Too little, too late for country's largest wetland?
China's largest wetland, the Sanjiang plain, is now just a fifth of the size it was 60 years ago, with more than 43,000 square kilometres lost to reclamation since the founding of the People's Republic.
As recently as the 1990s, provincial authorities were still committing what can only be described as geobotanical follies in the area, bordered by the Heilong, Wusuli and Songhua rivers.
One saw the government endorse a programme to sell 30-year land-use rights for wasteland to developers at bargain prices. Foreign and domestic companies snapped up land for less than 15 yuan (HK$17.50) a hectare.
Heilongjiang's legislature has since banned wetland reclamation and, despite decades of destruction, it still accounts for an eighth of China's total wetland area.
A survey last year found that the area of wetland in Heilongjiang had increased by 30 per cent, or 1.22 million hectares, since 2000, taking the total to 5.56 million hectares.
Ecologists say felling trees to pave the way for the reclamation resulted in erosion that caused the loss of 15 per cent of the fertile black topsoil across two million hectares.
They say wetlands play a crucial role in flood control because they act as sponges to absorb and slowly release water that would otherwise cause flooding.
Wetlands also help purify water, and influence local climates.
The increase in droughts, floods and sandstorms afflicting the north of the country in recent years has been linked to shrinking wetlands, with the most catastrophic example the flooding in the Songhua river basin in 1998 that forced millions of people to seek shelter in makeshift tents for months.
People have also come to realise the monetary value of wetland preservation. The Chinese Academy of Forest Science recently concluded that the wetland in Yichun, Heilongjiang, is worth 1.26 trillion yuan, including wood production and oxygen generation.
The provincial government has stepped up efforts to convert reclaimed land back into forest, pasture and wetland since 2000.
Some conservationists say that is still too little, too late, but with more people realising the severe consequences of such ecological destruction, things are improving.
Northerners are belatedly waking up to the value of wetlands
Scientists say the value of wetlands in Yichun, in terms of wood production and oxygen generation, is: 1.26tr yuan