Assessment of downscaling planetary boundaries to semi-arid ecosystems with a local perception: A case study in the middle reaches of Heihe River

Heng Yi Teah*, Tomohiro Akiyama, Ricardo San Carlos, Orlando Vargas Rayo, Yu Ting Joanne Khew, Sijia Zhao, Lingfeng Zheng, Motoharu Onuki

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


The middle reaches of Heihe River are located in the oasis of the Gobi Desert where limited freshwater supply supports more than 1.5 million inhabitants. The intense agricultural activities are depleting the groundwater reserve. Consequently, natural landscapes and habitats are degraded. Though such development improves the livelihood of the local community, long-term sustainability of the ecosystem is at risk. Local authorities must be informed holistically to prepare for adapting to the changes and/or mitigating the impacts. The purpose of this study was to perform a regional sustainability assessment based on downscaling the planetary boundaries (PBs). We proposed a regional safe operating space framework that applied a top-down approach using the environmental monitoring data, and a bottom-up approach using knowledge from the local perception about environmental disaster. We conducted on-site samplings and interviews of residents to demonstrate the method. Overall, we showed that the middle reaches had transgressed the safe operating space, particularly on the freshwater use and biogeochemical flow dimensions. We found that the local perception acquired from interviews complemented the insufficiency of the monitoring data and provided the insightful social implications of transgressing the safe operating space, i.e., the anticipated impacts on local livelihood, for policy support.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1233
JournalSustainability (Switzerland)
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Downscaling planetary boundaries
  • Local perception
  • Planetary boundaries
  • Regional safe operating space
  • Semi-arid ecosystem
  • Sustainability assessment
  • Sustainable development

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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