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WWF Freshwater Director, Dr. Li Lifeng, Talks To Asian Scientist Magazine

Asian Scientist Magazine chats with Dr. Li Lifeng, Director of the WWF International Freshwater Program, who tells us that solving the water, energy, and food equation for the world has to be a global priority.

| September 19, 2011 | Editorials

AsianScientist (Sep. 19, 2011) – Since 2008, Dr. Li Lifeng has been the man in charge of overseeing the World Wide Fund for Nature’s global freshwater conservation efforts, working to safeguard the world’s freshwater sources as Director of WWF International’s Freshwater Program.

Starting out with a Ph.D. in geography from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Dr. Li cut his teeth working for WWF in China, eventually heading WWF’s freshwater program in the world’s most populous country.

Dr. Li has drawn attention to the declining health of the world’s major rivers and the resulting impact on their inhabitants, particularly river dolphins.

At the conclusion of the recent 2011 World Water Week, held in Stockholm from August 21 to 27, Dr. Li supported the meeting’s “Stockholm Statement” that urged nations at the forthcoming Rio +20 global summit on sustainable development to commit to “universal provisioning of safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and modern energy services by the year 2030”.

“We are already exceeding the limits of the planet in many ways, but it is the availability of fresh water that will have the biggest impact on the food security and energy security of billions,” Dr. Li said.

As Asian Scientist Magazine caught up with Dr. Li Lifeng to learn more about his work for the WWF, we found out what motivates him and the challenges he face in his work. He also took time to give us his insights on research in China.


To begin, could you describe how you came into the field of freshwater and marine conservation?

I had heard a lot about WWF, but only got involved in WWF’s work in 2000. Initially, I was asked to do some socio-economic analysis to identify opportunities and challenges for giant panda conservation from a socio-economic perspective. Through this consulting work, I learnt more about WWF’s work in China and around the world.

From 2000 to 2002, I had the opportunity to learn more about WWF China’s project in the Central Yangtze. There, the WWF was developing practical solutions of wetlands conservation and sustainable use, promoting flood adaptive alternative livelihoods, as well as conducting key policy studies about flood plain management.

These efforts were very interesting to me as a geographer because I realized that China might need to revisit its strategy of managing rivers after the devastating floods in the area of the Yangtze and other major rivers in 1998.

In the July 2002, I was invited by Dr. Lei Guangchun, WWF’s Freshwater and Marine Program Officer at the time, to join WWF China and help manage a United Nations Development Program/Global Environment Facility (UNDP/GEF) Wetlands Project.


What is the biggest motivation for your work at the WWF?

The biggest motivation, I would say, is that WWF is a science-based and solution-oriented organization. After I finished my Ph.D. studies in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, I thought that I would be very lucky if I could find an organization where I could continue to do some applied research and where my the results of my research could be applied in real situations.

My job at WWF offers me great opportunities in this regard, as I can apply what I learned in the past, start my applied research on river management, and see many of my suggestions being applied in related WWF projects or related policy reports.

By working for WWF, I am able to maintain good connections with the academic community on water issues. I am also able to establish connections with practitioners and water resources managers who are eager to discover practical solutions to their water challenges.


What are the biggest challenges that you face as Director of the WWF International’s Freshwater Program?

The biggest challenges I face are to raise awareness of water issues in the global political community, promote WWF’s solutions, and get them accepted and implemented.

Water is the source of the life, and the bloodstream of economy and sustainable development. Water is food, is energy, is health, and is a basic human right.

However, the importance of water is so easily neglected by decision makers, business leaders, and even by all of us, until there is too much or too little water, water in the wrong places or at the wrong times.


The WWF has reported that the health of the world’s major rivers, including the Yangtze, Ganges, Mekong, and Indus in Asia, is declining and threatening the survival of river dolphins in particular. In many of these areas where economic development is a priority for the local governments and the people, how do you convince them that it is in their interest to take immediate steps to stop the decline?

The only way is for the WWF to demonstrate that our proposed solutions can benefit both people and nature. In fact, there are already examples in the major rivers where we have already implemented such solutions successfully.

In the Yangtze, WWF worked with nature reserves and local communities to carry out river dolphin conservation in the Tian-e-zhou oxbow, and develop sustainable fisheries in Lake Hong (or Honghu Lake).

In the Ganges, WWF demonstrated a bio-remediation solution – an effective, low cost, and decentralized technology for dealing with domestic wastewater treatment in open drains in Kanpur, the most polluted city along the Ganges.

In the Mekong, WWF worked with the Mekong River Commission, Asian Development Bank, and government agencies to develop sustainable hydropower generation by adhering to Environmental Criteria for Sustainable Hydropower Development.

These solutions have gradually been recognized by the governments, the communities, and the private sector, and hopefully they will be implemented on a larger scale in the near future.


Do you have any insights into government priorities for scientific research in China? Has there been greater emphasis on research into environmental technology (for example, water purification and environmental remediation) in recent years?

According to Outline of the National Program for Long- and Medium-Term Scientific and Technological Development (2006-2020) issued by the Chinese government in 2006, water resources and environment are among 11 priority areas, and I believe the government has been investing much more since then.

According to National Science and Technology Development Plan for Environmental Protection during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) period, the Chinese government will invest 22 billion Chinese yuan (about US$3.45 billion).

In addition to investment by the Chinese government, there is also increased funding by provincial governments and the private sector.


Many Chinese scientists prefer to start their career in the United States and other Western countries. What do you think will have to change before Chinese scientists will prefer to start their careers in China instead?

In fact, many Chinese scientists overseas are now returning to China. Many of them who started their careers in the West can benefit from their Western connections. They get to learn advanced methodologies and become proficient in international languages such as English, enabling them to keep up with state-of-the-art research as well as to explore potential research collaborations.

With rapid economic growth, China can create many opportunities for the younger generation, and this includes young scientists.

For me, it doesn’t matter where they start their careers, It is more important that young scientists use international languages and advanced information technologies to keep up with the international academic community, as well as to find opportunities to support their research at home and abroad.


To read more about Dr. Li’s work, visit:
Freshwater Program, WWF International.

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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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