Wetlands play a vital role in maintaining ecological balance. They act as flood control systems, helping to store and regulate water levels. They purify water and sequester carbon, helping to mitigate the negative effects of climate change. And they are home to a diverse range of plant and animal species.
The international community has understood the importance of wetlands to sustainable social and economic development since the 1960s. Hence 18 nations signed the Ramsar Convention in 1971 to promote the protection and appropriate use of wetlands.
China signed the convention in 1992. Its efforts to protect wetlands domestically and honor its commitments under Ramsar have influenced and spurred each other. China is still perfecting the legal foundations that regulate its wetlands protection. In 2022, the Wetlands Protection Law came into effect and the National Wetlands Protection Plan (2022–2030) was released.
China also chaired the 14th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the Ramsar Convention (COP14) in Wuhan in November 2022. It promoted the passage of 21 motions. The final outcomes included adoption of the 2025–2030 Global Strategic Framework for Wetlands Conservation, and the Wuhan Declaration.
Thirty years of Chinese wetland management
China has over 56.3 million hectares of wetlands, around 4% of the total global area. They’re distributed across a wide range and include every type mentioned in the convention.
China has been widely recognized for its protection of wetlands since signing up to the convention. Its practical implementation of commitments under the convention can be viewed in three stages.
The first occurred between 1992 and 2003 and involved a thorough assessment of wetland resources. Protection had only just started when the country signed up to Ramsar and the state of the country’s wetlands was unclear. China undertook the first nationwide survey of wetland resources, which took eight years and provided key information, such as the total wetland area. This was a basis for wetland protection planning, which also started during this first stage.
The Ministry of Forestry, now known as the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, led the drafting of a National Wetland Conservation Action Plan, which was implemented in 2000. It proposed 11 specific wetland protection priority actions, targeting over-exploitation, worsening pollution and the decline in the functions and benefits of wetlands. The first long-term plan for wetland protection was approved in 2003 under the National Program for Wetland Protection (2002–2030). It set several measurable targets, including having at least 80 Wetlands of International Importance by 2030.
The second stage encompasses the years between 2004 and 2015, beginning with the Office of the State Council issuing a “Notice on Strengthening Protection and Management of Wetlands.” This was the first normative State Council document to address wetland protection, treating it as a major task in the work of environmental improvement. China used it to undertake a large amount of emergency protection of Wetlands of International Importance and other wetland sites of significance for ecological preservation. In the process, rescue work was combined with the creation of wetland parks, and beneficial experience was gained regarding the protection and appropriate use of wetlands. The start of the 11th Five Year Plan (for the years 2006-2010) saw wetland protection formally included as a component of China’s overall national economic and social development strategy, and it has been written into every five-year plan since.
Beginning in 2016, China’s wetland conservation entered a stage of “full-spectrum protection,” when the Office of the State Council issued its “Program for a Wetland Protection and Restoration System.” The program set goals of improving the functionality of wetlands and implementing controls over the overall area of wetlands; it also made effective wetland protection indicators part of the system under which the political performance of local officials is evaluated, making clear various specific responsibilities of both governments at various levels and the ministries and commissions under the State Council. During this period, wetland protection was treated as a component part of the wider strategy of “building ecological civilization,” regarded by Chinese officialdom as a matter of high importance affecting ecological security and the welfare and well-being of generations to come.
Birds in Zhanjiang, Guangdong province, 2021. VCG
Notable achievements, and shortcomings
The priority given to wetland protection in China’s national agenda has risen steadily over the past 30 years of social and economic development. Meeting commitments under Ramsar has acted as a major driver in that process. The number of Wetlands of International Importance is a key indicator of how effectively contracting party nations are meeting their commitments. When China first joined the convention, it designated just six such wetlands. Today the number is 64, covering an area of some 7.32 million hectares. China has further designated 29 Wetlands of National Importance and 1,021 Wetlands of Provincial Importance. Together, these make up China’s wetland protection system. The country has a further 21 sites currently going through the process of registration as Wetlands of International Importance, raising the hopes of achieving the target number set for 2030 ahead of time.
