[Outlook]Save our wetlands

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[Outlook]Save our wetlands

Wetlands have long been regarded simply as abandoned areas. In Korean, expressions about wetlands or swamps have negative connotations - phrases like “a swamp of defeat,” or “to fall into swamp.” In English, idioms like “get bogged down” are used when a task becomes hindered by difficulties.

This, however, is inaccurate. Instead, there should be negative connotations associated with sweeping acts that severely damage wetlands, such as draining the water in order to use the area for farming or for landfills.

Despite the fact that wetlands served as a birthplace of major civilizations, they have been severely destroyed in modern times. Since Europeans moved to the United States, half the wetlands there have been destroyed. Things are more or less the same in Europe.

In Korea, when looking at records since the Japanese occupation alone, one-third of the wetlands along the West Coast have been reclaimed.

It has been less than 50 years since people realized that wetlands are a much more important ecosystem than we originally thought. Experts in Europe and North America have proven that wetlands have much to offer. Based on their research, advanced countries are now making efforts to preserve such regions and to restore what has been damaged.

There are many reasons why wetlands are important. First is the wide range of creatures that inhabit these areas. Wetlands offer habitats for both creatures that live both on land and in the water. Rare species of animals and plants also live there, along with a variety of unique microorganisms.

They are also an important habitat for migrating birds that travel across the human boundaries of the world. Wetlands represent ecosystems of great biodiversity.

For these reasons, an international agreement, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, was signed to preserve these zones.

Secondly, wetlands hold water in times of flood, preventing it from flowing out into populated areas. They are also places where water is stored underground during dry spells. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in the United States and the area was flooded, experts established that the flooding did not happen as a result of the broken levies, but because the local wetlands had been reclaimed.

Thirdly, wetlands play an important role in purifying water. They can function as sewage disposal plants which would cost hundreds of millions dollars to build. This is why wetlands are dubbed the kidneys of the ecosystem.

Fourth, wetlands can educate people, as they are like eco-parks where children can go on field trips to see the natural world at work and to do experiments. These days, even advertisements for large-scale apartment complexes, which are one of the main forces behind the destruction of the ecosystem, display placid pictures of wetlands to demonstrate that they are environmentally friendly. This proves that the trend of our times is moving toward conservation.

So what should be done to prevent wetlands from being damaged further, and to move toward restoration?

First, established institutions and social pressure are needed to ensure that wetlands are preserved. Laws regarding the protection of such areas should also be enforced more strictly. It is time to consider introducing a “no net loss of wetlands” policy.

It is also important to have a social consensus on the importance of our wetlands. This can be reached through academic research and education of the public. The argument that these regions must be preserved should be based on scientific evidence, and the information acquired must be delivered to students and the public in great detail.

A policy for studies on and preservation of wetlands that fits the reality of our country must be drawn. For instance, we must find ways to manage rice paddies, the most common inland wetlands in Korea, and manage and preserve the foreshore along the West Coast, which has great value by international standards.

We should also go beyond mere preservation and prepare measures to link our wetlands to sustainable green growth. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands also emphasize using these areas wisely. It is hard for preservation efforts to last if such a movement doesn’t offer long-term, sustainable profits for locals and the country.

The short history of the protection of Korean wetlands has been one of confrontation between bold economic growth and cautious preservation of the environment. But there are countless examples where the drastic destruction of wetlands has brought irreversible damage to human populations.

Now is the time to manage and use our wetlands cautiously.

*The writer is a professor of environmental science and engineering at Ewha Womans University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kang Ho-jung
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