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Wetlands focus of protection drive

By Hu Yongqi | China Daily | Updated: 2016-12-20 07:15

Unveiled plan targets protecting designated areas deemed vital for sustaining a healthy environment

In a major step to improve the national ecology, the central government has promulgated a new plan to boost wetland preservation and restoration, especially natural wetlands.

By 2020, the country is targeting the preservation of no less than 53.3 million hectares of wetlands, including 46.7 million hectares of natural wetlands, according to a plan released last week by the State Council, China's cabinet.

Wetlands are a crucial part of the country's ecological protection, concerning the nation's sustainable development and the welfare of the Chinese people and younger generations, the plan said.

According to the plan, a new mechanism will be introduced to balance the acreage of wetlands by creating a new area of wetland of comparative size when one is lost to urban construction.

Meanwhile, protection of wetlands will be encompassed into the evaluation system for local governments, which analysts said will encourage local authorities to monitor them better. A reward and punishment system will be established and this will see any officials responsible for damaging wetlands traced and punished even if they have left their original office. Those who have damaged wetlands must repair the area and could face jail for any crimes or violations they may have committed.

The plan stipulated that wetlands should be preserved to keep water quality in more than 80 percent of rivers and lakes higher than the required standard with combined efforts from the central and local governments.

This marks the central government's latest move on ecological protection since it promulgated a guideline on the subject in September last year. Since 2008, the central government has issued a number of documents emphasizing wetland protection and has set goals for wetland protection in the annual Government Work Report.

According to a national survey in 2014 by the State Forestry Administration, the country has 53.6 million hectares of wetland, accounting for 5.58 percent of China's territory. China's wetlands rank, in area, as the largest in Asia and fourth-largest in the world. The targeted acreage of wetlands is already lower than the figure two years ago.

In April last year, the China Wetland Protection Association was established as a national agency to oversee the country's 46 internationally-renowned wetland preservation sites, more than 570 natural wetlands and more than 900 wetland parks, covering 23 million hectares. Wetlands are regarded as "the earth's kidney" for their purifying ability for both water and air. China, now the world's largest exporter of goods, has over the past five years experienced heavy pollution of water and air, similar to what the United Kingdom and the United States experienced decades ago.

The ongoing smog has blanketed more than 700,000 square kilometers of land in China, with schools in Beijing closed from Monday to Wednesday over concerns regarding students' health. Meanwhile, industrialization has consumed an extremely large amount of water, including that extracted from underground. These scenarios have seen the government and the public accelerating efforts to protect "the earth's kidney".

It's vitally urgent to clarify a bottom line for wetland acreage as much has been damaged by the encroachment of farmland and urban construction in the past 50 years, said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, a nonprofit organization in Beijing.

Many wetlands don't have owners and, hence, are more vulnerable than farmlands that have been contracted to farmers. Some wetlands have been altered to compensate for farmlands that were subject to urban expansion, particularly exemplified by those near river banks in Northeast China or coastal areas in East China's Jiangsu province, Ma said.

Ma's viewpoint was echoed by Wang Yang, a 33-year-old employee at a wetland preservation site in Hefei, capital of Anhui province. Wang said the plan will inject greater enthusiasm in local governments under the new evaluation system. "Now economic indicators are important for local governments, but it will be a lot easier for wetland protection if a ranking system for wetlands is introduced for local governments," Wang said.

huyongqi@chinadaily.com.cn

Wetlands focus of protection drive

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