China: Guizhou wetlands struggling to survive

China is home to some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth, particularly in the south and southwest of the country. The province of Guizhou is one such example, and the wetlands there are rich in vertebrates and flora. They are also an overwintering site for many birds, and they have been identified as an ‘Important Bird Area’ by BirdLife International. But the wetlands of Guizhou are also fragile, and they are coming under increasing pressure from development and land reclamation. Despite their status as a National Nature Reserve, they urgently need greater protection and more comprehensive management if they are to survive.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 21.18.53
Guizhou province.

In Weining county in northwest Guizhou, at the centre of the wetlands area, is Caohai lake, the largest body of water formed by karst topography in China. It is home to a whole of host of birds, including species of crane, geese and even eagles, who come to feed on the fish and mammals that live in the long grasses. For tourists, the lake and the wetlands are an oasis, a peaceful place to escape from the crowded cities and economic development that is pushing ever harder against the countryside of China. The scope of that economic development, however, has been encroaching into the wetlands of Guizhou: water is siphoned off for use in agriculture and other industries, and as the water drains away, the peat bogs that support the wetlands dry out, and are turned into wastelands.

The Caihai area has shrunk by an estimated 20 km² over the past 10 years, putting severe strain on the ecosystem. Throughout China, the pollution footprint being left by industry is finding its way into the water systems, the soil, and the very air being breathed by the Chinese people. Not only does this have obvious repercussions in terms of the health of the population, in Guizhou, as pollution seeps into the wetlands, there will be long-lasting consequences in terms of the quality of the water. At Bazhou River National Wetlands Park in Liping county, locals say that polluted water from the lower reaches from the wetlands ‘gushes in all directions’, and at the banks of the wetlands, sewage from an agritourism company drains directly into waters.

Though the Forestry Department is responsible for managing pollution in the wetlands, they themselves lack the authority over the other departments who control polluters such as housing, construction, land, or agriculture. There is no real cooperation between departments, and this lack of cohesion is one of the clear errors in tackling pollution. The case of the Caihai lake area highlights another problem in the management of pollution, as the ‘province manages the county’, meaning that problems at the county-level are often overlooked in favour of provincial-level concerns – of which the wetlands is not one. Even if the provincial government placed more importance on the pollution in the wetlands, there are shortcomings in how decisions are made, as well as how resources are approved for allocation, how projects are implemented, and other regulatory aspects of law enforcement. Indeed, the concept of a ‘wetland’ is a relatively divisive one, as whilst the Forestry Department would classify swamp as a wetland, the government sees it as wasteland, again illustrating the differences and conflicts of opinion in governance.

Black-necked crane
Black-necked crane, Guizhou.

Efforts to reverse this trend are being made, however, and steps towards building a wetland protection system are being taken both in Guizhou and across China, with 6,218 wetland patches being verified across Guizhou, and 30 new National Wetland Parks being established across China. Though positive, issues still remain, both in recognising what constitutes a wetland, and also in the management of the parks and wetland areas. Of those provinces that have wetland parks, fewer than 10 have protection agencies, and even those that do suffer from a lack of management personnel. This makes it difficult to manage the conservation of the wetlands, as well as enforce those laws that do exist. Grassroots campaigners in China, who say that measures need to be introduced to ensure the area of the wetlands remains stable and their quality increases, also complain that there are no clear penalties for companies who break the law, and there is little precedent even when prosecutions are made.

In order to protect the wetlands, encroachment onto the protected areas needs to be strictly prohibited – and enforced. This itself needs to come from increased investment in wetland conservation and protection, but once this is in place, it is a strong foundation from which to build. As the campaigners say, the wetlands need to be protected in terms of their size as well as the quality of the water, and the flora and fauna. Shiquan County Forestry Bureau said that they hope to establish a department for forestry administration responsible for putting into effect agriculture, water conservation, housing, land, and other institutional mechanisms for the management of the wetlands. Having this kind of comprehensive, cohesive protection of the wetlands in the hands of local government, rather than provincial government, will enable local governments to focus on individual cases, instead of applying a broad ruling across the province.

The wetlands are also harvested for their peat, a practice that should be stopped as it leads to wetland eutrophication. This again needs to be regulated and enforced. Furthermore, a monitoring system needs to be established in order to ensure that not only are the wetlands being preserved, but that the quality of water and surrounding flora and fauna is at a level commensurate with their status as national parks, and ensuring the biodiversity of the region.



10年减少20万亩 贵州湿地面临“生存困境” 2016年01月06


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