In a massive ecological preservation project, ADB is joining forces with PRC authorities to protect the Sanjiang Plain wetlands, home to some of the country's richest biodiversity.

Forty-eight-year-old Song Yubo often patrols the Qixinghe National Nature Reserve in Heilongjiang Province, People's Republic of China (PRC). It's an important job. The nature reserve is part of the 10.89 million-hectare Sanjiang Plain, which contains the country's largest area of wetlands. These wetlands - often referred to as nature's kidneys - support about 37 ecosystems, 1,000 species of plants, and 528 species of vertebrate fauna, including 23 of the globally threatened species on the World Conservation Union Red List. Ten of those threatened species are waterfowl, such as cranes, storks, and swans, which require extensive, undisturbed wetlands during their migration and breeding seasons.

Little wonder, then, that Mr. Song does everything he can to protect this rich ecological treasure as part of an Asian Development Bank (ADB)-supported government project to preserve the wetlands, which are disappearing at a rapid rate.

"In the core zone of our nature reserve, farming activities are not allowed; otherwise, we would not be able to prevent hunting, egg collecting, and fishing from happening," said Mr. Song, deputy chief of the Qixinghe National Nature Reserve Management Bureau.

Loss of Wetlands

Since the 1950s, the fertile soils of the Sanjiang Plain have been transformed from wetlands into the PRC's food bowl, with much of the country's grain grown in this area. In that time, the wetlands have shrunk by about 75%, from 3.7 million hectares to 0.92 million hectares in 2000.

Given the region's importance to the country's food security strategy, the central government is aware of the deterioration of the aquatic systems. As a result, in 2002, it approved the National Wetland Conservation Action Plan, which outlines the conservation and land management guidelines. Despite the impressive legal steps, however, wetland restoration and protection are still new concepts in the PRC and sound wetland management expertise and scientific knowledge are scarce.

"Environmental protection needs understanding and support from the local people, especially the affected ones. Educating the communities is an important part of the project."

- Yoshiaki Kobayashi, water resources specialist, East Asia Department, ADB

The Sanjiang Plain Wetlands Protection Project - a massive ecological preservation project - began in 2005. It is designed to protect the natural resources of the Sanjiang Plain wetlands and its watersheds from continued manmade threats, and promote sustainable use of natural resources through integrated conservation planning. At the same time, the project aims to improve the well-being of local communities in 13 of 23 counties of the Sanjiang Plain.

ADB approved a loan totaling $15 million in 2005 to support this project. In addition, it assisted the Heilongjiang provincial government in the allocation of a $12.14 million grant from the Global Environment Facility. The project is expected to cost about $55 million in total.

Social Protection

Farmland-to-wetland restoration required the relocation of farmers and herders from vulnerable areas in the Sanjiang Plain without hurting their livelihoods. ADB and the government have ensured that people affected by the wetland reversion were provided compensation, resettlement, and an ecologically sustainable alternative livelihood to ensure lasting benefits for both the environment and affected people.

Wang Lansheng, 65, and his wife are farmers in Baoqing County, an area included in the Qixinghe National Nature Reserve. "The village collective gave us better land that is richer and closer to our house," said Mr. Wang, adding that the couple now earns over CNY100,000 (about $14,925) a year growing soybean and corn.

In the late 1960s, land owned by the Wangs in the wetlands was essentially useless. The Wang family, with their bulls and equipment for farming, could only get to their field during the winter after the water froze. During the remainder of the year, they worked their land, surrounded by water, barely earning a living from the often flooded field.

With the increased income, Mr. Wang and his wife bought an apartment in the county seat. "During weekends, we live in the apartment," said Mr. Wang, "And our three children come to visit us."

Innovations for Sustainability

In this project, several other models for ecologically sustainable alternative livelihoods are also being tested, including greenhouse farming in the Qixinghe National Nature Reserve, which can earn returns about 40 times higher than traditional farming. The Qixinghe Nature Reserve Bureau will construct greenhouses and lease them to farmers, an effort to earn money that will be used for wetland protection.

The Qixinghe National Nature Reserve Management Bureau will also construct biomass plants and sell clean and low-cost energy to users, thus contributing to the reuse of agricultural waste and other environmental improvements. Beyond Qixinghe, pilot ecotourism projects will also be conducted in several other nature reserves.

"Environmental protection needs understanding and support from the local people, especially the affected ones," said Yoshiaki Kobayashi, water resources specialist with ADB's East Asia Department. "Educating the communities is an important part of the project."

This project allocated financial resources for education and capacity building. As one of the major components of the project, the Qixinghe National Nature Reserve Management Bureau provides training programs for educating teachers and students; building staff capacity; and increasing communities' participation in and awareness of biodiversity, wetlands, wildlife, and nature conservation. Similar activities are also being conducted in other nature reserves.

"We understand the importance of the wetland conservation and support the government's efforts on this," said Mr. Wang, "because we are directly affected by climate change."

Making the Commitment

Today, the PRC has protected 17.95 million hectares of natural wetland, accounting for 49.6% of the total area of wetlands in the country. The country has also attracted foreign funds of about CNY200 million (over $30 million) to support wetland protection, recovery, and capacity building.

Thanks to these efforts, by mid-2010, the PRC had established 550 wetland nature reserves, launched 700 national wetland park pilot projects, and designated 37 major wetlands of international importance, protecting over 2.7 trillion tons of fresh water.