety interventions are not very visible. Baselines—if at all—do not go beyond segregating respondents as males and females. Too few inquiries are pursued on whether females have safer or riskier traveling practices, how they cope with harassments and assault on streets, or especially whether there are considerations for children.

The assumption is, when road safety programs are aimed at parents, that children are automatically protected. In Asia, children are often seen as extensions of parents, and their opinions are not taken seriously. Though kids are considered as road users, baselines and resulting interventions tend to target parents as the audience for road safety information to be passed on to children, as they are considered responsible for moving kids safely.

However, road traffic injuries are among the leading causes of death globally for children and young people, 5–29 years. The risk is higher for the youngest bracket, 5 to 9 years—the age when children start going to primary school and become active road users.

In addition to age, girls and boys exhibit different characteristics in their pedestrian behaviors. Boys are more likely to play on the side of the road and girls are more likely to walk two or three abreast. More male pedestrians than females are involved in road traffic crashes, especially in younger age groups. More effort is needed to determine and understand contextual risk factors for road traffic injuries and fatalities of children with implications for prevention.

Context

The Shaanxi Mountain Road Safety Demonstration Project aims to reduce road crash fatalities and serious injuries and provide efficient and safe all-weather accessibility in Shaanxi. The project covers Ankang City, including Xunyang County and Hanbin District, as well as Shangnan County in Shangluo City, and involves road upgrade and rehabilitation, incorporating major safety design enhancements.

In Ankang City, the transport bureau understood that rehabilitated trunk and rural roads can increase speeding, and unless these are designed with safety for all road users and not just cars, the most vulnerable road users—pedestrians and cyclists—will be at risk. Further, introducing new facilities, such as zebra crossings, are unlikely to be effective if users do not recognize them or know how to use them. For this reason, the bureau commissioned consultants from Shaanxi Gender Development Solution to improve user understanding of the project infrastructure changes, improve road safety knowledge, and influence behavior. This included dedicated interventions for children in three schools: Xiaohe Central Primary School, Chengguan Central Primary School, and Zhaowan Central Primary School.

Current road safety education usually follows a didactic approach, focusing on providing knowledge-based information to teachers, parents, and generally, any adult that could influence children’s way of thinking and behaving. This framework assumes that when knowledge is provided to these adults, it will be passed on to the kids who are then expected to remember and apply it now and in the future.

Adults are also assumed to model improved road safety behaviors after learning about them for children to emulate. In addition to modeling behavior, parents of younger children who have lower awareness of road safety must exercise primary responsibility to practice safety on their behalf.

Key Findings

Using mixed methods—survey, observation, and interviews of 1,361 children, parents, and teachers, the project looked not just at road safety knowledge from the point of view of adults but also from children’s behavior and the factors that influence why people act the way they do. They then went further to try to understand the different perceptions and behaviors of boys and girls around roads and address these through more accurate and successful interventions.

Below are the key findings among primary to middle school students that helped shape the road safety education interventions:

  • Xunyang County is very mountainous characterized by steep, concrete, or asphalt roads.
  • On average, most students attend nearby schools, with almost half living within 4 kilometers of school zones.
  • About 76% of students are accompanied by parents to and from school; 24% of students go to school by themselves (percentage for girls is slightly higher than boys), 86% of whom walk. Others take the public bus (percentage of girls is slightly higher) while the rest ride bicycles and take the school bus (with the percentage of boys slightly higher in the last two modes).
  • In group interviews, most students correctly answered more than 95% of questions on road safety behavior, with no difference between the answers of boys and girls. However:
    • Students had low recognition of universal road traffic signs. Boys and girls showed less than 70% understanding of what red and green signals meant; only 52% recognized what yellow meant.
    • Only 52% recognized pedestrian/zebra crossings.
    • About 25% of parents also failed to recognize pedestrian/zebra crossing signs.

Survey responses showed that students had high awareness of road safety. However, in practice, their actual actions revealed otherwise, with many students displaying risky behaviors on the road.

Solutions

The ADB-supported Shaanxi Mountain Road Safety Demonstration Project adopted child-centered methodologies, developing age-appropriate curriculum for three levels of primary school students, including story books, games, simulation, and group learning activities. These are the key lessons.

