World Wetlands Day falls on 2 February annually. It marks the date of the signing of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat in 1971 in the city of Ramsar, Iran, after eight long years of negotiation.
Also known as the Convention on Wetlands or the Ramsar Convention, this intergovernmental treaty provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. According to the Convention, wetlands are defined as “areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres”.
Knysna wetlands, South Africa
The wetlands host an abundance of plant and animal species, including the Dwarf Chameleon, the Brenton Blue Butterfly and the endangered Knysna Seahorse.
Since 1997, the secretariat of the Convention has been selecting a theme for every World Wetlands Day to set focus and promote public awareness about the value of wetlands. In 2018 and 2019, the themes were ‘Wetlands for a Sustainable Urban Future’ and ‘Wetlands and Climate Change’, respectively. This year’s theme is ‘Wetlands and Biodiversity’.
What these themes aim to do is to bring attention to the symbiotic relationships between wetlands, humans and the environment. Wetlands are essential for the survival of humans. Besides providing clean water sources and food for human beings, they also play a major role in flood control, groundwater replenishment, and can help mitigate climate change.
Let’s look at some facts on wetlands:
However, human activities continue to threaten these precious environments. Today, they are disappearing at the rate of 1% per year, even faster than the rate of deforestation. Many wetlands are destroyed due to agricultural activities, urban development and rising sea levels.
As a country with more than 96% of available freshwater resources stored in wetlands, China signed the treaty of the Ramsar Convention in 1992. As of December 2016, statistics showed that the total area of wetlands in China was at 536.03 square kilometres, accounting for 5.58% of its territorial area. Of these, 466.75 square kilometres are natural wetlands. More than 600 National Wetland Nature Reserves and more than 1,000 National Wetland Parks have since been established. 49 of these have met the Ramsar Convention Criteria to be elevated to the status of ‘Wetlands of International Importance’.
Of the over 1,000 wetland parks in China, Guangzhou’s Haizhu National Wetland Park (广州海珠国家湿地公园, HNWP) is the largest and one of the most beautiful national wetland parks situated in the city centre. It covers an area of 11 square kilometres, which is seven times the size of Hyde Park in London and more than three times that of Central Park in Manhattan.
When we paid a visit in December 2019, we were glad to have Feng Baoying, the vice principal of Haizhu Wetland Nature School (the public education arm of the HNWP), accompany us on a tour around this luscious greenery in the heart of Guangzhou city.
Haizhu Wetlands belong to the Pearl River water system, with a wetland coverage rate of 86.4% of the total area. It includes the Haizhu Lake and 39 rivers, and has a composite wetland ecosystem consisting of aits, rivers, gullies, and fruit forests. It can store two million cubic metres of rain water, and this holding capacity helps control floods across 40 square kilometres of Guangzhou city. It also filters out pollutants from the Pearl River, improving the water quality by one to two grades.
HNWP was previously a fruit orchard with a history of more than 2,000 years. However, as Guangzhou city started to industrialise, it found itself in a crisis as its land began to make way for the development of villages and factories. Over time, the orchard shrank and much of the original ecosystem was damaged. In 2012, the Chinese government decided to convert the orchard and its neighbouring Haizhu Lake into a national wetland park to conserve its natural ecology and restore balance to the environment. A legislation was passed to protect the area and prohibit the conversion of the land to other commercial uses.
The Wetland Park is a complex wetland ecosystem comprising the Pearl River Delta river wetland, urban lake wetland and semi-natural fruit forest.
Other than soliciting support from government policies, the bigger challenge was to acquire relevant skills and best practices in order to restore balance to the ecology. To achieve this, the management team sought the opinions of experts to upgrade their professional skills in conserving and protecting the wetland. For instance, they collaborated with Professor Yuan Xingzhong, an expert on the Technical Guidelines of China National Wetland Parks to develop the Restoration Master Plan for the Guangzhou Haizhu National Wetland Park. Together with professionals from the Provincial Academy of Environmental Sciences, they jointly prepared the Haizhu Wetland Ecological Monitoring Plan (2018-2022) – the first ecological monitoring plan of its kind in the country.
After seven years of restoration and conservation, the number of species of plants in HNWP flourished from 379 in 2012 to 630 in 2019. As of June 2019, there were 587 species of animals being monitored. Among them, the number of bird species increased from 72 in 2012 to 177 in 2019.
Two thirds of HNWP (7.3 square kilometres) is designated as protected areas, with the remaining one third (3.7 square kilometres) open to the public to allow them to get close to nature. Besides providing Guangzhou residents with a place for leisure and sports, it has also become an outdoor classroom to educate the public on nature and the environment. As part of the efforts to educate the public, HNWP has collaborated with the Environmental Education Centre of Guangzhou University to develop a systematic environmental education plan for the wetland park.
“We encourage primary and secondary schools to take their nature classes to our wetland park to take advantage of the natural environment and biodiversity here. Every week we host around 15 such classes. By doing so, we allow students to observe and experience nature up close, which is a much more effective learning experience compared to just reading from textbooks,” Feng explained.
To reach out to the wider public, HNWP is collaborating with Tencent to design a ‘Smart Wetland Park’ to digitise and incorporate their wetlands knowledge into a mobile app. Visitors can use this app as an interactive guide to learn more about the different plants and animals, and also about the ecosystem in the park.
It was a very fruitful day for us at HNWP. As we reflected on its transformation from its early days, two thoughts truly struck a chord:
Firstly, environmental protection and economic progress do not need to be two mutually exclusive goals. It is important to do both in parallel as there exists a symbiotic relationship between them. In China, where land is state-owned, the government has in the last 40 years focused solely on the economic benefits of land use. They had prioritised land use for shopping malls, office buildings and homes instead of farmland and parks. This came at the expense of the environment as green spaces started to disappear, rivers became sewage ditches and the air became increasingly polluted. As the Chinese people paid more attention to the quality of living, policy makers started to recognise the importance of building a beautiful and liveable city that would attract and retain talent. This in turn would bring forth economic investment and growth. In the long run, the city will reap the benefits both environmentally and economically. Therefore, a popular slogan now rings in China: “Clean water and green mountains lead to mountains of gold and silver”.
Secondly, wetland park development should be done with the goal of restoring and maintaining natural biodiversity. This would require inputs from the scientific community. China has a history of developing modern parks in an artificial manner, mostly using man-made landscapes, creating cement embankments, planting trees in a uniform manner and importing lawns to cover the land. As a result, the original ecosystem of animals and plants is destroyed, and in its place are artificially imported vegetation and animal species. While this serves the function of landscaping, it loses the original and natural ecosystem. In contrast, HNWP was developed based on the inputs from experts to restore its original ecology. For example, the river banks are not reinforced with cement, the vegetation is kept to the local varieties, and the original rectangular orchard drainage system is reshaped to optimise water flow for the ecosystem.
It was sunset by the time we left HNWP. The breeze caressed our faces as we looked across to the Haizhu Lake where an orange ray of sunlight had fallen upon the waters. There were people strolling along the river bank. This picturesque scene made us wonder: is this not “the unity of Heaven and Man”? In China, the idea of believing that humans are above nature is passé. We are only a small part of nature and we need to learn to respect it more.
BEN NING & SOH XIAOQING
Ben Ning and Soh Xiaoqing are project managers at The HEAD Foundation. The article was written as a case study in Chinese by Ben, and translated into English by Xiaoqing.