China has continually strengthened its wetland protection capabilities while fulfilling its obligations under the convention. Initially, China learned from and followed the examples of other signatory nations. As it gained experience, it began to independently experiment. China now shares its experience and wetland protection solutions with other signatory nations.
The first nation to undertake three full national wetland surveys, China has set up monitoring stations of various types in all provinces and provincial-level divisions across the country. These are steadily being linked to the National Forest and Grassland Ecology Network Sensing System created under the aegis of the National Forest and Grassland Administration. This system was set up in 2020 and was designed to use new information technologies such as cloud computing, big data, and 5G to strengthen remote monitoring of ecosystems and wild populations nationwide.
A series of scientific research platforms that include the National Wetlands Research Center have been brought online to strengthen the role of technology in meeting China’s commitments under the convention. The government has also provided money in support of research programs. Public awareness of the importance of wetland protection has been raised through publicity and educational activities. These have included the establishment of NGOs such as the Mangrove Conservation Foundation and China Wetlands Protection Association. Social forces are having an ever widening and deepening role in the protection of wetlands and playing an important part in the wetland management structure under the overall guidance of the government.
As a member of the Ramsar Convention standing committee and chair of its Scientific and Technical Review Panel, China has been deeply involved in the work of the convention and the drafting of its regulations. Since the passage of the relevant evaluation criteria at Ramsar COP12, 13 Chinese cities have already attained the status of International Wetland Cities, one-third of the global total, making China the world leader in this regard.
China has integrated its wetland protection with its protection of migratory birds, identifying and establishing numerous important wetland and nature conservation reserves to provide coverage of almost all vital stopover points for these birds. One of these, the Migratory Bird Sanctuaries along the Coast of the Yellow Sea-Bohai Gulf (Phase I), which consists of a network of wetland ecosystems, has been listed as a World Heritage Site. China is planning to strengthen international cooperation on the basis of existing accords, to promote the establishment of a network of protected flight passages in China for the migratory birds.
Yet wetland protection in China has several areas that need improvement. For instance, there is still no clear and precise definition of a wetland to be used in the various standards-setting documents. There are also shortcomings in the regulations and criteria for designating wetlands and publishing them in list form, which is especially notable in the lack of good management of the “ordinary wetlands” outside the designated wetlands of national or provincial importance. This has created difficulties for governments at various levels and for protection reserves. Although there is a division of labor between the various institutions and agencies involved in wetland protection, they lack coordination, and at times, rifts in management mechanisms are apparent.
More broadly, there remains an acute conflict between wetland protection and economic development in certain densely populated locales in eastern China. Some wetlands with the highest ecological value have not been listed as wetlands of importance or have been given a lower status, and have thus not been accorded the attention they merit. In numerous cases, environmental impact assessments for development projects have been insufficiently rigorous, or outright falsified, leading to wetland destruction or damage.
A bird stands on a surveillance camera by Qinghai Lake, Qinghai province, 2017. Li Feng/VCG
The future of China’s wetlands protection
The Wetlands Protection Law which came into force in June 2022 has been effective at making up for the inadequacies extant in top-level planning and is broadly recognized as a milestone in China’s work to meet its commitments under the Ramsar Convention. In fact, 28 of China’s provincial-level administrative agencies had already drafted their own wetland protection ordinances and regulations at various points since the turn of the century, although these regulatory provisions were largely of a lower status and limited in their effective scope.
More significant is the longstanding practice in China of drafting laws based on just a single ecological or environmental medium, such as air, water, or soil. At the national level, wetland protection provisions are spread out among various laws, such as those addressing flood control or water pollution. In the view of Yu Wenxuan, vice-dean of the School of Civil, Commercial and Economic Law at China University of Political Science and Law, this drafting model has encouraged faster development of environmental legislation but has caused divisions in the legal provisions governing the protection and appropriate use of ecosystems that encompass multiple ecological mediums. In the case of wetlands, this model of drafting legislation has made for less effective regulation.