The project not only assessed children’s understanding of road safety but also studied their individual and collective road use habits. Photo credit: Shaanxi Gender Development Solution.
Although surveys indicated that there were no significant differences in the children’s knowledge and perceptions on road safety, their behaviors showed otherwise. Through observation, risky behaviors were identified that differed from survey responses. Designing for specific road users, such as children, requires information from their perspective and careful study of their individual and collective behaviors in road use. Since 24% of students are unaccompanied by parents or caregivers and of these, 86% walk to and from school, it was crucial to identify how children use footpaths and zebra crossings. Boys and girls had different road use habits with associated risks. When asked, 92% of boys and girls (statistically insignificant differences) said walking with linked arms along the road is risky. In practice, however, girls walked “hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder” with friends while boys played basketball along the side of the road. This risk is compounded by the fact that only 41% of parents recognized school zone warning signs. Girls play and chase each other and cross the road to buy snacks from vendors often without paying attention to vehicles. About 45% of students (52% of girls) believe that it is safe to cross the road if they are close to a zebra crossing.
A kid tries on a seat belt at a simulation camp. Photo credit: Shaanxi Gender Development Solution.
Co-designing interventions with children improved their effectiveness and ensured that cognitive learning included experiences and interaction. Based on the behavioral findings, the following interventions were developed, tested with users, revised, scaled up, and implemented:
  • Parent-child road safety camp with games designed to help families recognize risky behaviors. Games addressed topics, such as traffic signs, helmets, speed, safety regulations, traffic gestures, and being the “little passenger.” There was simulation learning for drunkenness and use of seatbelts.
  • Community publicity where girls and boys created their own road safety messages and posted them in public places in schools and communities.
  • Traffic simulation using moveable facilities and virtual reality equipment in a playground, including age-appropriate road scenarios. This included simulating observations of girls’ and boys’ behaviors, including crossing “roads” outside of zebra crossings, obeying traffic lights and signs, and walking along the “roadside” with simulated motorcycles and vehicles moving around.
The experience was successful and guidelines to replicate the activities in other schools were developed.
Girls get stamps on their pass cards. Photo credit: Shaanxi Gender Development Solution.

The intervention was unique in that it tried to identify specific uses of the road by girls and boys, which provided granular insights to design the interactive games and experiential learning tools. This sends a powerful message to girls and boys—that they are seen, that they are important road users, and this child-centered approach was a factor in increasing their engagement during the various activities.

Children are tested on their understanding of transport signs through interactive activities. Photo credit: Shaanxi Gender Development Solution.

The goal of the interactive experiences was to transform traffic safety behavior, including through role models. This also provided an opportunity to remodel gender roles. The performance and role plays were designed to debunk gender stereotypes, such as a police officer always being male or a parent bringing the child to school is always the mother. Girls were asked to play police officers and boys to play fathers taking children to school. This is a small detail in the overall activity but with likely strong implications on children’s and even adults’ perceptions.

The process itself took a gender-sensitive approach. In the past, recruiting and training parent-volunteers for traffic safety activities focused on grandmothers and mothers due to belief that it is mainly their responsibility to take care of children and participate in school activities. For this project, fathers were actively engaged. Beyond their role in modeling road safety, this again has implications to transform gender roles and model more balanced sharing of childcare responsibilities.

Outcomes

  • The process is now part of the institutional curriculum in three schools in Shaanxi province. The guidelines developed will serve to share the approach, the process, and the lessons learned, including the use of a gender perspective, with other schools within and outside the PRC.
  • Multiple cohorts will be able to benefit from the experience as schoolteachers and traffic police were trained on the approach and participated actively in the design and delivery of the activities.
  • Girls and boys participating in this interactive model of road safety training have been empowered through new knowledge and information but also as active users of the road. Furthermore, acknowledging the different behaviors and road uses of girls and boys has helped to address these in practice.
  • One aspect of child-centering road safety is co-designing and testing behavior change interventions with children and adults around them. Using experiential learning and interaction improved and sustained the effectiveness of the interventions.   
  • Physical improvements to the school-zone road environment, including zebra crossings, footpaths, and traffic signs, were enhanced through games, school activities, and public communications, which ensured that the children and their parents understood and knew how to correctly use the improved facilities. This was further enhanced by child-friendly traffic signs drawn on flower beds along school streets and electricity poles.
  • This experience will benefit a large number of children in Shaanxi province, as well as their parents, teachers, and road users in general, but a child-centered approach can benefit many more boys and girls by providing them information, tools, and self-awareness to become responsible road users.
References

ADB. People’s Republic of China: Shaanxi Mountain Road Safety Demonstration Project.

H. Wang et al. 2018.  Gender Differences in Children’s Pedestrian Behaviors: Developmental Effects. Journal of Safety Research. December. 67. pp 127–133.

