Overhead at Katoomba China: How do you define a ‘beneficiary’?

An interesting comment during the keynote address became a recurring theme during today’s public meeting at Katoomba XVIII: Forests, Water, and People.

Niu Chonguan, Deputy Director General of the Department of Soil and Water Conservation at the with the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources spoke about soil and water conservation incentives in China and efforts to develop a new soil & water conservation (SWC) law that would define the scope of ‘eco-compensation’, simplify calculation methods, and clarify how dedicated fees for SWC could be used.

That first objective, Niu noted, is harder than it looks. “Everyone agrees that the beneficiary pays. But we know that beneficiaries are not just downstream users, but also those benefiting from reduced flood risks or reduced disasters from sandstorms.” Should these groups pay as well? How can you quantify the relative share of ‘benefits’ of each?

That question isn’t just an academic one – compensation levels for soil & water conservation payments are supposed to be set based on valuation of ecosystem services and resulting ecological and downstream improvements. “It’s easy to define ecosystem services values – but not the other values,” Niu said. (This is a little unusual; in most watershed investments that we track payments are still estimated based on the costs of the intervention or foregone income.)

Water, as was noted in other presentations, sits at the nexus of so many critical systems – including energy and food. The cliché is obvious: the ‘ripple effect’ of efforts to protect natural infrastructure is far-reaching. Deciding where to draw the line around direct beneficiaries is an important question, and one we expect to see being asked more and more frequently as compensation mechanisms increasingly use ecosystem services valuation to set payment levels.

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