The government of the People’s Republic of China is working to protect some of the country’s most important wetlands, in Jiangsu province near Shanghai and Nanjing, to help endangered birds and mammals, the environment, and the people who rely on the areas to make a living.

In the center of the of the People’s Republic of China’s coast, immediately north of the great cities of Shanghai and Nanjing, lies Jiangsu province, home to one of the most important wetlands in the country.

Almost half a million hectares of these wetlands are in Yancheng municipality, stretching for 580 kilometers along the coast, comprising intertidal mudflats, creeks, salt marshes, and reed beds. Rich in biodiversity, home to endangered birds and animals, including the milu deer—brought back from the edge of extinction—and red-crowned crane, the wetlands’ nature reserves are internationally recognized for their importance.

They are also the location of a pioneering Asian Development Bank project focusing on wetland conservation and restoration. Approved at the end of 2011 with a loan of $36.9 million, the Jiangsu Yancheng Wetlands Protection project is in the process of restoring about 3,600 hectares of wetlands as well as the milu deer grounds and 1,000 hectares of coastal forests.

“Wetlands are not just important ecosystems, but also are needed to sustain humans by providing sources of food—whether fish, shellfish, or vegetables—and fiber, wood for fuel, and plenty more,” said Qingfeng Zhang, a Director in ADB’s East Asia Regional Department.

“It’s the poor that are most dependent on the high productivity of these natural wetlands. The importance to fisheries particularly is not always widely appreciated, since the wetlands provide the breeding grounds for the fish that you catch later out in the sea.”

The two nature reserves also attract hundreds of eco-tourists each year from around the world, generating jobs and income for local communities.

But coastal wetlands have functions beyond serving the people and wildlife that live off them. Wetland plants slow the flow of rivers, and the mudflats absorb wave energy from the Yellow Sea, helping to protect the area against coastal erosion, the threat of tsunamis, and storm surges. The wetlands also improve water quality by absorbing some of the rapidly worsening pollution from households and industry in Yancheng municipality. They regulate the local climate and help boost agricultural productivity.

“Wetlands are not just important ecosystems, but also are needed to sustain humans by providing sources of food—whether fish, shellfish, or vegetables—and fiber, wood for fuel, and plenty more.”

Qingfeng Zhang

Despite their importance the coastal wetlands have been suffering rapid decline. Since the 1980s, more than half of the wildlife habitat has vanished, while the amount of fishponds and other developments has expanded by eight times.

“What we have been seeing is the loss of wildlife habitats with an associated loss of biodiversity, as they suffer at the hands of reclamation for agriculture or industry and urban expansion, pollution, and even poaching,” said Niu Zhiming, who is currently leading the project from ADB’s field office in the People’s Republic of China. “Without prompt action and proper management of the area, the ecological decline is expected to continue, risking the disappearance of the wetlands.”

The Jiangsu provincial government has started a large program to restore the wetlands from fishing pools in recent years. Farming practices such as conservation agriculture and organic farming are also being introduced and promoted extensively. These aim to support alternative and more sustainable livelihoods for local communities while improving the habitats for rare birds and animals.

Additional financing of $2.25 million from the Global Environment Facility enabled inclusion into the project design of numerous other measures including an eco-compensation scheme to support conservation and restoration.

ADB is about to initiate the program, which is designed to establish operational management plans for the two nature reserves and will pilot innovative eco-compensation programs.

“The eco-compensation will aim to offset losses of lower yields due to reduced application of pesticides in targeted communities,” said Mr. Zhang. “Hopefully, wetland eco-compensation can be integrated into government financing as part of a long-term and sustained effort to protect the country’s wetlands.”

Graham Dwyer is a Senior Communications Specialist in ADB’s Department of External Relations. Learn more about ADB's work in the People's Republic of China and follow the Resident Mission on Weibo.