M. Onieva-Garcia et al. 2016. Gender and Age Differences in Components of Traffic-Related Pedestrian Death Rates: Exposure, Risk of Crash, and Fatality Rate. Injury Epidemiology. 9 August. 3(1). pp 20.

World Health Organization. 2020. Road Traffic Injuries: Key Facts. 7 February.

Authors
 Rebecca A. Stapleton

Rebecca A. Stapleton

Transport Specialist, East Asia Department, ADB

 Veronica Mendizabal Joffre

Veronica Mendizabal Joffre

Social Development Specialist, East Asia Regional Department, ADB

 Pinky Serafica

Pinky Serafica

Senior Communications Officer, Department of Communications, ADB

This blog is reproduced from Development Asia.

How to Develop a Healthy and Age-Friendly City

The health of people and communities is a key factor in building a city’s competitiveness. Photo credit: ADB.

A two-stage holistic and evidence-based framework provides urban planners a structured and practical guide for making cities healthy and age-inclusive.

Introduction

In the future, most people will live in cities and many of them will be older than 60 years old, and as many of these will grow to high ages, a four-generation urban society is emerging. This is a profound transformation and policy and decision-makers must consider and integrate in urban planning and management the health and social needs of densely populated and aging cities, along with other concerns like climate change and environment. Ensuring the well-being and health of people and communities is also a key factor in building a city’s competitiveness, especially considering the increasing potential pandemic threats that we face. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has shown that determinants of health, like how people live, work, and travel influence populations’ risks to become sick and the ability to recover economically.

healthy city promotes equality, good governance, well-being, innovations, and knowledge sharing. It involves active mobility, food production, gardening, availability of sports arenas, and ways of social exchange. An age-friendly city enhances the quality of life by anticipating and responding flexibly to the needs and preferences of older persons, and also that of children and other vulnerable groups like the physically impaired. This includes structural aspects like safe and accessible public spaces, sidewalks parks, transport and public buildings, as well as non-structural dimensions like community.

The Authors developed a framework that integrates sustainable urban planning and management with health and age-friendly outcomes and care systems to guide urban planners. The two-stage holistic and evidence-based framework uses two tools: the Health Impact Assessment and Healthy and Age-Friendly City Action and Management Planning. The framework incorporates lessons and best practices from the Asian Development Bank’s projects in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

This article is based on an online seminar organized by ADB.

Health Impact Assessment

A systematic and evidence-based decision and management support tool, the Health Impact Assessment helps determine how an event, policy, or project can influence health and determinants of health outcomes. It focuses on health promotion and protection to achieve maximum benefits for communities.

ADB has developed two resources to help use this tool. The Health Impact Assessment: A Good Practice Sourcebook provides information on environmental safeguards, poverty and social analysis, and compliance procedures. It aims to ensure that health risks and opportunities are considered in project planning, approval, and implementation. A Health Impact Assessment Framework for Special Economic Zones in the Greater Mekong Subregion helps countries identify and manage health risks and opportunities associated with economic growth and development.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need to make Health Impact Assessments more holistic, practical, and action-oriented. The crisis is linked to urban health issues, such as bad air quality, lack of decentralized health care, poor transport, and dense urban areas. This raises the need to move from risk mitigation to a more proactive approach to improving the community health and well-being in cities.

Healthy and Age-Friendly City Action and Management Planning

This tool builds on the results of the impact assessment; prioritizes actions and investments; identifies roles and responsibilities, financial and human resource requirements; and sets a management and action plan to maximize positive health opportunities based on data from feasibility studies, scoping activities, baseline information, business cases, and strategic frameworks.

It follows three steps. The first involves ranking risks and evaluating the list of health risk mitigation options in close collaboration and consultation with city leaders, stakeholders, and communities. The projects are prioritized based on technical feasibility, social responsiveness, and financial and economic viability. The second step covers the preparation, financing, and implementation of health management plans, which will be the blueprint for improving the urban environment. The last step involves monitoring and evaluation, which includes regular surveys on health improvements, healthy city profile updates, cost and benefit assessment, and identification of gaps in operation or design.

Hierarchy of Needs

The basic concept behind these tools is that public health needs and objectives in cities follow the hierarchy of needs principle:

  • Basic needs of residents come first for less developed cities.
  • More advanced health needs associated with lifestyle options are prioritized for more developed cities.
  • A high level of well-being is achieved for all residents.

