By Jane Qiu

BEIJING--Counting the cost of decades of breakneck development, Chinese scientists and policy-makers last week outlined the daunting challenges they face in trying to halt the country's environmental degradation.

Government officials at the Symposium on Ecosystem Monitoring and Evaluation in Beijing promised to step up investment in ecological conservation and restoration over the next five years, although no precise details were given. Other delegates warned that the lack of a national long-term strategic plan for the environment, compounded by insufficient coordination among government sectors, could jeopardize such efforts.

"The ecological situation is terrible," admits Xu Jun of the Ministry of Science and Technology. More than a quarter of China's grasslands, for instance, have been lost to farming and mining activities in the past decade, and 90 percent of the country's remaining 4 million square kilometers of grassland is in poor health. The grassland loss contributes to problems such as water shortages and sandstorms.

Coastal areas are under even greater pressure--from pollution, drainage and development. "Of all ecosystems, wetlands are the worst hit," says Yu Xiubo, an ecologist at the Beijing-based Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

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A recent report by the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED), a joint Chinese and international advisory board to the government, shows that 57 percent of the country's coastal wetlands have disappeared since the 1950s, largely due to land reclamation (see "Wetland threats"). Over the same period, the area covered by mangrove forests and coral reefs fell by 73 percent and 80 percent, respectively.

On the basis of development projects approved by the government, the authors of the CCICED report estimate that another 5,800 square kilometers of coastal area will be lost by 2020, eating away at the total 385,000 square kilometers of remaining wetlands.

Recovery efforts

China has not ignored the problem. The forestry ministry has been mapping wetlands nationwide, and 2,538 nature reserves have been established covering about 15 percent of the country's total area, including half of the natural wetland ecosystems, according to Cui Lijuan, director of the Institute of Wetland Research in Beijing. However, nature reserves are often poorly protected from development.

Over the past five years, the science ministry has spent 500 million renminbi ($76 million) on the monitoring, evaluation and restor¬ation of key ecosystems, says Xu. He says that funding will increase significantly, and will include a new focus on assessing the impact of pollution on public health. In collaboration with the CAS, the environment ministry will spend the next two years conducting a national ecological survey, following up on a survey done in 2000. Among the survey's goals are an assessment of the services provided by key ecosystems, and the impact of major engineering projects, including the Three Gorges Dam in central China.

According to Zhong Xianghao, an ecologist at the CAS Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment in Chengdu, monitoring and restoring the fragile ecosystems of western China will be a priority. The government has earmarked 15.5 billion renminbi between 2008 and 2015 for conservation projects and to create a monitoring network of ten ecological stations in the region. An additional 13.4 billion renminbi per year will be paid to farmers and nomadic peoples to conserve grassland in parts of western China, says Yang Zhi of the agriculture ministry.

Yet China will struggle to preserve its remaining intact ecosystems (see "China's resources") in the face of the growing demand for land. This is being driven by population growth and by the government's plan to quadruple the country's gross domestic product between 2000 and 2020.

And some delegates at the symposium used the Chinese saying jiulong zhishui, meaning "taming the water with nine dragons," to describe the overlapping monitoring efforts of various government ministries. These efforts are all too often short term and uncoordinated, says Cui, when "it takes decades to get a good idea of the baseline and changes of ecosystems."