Feature Story

The marrow of nature: Protecting the Yangshan Wetland

January 24, 2019

Volunteers clearing water hyacinth in Yangshan Wetland. Photo: Shi Zhonghua

Wetlands are diverse and productive habitats – a vital source of biome health, sometimes thought of as the 'kidneys of the earth'. Just like a giant kidney that filters our blood to remove unwanted by-products and waste, wetlands have a unique ability to store, assimilate, and transform contaminants lost from the land before they reach waterways. Like a kidney, wetlands help to dilute and filter material that could otherwise harm our lakes, rivers and other waterways.

This fundamental function makes wetlands a sacred place, and a critical source of freshwater.

Wetlands also enable flood control, mitigate drought, naturally cleanse wastewater, and are an excellent source of carbon sequestration.

In China, fourth in the world in wetland surface (65.9 million ha – 10% of the world’s wetland areas), conservation of wetlands is crucial.

Where land and water meet

Off the southern coast of China, Hainan Island has the country’s largest tropical rainforest area, established mangroves and coral reefs, and is one of the country’s most valuable areas for biodiversity conservation. Hainan Province also possesses abundant wetland resources, as the wetland covers about 9 per cent of the island. However, the ecosystems of Hainan are facing threats from deforestation, coastal development, and intense utilisation of wetland resources.

In the southern suburbs of Hainan, in the city of Haikou - Hainan’s capital city - the Yangshan Wetland comprises a series of marshy patches developed on the volcanic karst landforms.

Home to diverse aquatic fauna, the Yangshan Wetland includes freshwater springs, rivers, lakes, swamps, ponds and reservoirs, paddy fields, and other wetland archetypes.

Yangshan Wetland has a reputation as a ‘wetland museum’ because of its diversity of wetland types. However, because most of these wetland patches are small, Yangshan suffered from a lack of scientific research and attention. With the continuing development of the city, a series of problems such as reduced wetland area, functional degradation, reduced biodiversity, and water pollution emerged. Furthermore, the biodiversity values of Yangshan Wetland were so little known that sensitive species and the importance of the wetland areas were little understood or appreciated.

Maintaining the swamp

In 2013, Kadoorie China Conservation (KCC), an NGO that focuses on biodiversity conservation work, conducted an ecological survey in Yangshan Wetland. The survey recorded high biodiversity - including a suite of tropical species found nowhere else in China - highlighting the high ecological, cultural, and aesthetic values of Yangshan Wetland. It was found that Yangshan Wetland, with its unique natural and cultural landscape and rich wildlife, is the birthplace of the main inland rivers in Haikou and therefore has important ecological functions as an ecological shelter zone.

In view of the importance of the Yangshan Wetland, and with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and UNDP support, the ‘Strengthening Management Effectiveness of Wetland Protected Area System in Hainan for Conservation of Globally Significant Biodiversity’ project has enabled the provincial government, the Hainan Forestry Bureau, to conserve biodiversity more effectively.

This includes securing an additional 58,370 ha to Hainan’s terrestrial protected area system, improving coverage of under-represented wetland habitats - including a 1,072 ha increase of mangrove restoration and reforestation. This brings the total coverage of protected areas covered by the project to 65,264 ha.

The broader GEF Wetland Programme, (of which the Hainan project is a part) consists of a national co-ordinating project and six provincial projects located in Xinjiang, Hubei, Anhui, Jiangxi, Hainan, and the Daxing’anling region in Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang.

Policies for protection

In Hainan, through joint multi-party efforts, the project uses a variety of channels for policy advocacy to integrate the Yangshan Wetland into the greater protected area system.

The project, together with KCC, Squirrel School, and other NGOs, carried out various activities including public guided tours, water quality monitoring and removal of invasive alien species in Yangshan Wetland; collaborated with research institutions such as China Tropical Agriculture College and Hainan University to carry out invasive species control and ecological research projects in Yangshan; completed an awareness-raising campaign, whereby the name ‘Yangshan Wetland’ has gradually become known to the academic community and public.

In the ‘Master Plan for Wetland Protection and Restoration in Haikou’, which was reviewed by experts in June 2017, the value of Yangshan Wetland was recognised as equal in importance to Dongzhaigang - a Ramsar site in Hainan.

Additionally, in October 2018, Haikou was recognised for its efforts to safeguard urban wetlands when it was named as one of the world’s first 18 Wetland Cities accredited under the Ramsar Convention.

At present, Haikou is establishing two national wetland parks, five provincial wetland parks, and 45 small wetland protected areas, primarily within the Yangshan Wetland.

The project has provided policy and technical support for the establishment of these wetland protected areas. Thanks to the joint efforts of many parties, Yangshan Wetland is now being fully and effectively protected.

Effecting change through effective management

The GEF Wetland Project in Hainan demonstrated the effective management of protected areas covering 65,264ha, including wetland conservation mainstreaming, legislation improvement, habitat restoration, protection of threatened species, biodiversity monitoring, community co-management and environmental education.

These efforts are advancing China’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In particular, this project supported progress on achieving SDG 1 on poverty, SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth, SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities, SDG 13 on climate action and SDG 15 on life on land among others.

For more information on the project, please visit: GEF Wetland Programme
For more information on the Hainan project, please visit: GEF China Wetland Protection System Project - Hainan

This story was originally published by UNDP.