Based on a modified version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs framework, the basic urban structure at the bottom requires clean air, water, and shelter as basic services. At the top is a High-Quality Healthy City that enables residents to achieve their fullest potential through services and facilities that enhance well-being, urban livability, and health. This is achieved through a holistic and integrated approach to urban planning and management and involves the active participation of stakeholders.

Figure 1: A Framework for Attaining a Healthy and Age-Friendly City

Source: Authors. Based on the theory of a hierarchy of needs by A.H Maslow. 1943. A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review. 50. pp. 370-96.

 

Using the hierarchy of needs as a roadmap, the impact assessment addresses the needs and challenges of specific age groups while the planning tool prioritizes projects and investments based on data. Plans for financing, implementation plan, and monitoring are developed in this iterative approach. The two-stage framework primarily aims to provide a structured and practical guide to assess health and aging needs, challenges, impacts, and opportunities of existing urban areas and of new urban developments. This will help make health and age-friendly city planning easier.

As shown in the process diagram below, the left side is for urban rehabilitation and retrofitting existing cities and urban areas while the right side is for urban master plans and new projects. Residents, communities, and stakeholders are engaged throughout the whole process. By linking the impact assessment with the planning tool, a financing and implementation plan of priority actions based on consultations is produced, and then monitored and evaluated.

Figure 2: Healthy and Age-Friendly Cities Multidisciplinary and Participatory Process

HIA=Health Impact Assessment, HACAMP=Healthy and Aged-Friendly City Action and Management Plans. Source: Authors.

Here is a step-by-step example of how the framework may be used for existing urban areas:

  1. Establish an inter-disciplinary cross-sector urban health team. Get the support of champions. Raise awareness among sectors. Create a steering committee, usually led by a city mayor.
  2. Define geographical scope and urban health issues to investigate. Gather data, assess gaps, develop databases, analyze data, and develop a healthy city profile.
  3. Compile registry of and prioritize risks, impacts, and opportunities. Formulate options for aspirational goals against each risk, impact, and opportunity.
  4. Map all structural and nonstructural options to mitigate risks and leverage health benefits. Evaluate (including a cost-benefit analysis) and recommend risk mitigation options to the steering committee.
  5. Prioritize structural and nonstructural options to minimize adverse health risks and maximize health benefits in consultation with leaders, stakeholders, and the community.
  6. Prepare financing and implementation plans, establish priority actions, and finalize plans after public consultations.
  7. Prepare monitoring and evaluation plans for implementation, continue regular monitoring, and review and improve the Healthy and Age-Friendly City Action and Management Plan.

Implementation in the People’s Republic of China

The PRC launched in October 2016 a program that calls for a “health in all” policies approach to help prevent and treat diseases and promote healthy lifestyles. A practical and flexible framework can help implement the health-focused program in cities and prioritize the health and aging experiences and outcomes of urban residents.

ADB has applied the framework to two projects in the PRC. The first one was for the Yunnan Lincang Border Economic Cooperation Zone Development Project. Based on the results of the rapid Health Impact Assessment, recommendations were made to address several health issues that included the risk of communicable disease transmission, demand for local health services, and road safety. Next, a public health management plan was initiated under this project not only to mitigate the infectious disease risk but also improve to the overall health and well-being of the people.

The second project is the Jilin Yanji Low-Carbon Climate-Resilient Healthy City Project. Located in Yanji city, the project focused on improving urban livability of the medium-sized city through the integration of public transport, non-motorized transport, and green spaces, and improvement of the water supply and wastewater management systems. A baseline assessment of health determinants and risks and adverse impacts of the project was conducted, and it identified challenges and opportunities for improved health outcomes. Meanwhile, the project will implement a Healthy and Age-Friendly City Action and Management Plan that will focus on controlling communicable diseases, significantly reducing non-communicable diseases, promoting healthy lifestyles through health care services, and establishing urban and building design features that provide access to people of all ages.

The initial target of the framework was the PRC, but it can also provide guidance to other countries. It is relevant for cities at all development stages, especially in view of the COVID-19 pandemic and demographic trends.

References
Authors
 Najibullah Habib

Najibullah Habib

Health Specialist, East Asia Department, ADB

 Stefan Rau

Stefan Rau

Senior Urban Development Specialist, East Asia Regional Department, ADB

 Susann Roth

Susann Roth

Principal Knowledge Sharing and Services Specialist, Sustainable Development & Climate Change Department, ADB

This blog is reproduced from Development Asia.

Yellow River Can Lead Way in Building Back Better After COVID-19

High-quality green development is a positive way forward, providing multifaceted benefits and new opportunities to foster knowledge and share experiences while delivering global and regional public goods.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging around the globe, the crisis has been a wake-up call on many fronts, not the least how the wellbeing of humans, animals, and ecosystems is inextricably interconnected.

