Wetland issues and policies

Since pressures on wetland ecosystems are greatest there, China has put forward the most comprehensive set of protection measures among the three basin countries. Wetland conservation policies currently implemented in China include:

  • The National Wetland Conservation Action Plan
  • Ban of massive wetland reclamation
  • The 32-character policy; and
  • The Heilongjiang Province wetland regulations of 2003.

These policies provide a complicated but solid matching framework for integration with Russia and Mongolia authorities. Policies and programs on wetlands in both countries are still in the early stages of development, so such an integrated framework would be useful. Use of China’s wetland policies as a model for international standards may reinforce the government’s decision to protect wetlands in northeast China while increasing funding for implementation.

The results of China’s wetland conservation policies are very impressive. Of the 220 nature reserves (NRs) in the China segment of the Amur-Heilong basin, some 83 are wetland reserves (37 percent of natural reserves for the region and nearly 24 percent of all wetland reserves in China). Their combined area totals 6,083,410 ha, accounting for 52 percent of the total area of reserves in the basin and 38 percent of wetland reserves in China. Six of the national NRs in Amur-Heilong basin are listed as Ramsar sites (Xingkai Lake NNR, Sanjiang NNR, Honghe NNR, Zhalong NNR, Dalai Lakes NNR, and Xianghai NNR). Many of the remaining wetlands in the region are designated as NRs at the national, provincial, or county level.

Beyond designation of NRs lies the difficult task of actually implementing nature conservation in the field. For example, despite all the emphasis of wetland conservation through PAs, conversion to farmland still occurs. This is largely due to the 2004 Grain Policy. Large wetlands-based NRs do not have effective management. Levels of funding allocated to NRs are typically insufficient and proposed management interventions are too costly. For example, the wetland restoration plan for the Xingkaihu NNR would require approximately US$ 10 million – much more than could be acquired for this purpose from any imaginable source.

There is also an increasingly institutionalized preference for restoration projects over the protection of pristine natural habitats. This arises in part because of government subsidies for “returning farmland to wetland.” New NRs in unspoiled habitats require funding which is unlikely to materialize. In contrast, restoration of farmland to forest or wetland carries a high probability of funding from the state or province to the local level. This problem parallels closely the problems associated with systems of wetland mitigation banking in the United States.

Wetland conversion to farmland must be stopped by strict enforcement of existing laws and regulations banning wetland conversion. This should be supported by extending conservation-education and alternative economic opportunities to communities adjacent to wetlands. Education programs must address the links between wetland conservation, floodwater storage, aquifer recharge, and drought relief because these issues are fundamental to raising the living standards of the basin communities. This must be supported by government funding to encourage communities to find or develop alternatives to conventional farming that are more beneficial means of income generation while causing less harm to ecosystems. This is a subject to which the experience of WWF-China’s Middle Yangtze project could be successfully applied.

Wetland destruction in the Russian segment of the basin proceeds at a slow pace due to recent declines in agriculture. However, on the major plains of the region this process will be accelerated in the near future by China-Russia cooperation in agricultural development.

In Russia, wetland conservation policies are fragmentary and often contradictory. No specific agency is responsible for wetland conservation. Provisions exist in forestry, water and environmental laws to protect wetlands, but the government does not have adequate means to inventory the extent and status of wetlands. Land inventories mostly register peatlands, which on the whole are less threatened than other types of wetland habitats. Wetlands important for water birds are typically protected in the PAs system. Many more are effectively protected by remoteness alone. There are six Ramsar sites, two Man and the Biosphere reserves, and other international nominations attributed to individual wetlands. Annual fires, which lead to dehydration of wetlands and xerophytization of vegetation, are the most common plague affecting protected and unprotected wetlands alike.

In Mongolia most wetlands are periodically dry, making those few that persist a precious asylum for wildlife. Virtually all such areas are listed as IBAs, and some as Ramsar sites. At the same time those river valleys and lakes are typically the only source of water for domestic livestock, a situation that leads to their degradation. Inclusion of such wetlands in PAs does not reduce such pressure, since no alternative water source is available during the drought. Water demand from a growing mining industry puts additional pressures on wetland habitats, and placer mining of gold directly destroys riparian wetlands and bogs in forested headwaters.

All major wetland systems in the Mongolia part are transboundary. New water laws in Mongolia, modeled after IRBM principles, include wetland conservation provisions, but effective implementation mechanisms have yet to be established.

In many portions of the basin wetlands have already been deprived of natural water supplies by drainage management for flood control and by agricultural practice and transport infrastructure. Agricultural development and flood control are the primary agents affecting wetland dehydration in China, while in Russia, dam construction and other infrastructure development are the most pernicious threat.

China’s water pricing system encourages over-use and wastage of precious freshwater supplies. Reform of water pricing is often resisted by those who presume it would add to the financial woes of farmers. But if farmers saved money by reducing excessive applications of nutrients, they could accumulate more than enough to pay higher water fees.

In Russia, wetland conservation is approached through legally proscribed water protection zones. These zones are most often too narrow to match the natural flooding patterns and rarely protect significant portions of floodplain from construction or intensive agriculture. Russia also lacks enforceable provisions to ensure that floodplain wetlands downstream from a dam receive ecologically sufficient floods.

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