"Green Hills Soothe My Eyes, Running Water Tranquilizes My Mind," announced the sign to my left as I entered the Xixi Wetland park in Hangzhou. "Only One Future for Our Children - Development Without Destruction," proclaimed a second sign just a few meters ahead on my right. "Your Planet Needs You - Unite to Combat Climate Change," a third sign almost screamed to me as I turned the next bend. If nothing else, these signs were saying all the right things to me and the thousands of visitors streaming through the gates of the Xixi wetland, located in the city of Hangzhou, just a short distance from the megalopolis of Shanghai, on the shores of the East China Sea.
The Xixi wetlands lie in the west of the city as a network of ponds and waterways, making up an area of around 60km2. This is China's 'first national wetland park,' dubbed as such to act as a role model to all other wetlands in China and to supposedly show how to effectively manage and restore wetlands, notably urban wetlands.
Up until only 6 years ago however, Xixi was in crisis. "I arrived to find a highly eutrophic water system with algal blooms, solid waste matter and rubbish piled into the water from the many thousands that lived on site," explained Chris Wood, a British Ecologist, drafted in as part of Japanese ecological consultancy firm whose role it was to advise on the best way to transform Xixi. "The overall water quality was extremely poor, the ecological value and function highly compromised. A fair percentage of the original wetland had already been lost to development or agriculture and the city had suffered flood damage as a direct consequence."
This situation prompted the local government into action and in 2004 they invested US$700 million dollars into a massive restoration program which saw the wetlands dug up, rearranged and transformed under the guidance as foreign experts, such as Chris Wood. What resulted was China's new 'showcase wetlands', which would serve as another tourist hotspot in a city that already welcomed millions of visitors each year.
"Xixi has a 4500 year history, initially as a large lake, split into two lakes at about 172AD and then becoming re-sculpted into the wetland at around 220AD. Restoration was therefore being conducted with those 1800 years in mind," continued Chris. "Restoration necessarily had its focus not just upon the ecology but upon the cultural and historical aspects of Xixi as well as those of tourism."
Today, Xixi welcomes thousands of visitors every day. They stroll, ride bicycles, are shuttled around in electric cars and whisked around the waterways by boat. It's an idyllic scene. The scene is rocked from time to time however when tourists pick large amounts of vegetation to use as props in photographs and litter is seen floating in some of the waterways. Teams of workers on boats regularly paddled past me with large piles of refuse, in an attempt to clean-up after the hoards passing through the park. At peak times, the park welcomes over 8000 visitors per day, 1500 more than the recommended maximum carrying capacity, according to a recent paper from the Department of Earth Science in Zhejiang University in Hangzhou.
Another challenge that the park faces is in the form of water pollution. I first noticed this when I stumbled across a pond full of dead fish on my first day. Levels of water pollution have improved as a whole since the restorations began in 2004, however it is still a serious issue and the large bright green algal blooms around the park are a clear sign of problems lurking underwater.
Eutrophication occurs when excessive amounts of nutrients enter the water system causing a dense growth of algae on the surface of the water, which suffocates life below through lack of oxygen. Recent tests in a paper in 2009 issued by the Institute of Crop Science in Hangzhou and the Xixi Wetland Management Company, revealed that the waters in Xixi still suffer from dangerously high levels of Ammonia (NH3-N), normally found in fertilizers, septic system effluent and animal waste. These continuing high levels cause eutrophication in many ponds and are a slight blight on the park which is striving to act as the example that all other urban wetlands should follow.
"The fact that the wetlands are enjoyed and therefore valued is an important aspect that should begin to pervade the culture," emphasized Chris. "No-one can leave Xixi without appreciating wetlands." It is this point that stuck with me as I rubbed shoulders with the many other tourists visiting the park this past week. Yes, there is a behavioral problem with many Chinese tourists (enough so that there was an article in the Chinese Journal of Ecology in 2009 titled "Bad Tourists Behaviours and their Environmental Impacts on Xixi National Wetland Park) however perhaps many will take away an educational experience from their visit.
As I turned to leave the park for the last time, a final sign declared, "Upstream Downstream: Wetlands Connect us All." I could think of no other message that was concise enough to emphasize the importance to all of us of wetlands. Wetlands do indeed connect us all and it is in places such as Xixi that we can only hope to spread the message of the plight of these precious areas to the masses that pass through.