This article, originally entitled "Many millions of people will benefit from the restoration of the Ruoergai Plateau wetlands" is published in the book "The Ecosystem Promise" by Meindert Brouwer.
Wetlands International-China is one of the organizations engaged in the restoration of the Ruoergai Plateau wetlands. Wetlands International focusses on the restoration of peatlands in the northeast of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Professor Kelin Chen, Director of Wetlands International-China explains.
The Ruoergai comprises approximately 500,000 ha of peat bogs, sedge marshes, lakes and marshy grasslands in valleys which form the headwaters of Yellow River, which supports 500 million people in the river catchment. These marshes play an important role in regulating the hydrological regimes of the river. The regulating functions for gas and water are signiﬁcant because of the large carbon storage and water content of peat. These peatlands store an estimated 750 million tons of carbon. Cultural functions include recreation, religion and education. Ruoergai supports rich wetlands biodiversity and is the breeding site for the Black-neck Crane (Grus nigricollis) and other water birds.
What has happened that makes restoration necessary?
Too much livestock, drainage for pastureland and peat mining have had a negative impact on the peatlands and grassland ecosystems. As result, the water level of peatlands lowered while the peat soil became more compact, and the water usually stored in the peatland has flowed downstream via the drainage canals or has become a surfaced stream. Carbon stored in the peat released to the atmosphere without vegetation cover. Most lakes and springs dried up or shrank to some extent as a result of global warming and human interventions. And the composition of the wetlands vegetation shifted from hydrophytes to meadow plants. With ecohydrological alteration, this provided a suitable habitat for rodents population and their numbers are now rapidly increasing. The burrow animals turned the black soil over and the grassland degraded further. And the worst thing is that desertification intensified and spread from the grassland to peatlands or river valleys. The grassland capacity could not support the huge quantity of livestock. Yaks trampled peatlands to find water to drink and caused the peat soil to remain bare. The Ruoergai peatland degradation caused a change in temperature and an increase of vaporation. Therefore the blocking of canals in order to rewet the peatlands seems of critical importance for ecological improvement.
The field survey showed that some 3,637km2 (73%) of peatlands had degraded as a result of a rapid population increase and the need to meet the demand for energy, and as a result of the economic development, overgrazing and excessive crop cultivation occurred. In the early 70s of the last century, some 380km of canals were drained to expand the areas for pastureland. Peat mining was carried out to generate power for milking powder production, heating and cooking. The pristine peatlands were reduced dramatically to 52% and nearly 80% of the lakes disappeared, and the water level lowered to 1-2 meters. The degradation of the grasslands has spreadto the adjacent peatlands. The restoration of the peatland ecosytem is necessary inside and outside the area. Efforts to restore the peatlands also occur outside the area.
What are the objectives of your project?
The objective of our project is to realize that different stakeholders from different sectors and government levels in China will support the integrated management of mountain wetlands and their biodiversity. And also that the importance of biodiversity and ecosystem services of the mountain peatlands in Ruoergai Plateau will be recognized by different sectors and local communities. Actually, the Ruoergai conservation strategy has been developed together with the local stakeholders to ensure their effective participation in funding and institutions. In accordance with the agreed Ruoergai Conservation Strategy, local government will continue itsr efforts to restore the hydrological characteristics of the degraded peatlands by blocking ditches, building dams and by other measures in order to maintain their function and services. With respect to the problem of overgrazing, the husbandry is expected to improve, and the number of livestock is expected to be gradually reduced, assuming an increasing income by implementing livestock breeding improvement projects and optimizing livestock structure and focusing on carrying out the promotion popularization of new forage supply.
If the area would be managed sustainably, would it be possible to present an estimation of the monetary value of the benefits of the ecosystem services?
Currently the net total carbon storage of Ruoergai Marshes is deﬁned as 10.2 million tons, amounting to 0.93 billion US$. The value of water storage of the Ruoergai Marshes is calculated to be 0.66 billion US$. And the recreational value of the Ruoergai Marshes is estimated to be 0.17 billion US$ in 2006.
Are there sellers and buyers of ecosystem services, now and/or in the future?
Not now but in the future enterprises will be the potential buyers, and the local government the seller, of ecosystem services.
Who are the beneficiaries of ecosystem restoration in the area?
The Tibetan communities locally, and people in the Yellow River catchment. They benefit from the water supply, green gas emission reduction, the mitigation of natural disasters (mud slide, droughts and flooding), food production in the region and from the tourism industry. Many millions of people will benefit from the conservation of the Ruoergai Plateau wetlands.