Restoring crucial Chinese wetlands will help preserve livelihoods

Nov 22, 2010

UN volunteer expert examines ditches in the Ruoergai wetlands nature reserve, Sichuan Province, China. (Photo UNV).

Thousands of drainage holes scar the otherwise flawless landscape of China’s Ruoergai wetlands, constituting the single most serious threat to its high mountain peat-lands. These drainage holes have contributed to massive soil and water erosion, greatly reducing the wetlands. In fact, one lake has already shrunk by a third.

For the people in the Sichuan and Gansu Provinces who rely on these peat lands for a remarkable array of products, including fish, rice, medicinal plants, peat for fuel and garden soil, and grasses and reeds for making paper and baskets, these holes, leftover from an attempt during the 1960s to transform the region into grasslands, pose a serious threat to their livelihoods.

In an effort to prevent further peat-land loss, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been working with China’s Wetland Management Bureau and an organization called Wetlands International to restore and conserve the ecologically precious wetlands.

The UNDP project, which began in 2007, has introduced innovative techniques and methodologies to Ruoergai County to help combat such drainage. Some of the techniques include strictly controlling wetland use, placing moratoriums on animal grazing and seeding to restore grasslands. The programme has installed solar energy water heaters in wetland communities to cut down on the amount of peat being used as fuel.

So far the programme has supported the restoration of 345 hectares of peat lands. UNDP’s efforts have also greatly increased public awareness about the importance of wetlands. The programme provides trial demonstrations of how conservation can work for the herdsmen and other people who use the wetlands.

Throughout, preserving livelihoods has been a crucial goal of the project, said Zhang Ming, Deputy Director of the Management Bureau of the Ruoergai National Nature Reserve.

Peat-lands play a number of critically important roles in global ecosystems. In addition to being major water reservoirs, they store huge amounts of carbon and serve as natural water treatment systems, drawing out and absorbing chemicals from water, filtering out pollutants and sediments, breaking down suspended solids and neutralizing harmful bacteria.

Peat lands also provide key habitats for endangered wildlife species, such as black-necked cranes, and for rare fish, amphibians and a number of different plant species, making their protection important for preserving biodiversity.

Yet unsustainable farming practices, mining and infrastructure development and climate change continue to negatively impact the peat lands.

China has 70 million hectares of wetlands of which the largest majority are peat lands, accounting for 10 percent of the world’s wetland areas.

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