The Wetlands Blueprint Project (initiated by the Paulson Institute, the State Forestry Administration and the Chinese Academy of sciences) has provided scientific analysis and policy recommendations to the 13th Five-Year Plan to protect China’s coastal wetlands. China’s shrinking coastal wetlands are an important component of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, which has the highest percentage of endangered species of migratory birds in the world. The wetlands provide ecosystems services that are crucial to the human populations in the coastal regions—by cycling nutrients, storing carbon, purifying water, absorbing pollutants and providing spawning and nursery grounds for many fish species and organisms. Now, their ecosystem is threatened by rapid development and urbanization. Professor Lei Guangchun, director of the project, highlights some outcomes of the project, which was completed in October.
The first one is that reclamation of coastal wetlands has grown astonishingly fast, at a rate of nearly 200,000 hectares per year, representing an annual loss of more than 2%, which is twice the global average. This results from the profitable value chain behind reclamation. In the land classification system, wetlands are classified as unused land. China has a “land balance” policy, under which the central government allocates to each province a quota of minimum arable land to be kept for farming. Arable land used for the purpose of development must be replenished with another kind of land to meet the quota. If there is no wasteland (available for reclamation), wetlands become the only option. In the “land balance” quota trading market, the price that developers will pay to use wetlands to meet the quota can be as high as RMB5 million (US$760,000) per hectare. Therefore, the annual reclamation of 200,000 hectares of wetlands has a huge market value of RMB1 trillion (US$152 million).
The second finding is pollution. Pollutants flowing from inland rivers and streams impose serious problems to coastal zones. Throughout the Bohai Bay, adjacent to the Yellow Sea, water pollution is harming fish habitats, spawning grounds and migration and growth. Red tides, which deprive all aquatic organisms of oxygen, often occur when there is serious pollution.
The third problem is that efforts to protect coastal wetlands are significantly less than those for inland wetlands protection. This has something to do with local interests. After the establishment of a nature reserve, the site can no longer be used for commercial purposes. But in coastal provinces, whose economies are growing relatively fast, there is high demand for land. Thus local governments are reluctant to establish nature reserves, and they often try to reduce or adjust the size of established ones.
Another problem is invasive species. The invasion of Spartina grass, which originated in the Northeastern United States, has a substantial impact on China’s coastal wetlands. The spread of Spartina leads to degradation of intertidal mudflats and the destruction of biodiversity and habitat of migratory birds. Meanwhile, aquaculture becomes its victim, too. Fish, benthos (organisms living on the seabed) and shellfish populations disappear due to changes in environment.
How can government policy help reconcile the conflict between wetland conservation and local government’s interests?
Legislation is the key. According to the latest data, the State Oceanic Administration and provincial governments have plans for reclamation of another 578,000 hectares by 2020 as stated in the national planning. One problem is uncoordinated and inconsistent policy and administration. The coastal wetland protection “red line,” defined by the State Oceanic Administration, does not match the national wetland protection “red line,’ which is defined by the State Forestry Administration. The red line defined by the State Oceanic Administration gives provinces significant flexibility for reclamation. In the absence of legislation, efforts made by individual government departments alone are not enough. It has been nearly 10 years since the launch of preparations for the Wetland Law and the Wetland Conservation Regulations, but they are yet to be promulgated. This involves the interests of many sectors. Both developing a new Wetland Law and modifying the Land Law are crucial.
We also need to raise public awareness. Looking at international practices, various social institutions have a strong influence before the government makes a decision. In China, once a decision is made, very few people know where the reclamation will take place. Even policy makers (meaning the provincial agencies and the State Oceanic Bureau) do not know. Once reclamation is done, it is done without the knowledge of the public. Some projects are internally approved by local government agencies, and some are executed first, followed by application. . Without an appropriate punishment mechanism, people are willing to take risks. In this regard, rule by law is top-down and public awareness is bottom-up. Such a mechanism is not well established in China. It has started developing. Organizations such as Let Birds Fly and other local groups are striving to raise public attention and participation.
The central government is revising its standards for evaluating local government officials, from GDP-oriented to incorporating environmental governing efforts. A few provinces have begun using a Natural Resources Balance Sheet as part of the evaluation. Will this policy help wetland protection?
According to the Natural Resources Balance Sheet, an official has lifelong responsibility for significant environmental problems and economic losses resulting from noncompliance with regulations in the decision-making process. But how to measure such significant losses? Currently, we do not have a sound mechanism for public engagement and clear indicators. Without public engagement, the reliability and scientific nature remain questionable. In general, there is not enough progress or transparency in this policy. Who is doing the evaluation is also important. Right now, it’s not the local government, but the competent government authorities. It is still the government itself that does the assessment.