The drafting and implementation of the Wetland Protection Law marks a turn towards a holistic ecological approach. This will raise awareness among the actors engaged in wetlands protection, including government agencies. China’s approach in drafting its wetlands protection legislation is rather unique from an international perspective; other than the Chinese mainland, the only jurisdictions to draft specific laws on wetland protection have been South Korea and Taiwan.
China’s Wetlands Protection Law embodies concepts from the Ramsar Convention in a variety of aspects, making apparent how the process of meeting commitments under the latter has shaped domestic legislative practice. The law borrowed from the stipulations in Article 1 of the convention to address the longstanding lack of a clear definition of wetlands in Chinese regulations. It set down for the first time a clear definition of the concept of what a wetland is in a way that took full cognizance of the realities of protection work in China.
The Wetlands Protection Law set out five principles, including the principle of priority protection and the principle of sensible utilization. While emphasizing the precedence of protection, the law requires that wetlands be used sensibly, corresponding to the basic demand in the Ramsar Convention for sustainable use that causes no damage to ecosystems. The Wetlands Protection Law further makes a division between wetlands of importance and ordinary wetlands, stipulating the criteria for level of designation – the first time these have been provided in legislation. The stipulation requiring that Wetlands of International Importance also be listed as Wetlands of National Importance provides a basis in domestic law for the protection of such wetland sites, strengthening the link between the law and the Ramsar Convention.
In China’s successful hosting of COP14 we can see that, 30 years after joining Ramsar, the country is transitioning from a participant to a leadership role. The Wuhan Declaration was one of the major outcomes of COP14. It notes that despite great efforts to achieve the sustainable protection of wetlands since the promulgation of the Ramsar Convention, the global area of wetlands has still diminished by 35% over that time. Globally, the protection of wetlands still faces stark challenges. In the coming three years after COP14, China will serve as chair of the Ramsar Convention Standing Committee, providing overall leadership to the secretariat and various subcommittees in the run-up to the next full convention of contracting parties. China now faces both an opportunity and a challenge, as it decides how best to show wisdom and leadership in guiding progress in the global protection of wetlands, while at the same time improving the effectiveness of its work at home.
Recently, in October, China published its National Wetlands Protection Plan (2022–2030). It sets out in clear fashion the overall requirements and specific goals to be achieved by 2030 in China’s domestic implementation of the Ramsar Convention. It will guide China’s wetland protection efforts over the coming eight years.
The plan proposes significant improvements to be achieved in preserving wetlands’ function to provide ecosystem services and biodiversity by 2030, with the initial creation of a “new pattern of high-quality development in wetland protection.” Before this takes place, the proportion of protected wetlands in China is projected to rise to 55% by 2025, with the addition of 20 Wetlands of International Importance and 50 Wetlands of National Importance. The plan sets higher targets than those stipulated by its predecessor, the National Program for Wetland Protection (2002–2030), and also sets requirements for the scale and quality of mangrove swamps – evidence of China’s still bolder ambitions to meet its commitments under the convention.
Although at a national level sufficient importance is given to wetland protection, wetlands still face several threats as economic development brings worsening pollution and a demand for more land. It will be no easy feat to achieve the goals set out in the National Wetlands Protection Plan. The Wetlands Protection Law lays down a foundation for the protection and appropriate use of wetlands, but top-level legislation is only the first step. To be of real service to wetlands, it must be comprehensively and sustainably put into practice. Major tasks for the next stage in China’s wetland protection will be putting in place the associated supplementary frameworks, mechanisms, and follow-up measures.
Reported by Hu Boxiang and Shan Shiyao.
This is an original article from China Dialogue, and has been republished here with permission.
(Header image: Two “milu,” or Père David’s deer, at a wetland in Dongtai, Jiangsu province, July 4, 2022. Sun Jialu/VCG)