Three Questions With: Ma Zhijun

Ma Zhijun, professor of life sciences at Shanghai’s Fudan University, who is working with the Paulson Institute on a wetlands blueprint for China, highlights the importance of wetlands to China’s national priorities.

Professor Ma Zhijun conducting fieldwork in China (Photo courstesy of Ma Zhijun)

1-balloonThe news is saturated with articles about China’s focus on pollution and economic growth, but we almost never hear about wetlands. How do wetlands fit into China’s priorities?

The central government has proposed to build an “ecological civilization”, with renewed attention to our natural surroundings, providing new opportunities for wetland conservation. Wetlands serve various functions that are crucial to preserving biodiversity, supporting sustainable economic and social development and ensuring regional ecological security. For example, wetlands help control flooding, provide refuge for migrating birds, filter harmful chemicals out of water, and provide an environment to grow staple foods such as rice, among other functions. In recent years, ecological and environmental problems such as air pollution, water pollution and dust storms have had a negative impact on China’s economic and social development as well as public health, and the government has focused on strengthening conservation and environmental governance. The government has established wetland nature reserves, designated wetlands of international importance and promoted awareness of wetland conservation. However, some government agencies still lack awareness of the importance of wetlands. They focus on economic growth rather than conservation and on immediate economic benefits rather than long-term sustainable development. As a result, it will remain difficult to fundamentally reverse the loss and degradation of wetlands (especially natural wetlands) in the short run.

2-balloonYour recent article in Science magazine quantifies how much money China loses each year by not protecting wetlands. What do wetlands have to do with the economy?

The value of wetland ecosystems to economic and social development is often indirect and long-term. Such indirect value is often overlooked. For example, in the article we point out that although coastal wetlands account for less than 1% of all land area in China, the value of ecosystem services they provide—such as water purification, flood mitigation, climate regulation, carbon and oxygen balance and biodiversity—amounts to US$200 billion annually.

3-balloonMonday was World Wetlands Day. What do you hope Wetlands Day will achieve?

There are always many public education activities that both the central and local governments organize that day. I hope that World Wetlands Day can improve conservation awareness among the public and government in China.