Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world. They provide critical functions such as maintaining biodiversity, addressing climate change, storing floodwaters, and protecting and improving water quality. China has 53.6 million hectares of wetlands, accounting for 10% of the world’s total wetland area. In December 2021, China enacted its first Wetland Protection Law, which will come into effect on in June 2022. The full text of the law is available in Chinese, and an English translation was done by Peking University.
The new law is the first specific and comprehensive law on wetlands in China, marking a huge improvement in their legal protection. Previously, provisions of wetlands were scattered in various laws and regulations, including the Water Law, the Forest Law, the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law, the Environment Protection Law and many others. Those provisions usually just mentioned wetlands, without clear definitions or specific protective measures.
An improvement over the draft law previously published for public consultation is that the final law adopts the widely accepted international definition of wetlands, in line with the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. It categorizes ‘important wetlands’ and ‘general wetlands’, to improve management.
All ‘important wetlands’ will be integrated into the ecological conservation redlines, a policy innovation of China’s spatial land-use planning to achieve the objectives of the three Rio Conventions (on Biodiversity, Climate Change and Desertification). A regulation is being developed for the ecological conservation redlines – that regulation should also clarify how existing laws and regulations on various ecosystems will align with the redlines.
Below are some highlights of the Wetland Protection Law:
- Enhanced public participation and information disclosure. Among the 65 articles in the new law, four articles mention public participation and supervision, and five articles include information disclosure requirements to governments at all levels. The law specifies that “Governments at all levels and their relevant departments shall disclose information related to wetland protection and accept supervision from the public.” Further, it emphasizes that organizations prescribed by the law have the right to request the offenders to assume responsibility for wetland restoration and compensate for damages and related costs. This aligns with the public interest litigation mechanism stipulated in the Environmental Protection Law. Effective implementation of public participation and information disclosure would be a major boost to China’s wetland protection.
- Addressing climate change by special protection for mangroves and peat bogs. The law stipulates special protective measures for mangroves and peat bogs, for their powerful ecological functions of addressing climate change and protecting biodiversity. Mangrove wetlands provide remarkable environmental services such as coastal flood protection, sustaining coastal biodiversity, and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Peat bogs can be either a carbon source or a carbon sink, and have the highest carbon storage per unit among all types of terrestrial ecosystems. Previously, peat bogs were often treated as wastelands or the production of raw materials. Now China is switching to the strict protection of peat bogs. In the new law, mangrove and peat bogs are specially protected, demonstrating China’s resolve to address climate change through all key sources of emissions.
The law strictly prohibits occupation of mangrove wetlands. Only in rare circumstances, major national projects or disaster prevention projects could cross mangrove wetlands, but even in those cases scientific assessments are required, and such projects must also carry out compensatory mangrove restoration measures. In terms of peat bogs, it is prohibited to extract peat or groundwater, or store and discharge water from peat bogs, unless for disaster prevention or mitigation.
- Serious penalties. Compared with the draft law and previous local regulations on wetland protection, the new Wetland Protection Law has the harshest penalties ever, with fines up to 10,000 RMB per square meter for illegal wetland reclamation. Previously in provincial regulations, fines could be as low as 2 RMB per square meter. Actions which result in draining or permanently cutting off water sources to wetlands, or cause damage to mangrove or peat bogs, are subject to a maximum fine of 1 million RMB, which could be imposed on top of the above-mentioned penalties for restoration.
Many of these highlights are in line with CCICED’s policy recommendations. From 2018 to 2021, CCICED has stressed the critical value of wetlands, as they provide wide-ranging benefits to society such as ecosystem services, climate and biodiversity protection. CCICED has recommended the strict protection of wetlands, peat lands and other ecosystems, recommended to monitor and assess the effectiveness of the conservation and adaptation of vulnerable and carbon-rich coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, and to strengthen the restoration of coastal wetlands and key habitats. These points were all legislated in the Wetland Protection Law, which again demonstrates that the CCICED community has made important contributions to accelerate China’s progress in tackling climate change and biodiversity loss.
Some recent cases have highlighted the need to better protect coastal wetlands.
For example, last month a local government in Hainan issued a formal decision that heavily indebted property developer Evergrande has 10 days to demolish 39 buildings (with a total construction area of over 400.000 square meters!) on a man-made island in Hainan. The development – Ocean Flower Island – was developed at a cost of 160 billion RMB ($25 billion), to become a world-class tourism resort, and occupies 800 hectares of coastal space. However, there has been a huge controversy over the project, already before its construction, because it is located inside a provincial nature reserve of white butterfly shell, a protected species. It is also close to a coral reef nature reserve and a mangrove reserve. In 2017, a Central Environmental Inspection pointed out that the Ocean Flower Island ruined the ecology to make profits.
Another important case regarding coastal wetlands is ongoing. In May 2021, Chinese NGO Friends of Nature brought a case in Jiangsu Province, arguing that a major coastal ‘restoration’ project in Lianyungang will in fact destroy swathes of intertidal mudflats which are a critical habitat for a large number of bird species, many of which are endangered. The case argues that the Environmental Impact Assessment for the project contains errors, and that the entire project is therefore illegal. That case is particularly urgent, because construction of the project is ongoing, and the most destructive part – a huge barrier which would block the tides, is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2022.
With the newly enacted Wetland Protection Law, we expect China to further promote wetland protection, and step up nature-based solutions to climate change and biodiversity protection. This stronger legal basis for wetland protection allows more powerful court cases to be brought by prosecutors and NGOs, and enables the judiciary to provide a more effective last line of defense for these critical ecosystems.
The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CCICED.