By now probably everyone who lives near a coast knows that coastal wetlands can protect us from some of the devastating impact of the wave surge and flooding associated with this new generation of super-storms – like Katrina, Xythia, Sandy, and Haiyan of the last few years.
Three kinds of responses to the threats of super-storms seem to exist. One is to retreat from the edge of the sea, and let the coastal wetlands (or barrier islands) absorb the wave surge and flooding – the wisest response but still the least likely since moving people, let alone communities or cities, can be close to impossible.
A much more common response is to adapt and prepare. Bangladesh is a famous example, for most of the country’s habitable region is the flat coastal delta of the Ganges River and there is no space for the dense coastal population to retreat to. So not only is mangrove reforestation well underway but many farmers are also planting rice that is more tolerant of higher salinity and temperature, others are growing hydroponic floating crops, and many cyclone shelters have been built. The hope is to absorb the wave surge, adapt to the flooding, and keep people alive. Some also propose migration to Canada, a more long-term solution.
In fact 50 of the least developed countries, including Bangladesh, now receive assistance in making similar preparations from the Global Environmental Facility’s (GEF’s) Adaptation Program, an apparently independent organization that still somehow retains association with the UN and the World Bank.
The third response is to do nothing. This is certainly the response most of us are most familiar with. Lack of funds, lack of political will or leadership, lack of community action, unfounded optimism, denial that anything serious has happened or might happen – all play their part. But such delusions are diminishing as more and more communities are directly affected by the powerful storms.
And then there’s China.
China has taken a fourth route: it has built and continues to build the longest seawall in the world, about the length of of its other more famous Great Wall.
The wall encloses coastal wetlands, making it possible to replace them with industrial, agricultural and urban development. With each passing decade the rate of wetland loss has increased, and there is no end in sight.
This is astonishing. Wetlands not only provide a protective buffer against the damaging effects of storm surge and flooding. They also are a sink for pollutants and CO2, a nursery for fish of commercial interest, and habitats for a remarkable biodiversity, including large numbers of waterfowl.
China’s reasons for eliminating wetlands are obvious enough. The huge coastal population continues to grow, new coastal land available for development is extremely valuable, the government is obsessed by GDP growth, the conservation ethic is still embryonic, and wetlands have long been considered wasted space.
And it also isn’t as if China lacks some reasonable laws protecting vulnerable wetlands – it just doesn’t enforce them. Economic growth trumps everything. Limiting growth may be the hardest adaptation we need to make on our warming planet.
In any case, against all reason China continues to radically reduced protection for people, property and habitats in its coastal wetlands.
In our new and scary 21st Century world, this is more than odd. It is a disaster.