Valuing Wetlands in China

At first glance, coastal mudflats can seem grim and desolate places with little obvious economic value.  It is therefore not surprising that these areas have often been considered by planners, and the public, to be suitable for reclamation projects and development.

Over the past 50 years in China, 60% of temperate coastal ecosystems, 73% of mangroves and 80% of coral reefs have been lost mostly due to economic development. Only 24% of coastal wetlands have been legally designated as protected areas, much lower than the mean wetland protection rate of 43.5% across China, and coastal wetlands in China’s most economically developed provinces/municipalities – such as Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Tianjin, and Shandong – are hot targets for development projects.

This rapid development has not come without costs. Thanks to studies such as the Blueprint for Coastal Wetlands in China, we now know that many of the decisions to develop these coastal areas have neglected the significant benefits of wetlands – so called ecosystem services – including helping to prevent and mitigate flooding and storm surges, regulating climate change by storing carbon, purifying water and providing sustainable livelihoods for local people, as well as providing invaluable habitat for millions of migratory shorebirds as they migrate to and from their breeding grounds in the Arctic and their wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere.  Such ‘natural capital’ is not reflected on most countries’ balance sheets but, nevertheless, its erosion undermines the ability to achieve sustainable economic growth.

One of the six recommendations contained in the Blueprint was the need to carry out publicity and education activities about wetland conservation, raising awareness and involving the public in protecting coastal wetlands and migratory birds.

That is why, this week, the Wetland Conservation and Management Office of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration in partnership with the Paulson Institute, the Lao Niu Foundation and the Mangrove Conservation Foundation, launched a new project to set up Wetland Education Centres across China.

The project, due to run for three years, will draw on national and international best practice, including from Mai Po Nature Reserve in Hong Kong, Guandu Nature Reserve in Taiwan and Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in Singapore as well as wetlands in Japan, Korea and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserves in the UK.

The objectives are to establish:

  • A standard system for wetland education centres in China
  • Three to five demonstration wetland education centres within three years
  • A professional network for wetland education centres in China and to provide support for the establishment and development of further wetland education centres

This project will help build and strengthen public awareness about the value of China’s remaining coastal wetlands and underpins the recent announcement by the Chinese government to ban all further commercial land reclamation along the coast.

Professor Lei Guangchun of Beijing Forestry University delivered a comprehensive overview of wetlands in China and it was great to see Chris Rostron of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) addressing the meeting to relay some of their experience in bringing wetland education to the public.

It’s heartening to see China’s top level policy announcements being backed up by the less high-profile but arguably more important, initiatives on the ground to raise awareness about the value of wetlands and the need to protect them.

And it’s not only in China that the value of wetlands is being recognised.  At the end of August, the government in Sri Lanka approved recommendations to protect and restore the urban wetlands of the capital, Colombo, after a study by The World Bank and WWT Consulting showed that benefits included:

  • Flood damage mitigation (without the wetlands, it was modelled that a 1 in 100 years flooding event could happen every year)
  • The wetlands provided cooling for the city of up to 5 degrees Celsius in the summer
  • Providing a home for >250 species of wildlife, including the endangered Fishing Cat
  • Air and water pollution mitigation
  • Food security for the urban poor
  • Places for recreation, education and tourism
  • Carbon sequestration

In total, these benefits were calculated to be worth 8.8 million RS (GBP 41,500, USD 54,000, CNY 370,000) per hectare per year.

On 28 August the Sri Lankan cabinet approved the recommendations and will designate the remaining wetlands as protected areas as well as setting up a dedicated management body to ensure they are managed effectively.  What a great example!