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What is so important about our wetlands?

Wetlands are unique habitats for rare plants and animals.

Oct 21,2008
Winter migratory birds fly into the Junam Reservoir area in Changwon, South Gyeongsang, on Sept. 12. The reservoir is an official visit site for delegates attending the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which begins on Oct. 28 in Changwon. [NEWSIS]
In the upper reaches of the Charles River in Massachusetts, U.S., there is a well-preserved marshland that covers 3,800 hectares (9,390 acres).

The swamp provides many benefits to Boston, such as helping prevent flooding. It is estimated that the natural flood protection provided by the swamp is worth $17 million.

Toyooka, in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture, has restored rice fields once inhabited by storks, which now attract 1 million tourists annually.

Through these conservation efforts, the paddies provide a habitat for storks where they can feed. The entire village has also seen development as a result.

Rice produced in Toyooka and branded with a stork logo has become a popular product and helped to boost the local economy.

These two examples clearly show the value of wetlands, regarded as a treasure chest of the ecosystem.

The 10th Ramsar Convention on Wetlands will be held in Changwon, South Gyeongsang, from Oct. 28 to Nov. 4.

Some 2,000 representatives from 165 countries, organizations and nongovernmental organizations will gather to discuss better use of wetlands in order to improve living conditions.

Yoon Sung-yoon, the chairman of the Korea Wetland Institute, based in Changwon, said he is organizing 12 symposiums on preserving and expanding wetlands during the eight-day conference.

The theme of the convention is “Healthy Wetlands, Healthy People.” Korea is the second Asian country to host the convention after Japan in 1993.

At the convention this year, 31 topics, including climate change, human heath, urbanization and biofuel in relation to wetlands, will be discussed along with preservation of wetlands in Asia and food security.

The convention is expected to adopt a rice field and wetlands resolution proposed by both Korea and Japan.

The Ramsar Convention is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of natural wetlands that was signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971.

The pact was made to protect wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation. As of June, 158 nations are members of the convention and over 1,780 marshlands have been registered.

Korea joined the convention in 1997. A signatory country must register more than one wetland site from its country.

“A wetland is an ideal habitat for the ecosystem to flow and it affects every individual’s life,” Yoon said.

Six percent of the Earth’s surface is classified as wetland. According to the Ramsar Authority, wetlands cover up to 4.5 billion hectares on our planet.

There are coastal, inland and artificial wetlands. The biggest wetland in the world is Pantanal wetland, which was listed as a World Natural Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Canada and Alaska have an abundance of wetlands, which were created when glaciers regressed.

Southeast Asian nations have many mangrove swamps along their coastlines.

Korea has now 11 wetlands registered with Ramsar - three were added on Oct. 13, located on Ganghwa and Jeju islands and Mount Odae National Park in Gangwon.

In total Korea’s 11 wetlands cover 81.9 square kilometers. The wetland in Ganghwa was purchased by the National Trust of Korea, saving it from the risk of further damage.

“The wetlands in Korea are relatively small in size but rare species inhabit them and there is wide ecological diversity,” said Kim Jae-geun, professor of biology education at Seoul National University.

“Wetlands are the habitat of many plants and animals and their ecological value is very high,” said Joo Ki-jae, a professor at Pusan National University.

Wetlands reduce damage from weather and climate catastrophes such as typhoons and tidal waves and are described as a natural seawall.

About 0.4 hectares of wetlands can store 6,000 cubic meters of water. Wetlands absorb water during floods and provide water in times of drought. That is why wetlands are called a natural sponge.

Wetlands store carbon dioxide. If wetlands are damaged, this carbon dioxide is discharged, which worsens climate change.

Wetlands can also be harnessed to produce biofuel. Korean researchers have developed new ways to use cattail to produce bioethanol fuel.

Upo Swamp in South Gyeongsang and Suncheon Bay in South Jeolla are also popular as tourist destinations.

“With the surge in international grain prices, the value of rice fields has increased,” said Oh Hang-sik, the secretary general of the Korea Consumers’ Cooperative Federation.

“Preserving rice fields as wetlands is an important issue in terms of food security.”

Kabukuri-numa marsh in Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture was the first wetland that include rice fields to be listed by Ramsar.

The number of tourists visiting Kabukuri-numa marsh has risen sharply as wild geese, which are winter migratory birds, now flock to the area. Its reputation as a pure, clean producer of agricultural products has greatly helped the region. “A good environment means money and is a competitive edge,” Oh said.

“If rice fields are submerged under water for the entire year, this means more methane gas, the main cause of global warming,” said Seoul National University Professor Kim Jae-geun.

“Depending on how rice fields are managed, we can reduce methane gas emissions.”

With drought and land reclamation around the world, wetlands everywhere are shrinking. There are people who consider wetlands as wasted land and want to turn them into farmlands or industrial lands.

However, environmentalists say there are more losses than gains from developing wetlands.

Observers have commented that Korea is lagging behind developed countries in terms of preservation of its wetlands. There are many cases in which local residents oppose the designation of wetlands because this limits their rights.

“We need a wetlands mitigation bank system like the United States, where if wetlands are used to build a factory, the developers must create alternative wetlands elsewhere,” said Joo Ki-jae, a professor at Pusan National University.

Under the “No Net Loss” scheme, wetlands need to be conserved wherever possible, and wetlands converted to other uses must be offset through restoration and the creation of new wetlands, maintaining or increasing the wetland resource base.

Wetland mitigation banks have played an important role in compensatory mitigation of wetlands.


By Park Gil-ja JoongAng Ilbo [jbiz91@joongang.co.kr]



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