China: Threatened Waters

A dead bird lies on the shore of a man-made reservoir in China's central Gansu Province. Image from Gallagher's Pulitzer Center sponsored project, "China's Growing Sands" in 2009.

Graphic depicting the change in wetland cover (in green) in China's Sanjiang Wetlands in Dongbei province. Between 1950 and 2000, the wetlands shrunk over 75% as a result of excessive land reclamation.

When I first started to research the idea of reporting on wetlands in China, the initial thing that I noticed was that there were some rather shocking statistics associated with the issue.

No sooner has I entered 'China's Wetlands' into Google, I found articles quoting numbers such as , "50% of China's coastal wetlands have disappeared in the past 50 years", "30% of China's natural wetlands vanished between 1990 and 2000", "Lakes have dried up by 30-40%" and "Over 70% of all rivers and lakes are polluted". These numbers shocked me and led to my application to the Pulitzer Center to begin documenting China's wetlands, in an effort to try to understand what has happened to the country's waters.

The relationship between humans and wetlands stretches back thousands of years and is one that has caused humanity to thrive. Found in the form of rivers, lakes, coastal shoreline, peat bogs, marshes and floodplains they are used for food resources, irrigation, water supply, recreation, transportation and energy production. For early humans and early modern society, the balance between development and the use of wetlands was once in balance. As we have entered the the 21st Century however, the balance has swung dangerously against the wetlands.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the annual global value of wetlands worldwide is estimated to be around US$70 billion. Wetlands are vital for both the international community and local communities, however they are being threatened by such things as overfishing, pollution, unregulated draining, dredging, deforestation, river damming and climate change.

In the 4 years that I have lived in China, I have traveled extensively across the country and had started to see evidence of the crisis the country is facing with it's water resources. Last year, I traveled across northern China for the Pulitzer Center documenting desertification which is ravaging the north. One of the key factors fueling this is the out-of-balance relationship that has evolved between the citizens of northern China and their water.

China's wetlands are the biggest in Asia and account for 10% of the world's total, making them significant and important. Under the Ramsar Convention on wetlands, 21 sites have been designated as wetlands of international importance.

I begin my journey this week across southern and eastern China in the eastern city of Hangzhou, famed for both for its central west lake and the XiXi wetlands which lie to the west of the city. These are the 'showcase' wetlands - supposedly China's finest - which welcome thousands of visitors every day. This will be the first of 6 stops which will take me to some of China's most important wetlands to record the diverse challenges they are currently facing.