Recovery of the water-wood traditional management system in the Cultural Landscape of the Honghe Hani Terraces World Heritage, China

Yuxin Li
Published: 05 October 2020
Last edited: 06 October 2020
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The Cultural Landscape of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces (HHRT), covering 16,603 hectares in Southern Yunnan, was inscribed in the World Heritage List in 2013 under criteria (iii) and (v). The cultivation of traditional rice has deeply moulded the landscape and shaped the farming culture of Hani people which have sustained these terraces for centuries. However, deep social changes make the sustainability of the terraces uncertain. Ecological challenges combined with loss of traditional knowledge menace the conservation of this spectacular landscape. In order to address these challenges, before the inscription of the site, Honghe prefecture developed a strategy which focuses on the recovery of the traditional water management system based on the water-wood concept and the restoration of traditional leadership. Through participatory research and a multi-level partnership, this initiative has ensured water supply to villages and sustain terraces while recovering ancient cultural practices.


East Asia
Scale of implementation
Buildings and facilities
Forest ecosystems
Freshwater ecosystems
Green spaces (parks, gardens, urban forests)
River, stream
Temperate deciduous forest
Temperate evergreen forest
Urban ecosystem and build environment
Wetland (swamp, marsh, peatland)
Sustainable livelihoods
Traditional knowledge
Water provision and management
Watershed management
World Heritage
Lack of alternative income opportunities
Lack of public and decision maker’s awareness
Sustainable development goals
SDG 1 – No poverty
SDG 8 – Decent work and economic growth
SDG 9 – Industry, innovation and infrastructure
Aichi targets
Target 2: Biodiversity values integrated
Target 18: Traditional knowledge


Yuanyang County, Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan, People's Republic of China


Yunnan province suffered from a three-year drought from 2010-2013 (environmental challenge) which impacted in agriculture irrigation, aggravating poverty (economical challenge) and disappearing traditional sacred activities related to water (social challenge) which are fundamental for the conservation of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces’ heritage values.


Local Hani communities

How do the building blocks interact?

The prefecture-county-township-village partnership enabled a multi-level intervention in the HHRT (BB1). Led by research institutions (independent and governmental) and with the support of local communities, a participatory investigation on the HHRT values allowed to understand the underlying issues affecting the water management system in Yakou village, as an example of the villages in the HHRT (BB2). The environmental challenge (drought) was directly linked to a social challenge (loss of traditional knowledge and governance systems). This participatory research results were the foundation for the restoration of the traditional water-woods, canals and channels (BB3).The restoration project and recognition of the traditional governance and ecological management systems gave added value to the red rice, permitting the increasing of the economic value of terrace-products (BB4), which helps addressing the economic challenge (poverty, outmigration). These building blocks supported and feedback on the establishment of a legislation and regulation system for the protection and development of the HHRT (BB5).


This project contributed to preserve the authenticity and integrity of the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces. During the process of investigation, the relationship between the water management system and its cultural and social connotations were clarified. It was found that the water-wood management system not only helps in maintaining the water supply and balance for irrigation, but it also empowers local communities and their new understandings of Indigenous knowledge and cultural identity. Under the new canal chief leadership, water flows again in its traditional distribution way, while tensions and disputes of water have been released. The village is clean and the rural environment has been highly improved. Furthermore, by recovering the water resource and restoring the water-woods, traditional water worship ceremonies have been recovered and are being sustained. Community cohesion and intergenerational transmission of traditional knowledge have been reinforced. Research institutions, local governments and stakeholders at different levels that have been involved in the research continue working in partnership on this ancient site. Now, this site that has been existing in a traditional way over centuries is adapting to the development of a modern management system, having been integrated to World Heritage processes gradually at both the international and local levels.


Yuxin Li

I visit Yakou every year since 2015, and it becomes better every time. It always attracts me to go back. In the past, it was not that easy to access because it is located in a remote mountain area. In 2011-2012, the local government was stepping into the last phase of the nomination process to the World Heritage (WH) List. As part of the procedure, the team in charge of drafting the nomination wanted to select several villages that could be representative of different typologies at different altitudes. In a satellite image, they found Yakou. It was a typical mountain village which posessed integrated elements of a traditional Hani village. But at that time, the village was extremely poor. People could reach it only by foot from the highway at the bottom of the mountain. The team got there on a rainy day, and found it is rich in water resources, even in a year of widespread drought. Through investigation, local researchers discovered that the village still maintained the traditional water management system which was very important to keep a sufficient water supply. But unfortunately, some traditional water-woods were already being abandoned because villagers thought they were outdated. Thus, the team and the local government decided to conduct a restoration project to help the village sustain their traditions. To encourage villagers to participate in this project, they built a road to link the village with the main highway. After several years of efforts, the village environment was enhanced. Due to the success of the water-woods restoration, other villages followed in recovering their traditional water management systems to solve problems related to society, culture and water supply, which modern administration systems were not able to deal with. In 2018, I interviewed the village head. Now, he is relieved and became a heritage inspector with 1,000 RMB (Chinese Yuan) subsidy monthly. That year, I could feel how this little quiet village, far from the city, becomes cleaner and, how their agricultural products including rice, fish and fruits are sold to big towns through an e-commerce platform. Besides, because of the good conservation of the traditional water management system, Yakou gradually attracts more visitors, villagers get alternative income and it becomes a best case to study water management system within WH. Water flows with seasonal changes… I think if WH can help people to create a better life, it is worth of undertaking the process. (Yuxin Li, Research Fellow)

Contributed by

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Yuxin Li World Cultural Heritage Center of China, Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage

Other contributors

China World Heritage Center, Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage
Wenzhen Zhu
World Cultural Heritage Management Administration of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces
Fenglin Peng
World Heritage Management Committee of Yuanyang Hani Rice Terraces, Yuanyang County
ICCROM-IUCN World Heritage Leadership