A case in point is the Yellow River basin, an ecological corridor running through nine provinces and autonomous regions in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Known as the “Mother River” and cradle of Chinese civilization, the Yellow River is home to about 150 million people.

Yet prone to natural disasters and impacts from climate change, land use and human activities, the Yellow River basin is struggling to maintain its ecological function and support the lives that are dependent on it. The basin feeds about 12% of China’s population and supports 14% of the country’s national gross domestic product.

In a rather unanticipated way, COVID-19 has provided a glimmer hope and a silver lining for a more sustainable future in the Yellow River basin. From January to March 2020, water quality has improved considerably, according to latest statistics from the Ministry of Ecology and Environment. The proportion of good water quality (category I-III) in the Yellow River has reached 78% in 2020, up 6.5% year-on-year, with the inferior category V decreasing 3.8% and dropping to 9%. Better surface water in the main industrial centers can have a positive impact on the health and well-being of the communities living nearby.  

Using the Yellow River basin as an example, the post-COVID-19 future presents an opportunity to embrace this change and spur a green economic recovery. This will require policies to mitigate future health threats, but also concerted action to halt biodiversity loss, sustain nature, and keep climate change in check. In short, we must build back better. In the process, greater consideration should be given to ecological and environmental protection as a buffer to reduce anthropogenic pressures and minimize the likelihood of future public health emergencies, such as COVID-19.

For the national and provincial governments and policymakers in the PRC, these lessons are particularly timely, since they are stepping up wider efforts to enhance ecological protection and high-quality development. Healthy ecosystems can support economic growth, societal wellbeing and climate stabilization. A new nature-positive approach is needed to drive green economic recovery that balances the health of the environment and humans, especially the most vulnerable groups.

As the PRC looks to the Yellow River basin as an opportunity to pursue a greener and more sustainable approach to stimulating economic activity, here are some key policy actions to achieve high-quality growth.

1. Environment should be at the core of the “One Health Approach”. This integrates human, animal, and environmental health, but is often overlooked. A greater emphasis on their interactions and environmental protection in the post-COVID-19 response will be fundamental for maintaining food security, food safety, and health at the local, regional, and global levels.

2. Holistic and integrated ecosystem management is needed.  A coordinated and integrated approach encompassing social, economic, disaster risk management and environmental issues is needed. As one of the most hydrologically complex rivers, it is important that a basin-wide multisector master plan is prepared to enable comprehensive planning in the basin. 

3. Policies and institutions are the “enablers”. Strong policy and regulatory frameworks are needed to build the momentum for changed mindsets and environmentally sustainable results in the basin. Wider use of advanced and innovative mechanisms such as water trading and eco-compensation mechanisms can drive water use efficiency, while promoting adoption of modern technologies in agriculture and industry sectors.

4. A green growth model is the way forward. Actions must be focused on pollution reduction, innovation, productivity enhancement, clean energy, environmentally friendly technology, green infrastructure, and green finance. Government fiscal stimulus support as well as new green financing models should target these areas and take precedence over traditional models.

5. The private sector has a catalytic role. The private sector can leverage government investments in natural capital to achieve stronger environmental protection and sustainable green development. Public-private partnerships can promote a win-win scenario balancing poverty reduction and environmental protection. Meanwhile, green financing mechanisms can help drive new conservation financing to stimulate investment and support green development and biodiversity protection while reducing carbon footprints. An example is Alibaba Ant Forest, the PRC’s largest private sector tree-planting initiative, which promotes greener lifestyles by inspiring users to reduce carbon emissions in exchange for credit that can be converted to trees. Alibaba leverages the power of digital technology to alleviate poverty and improve the lives of local people.  

After COVID-19, the interlinkages between biodiversity and habitat loss, illegal wildlife trade and the resilience of interconnected supply chains in the global economy can no longer be overlooked. The post-COVID-19 economic recovery will require strong leadership together with a new level of cooperation and coordination at the local, regional and global levels.

High-quality green development is a positive way forward, providing multifaceted benefits and new opportunities to foster knowledge and share experiences while delivering global and regional public goods. Using COVID-19 as an accelerator for ongoing structural changes and amelioration of water quality standards can save human and planetary health from future crises.

Author
James Patrick Lynch

James Patrick Lynch

Director General, East Asia Department, ADB

This Op-Ed is reproduced from Asian Development Bank.

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