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Image by Sean Gallagher, China, 2010

Introduction
In his project, China's Disappearing Wetlands, Pulitzer Center journalist, Sean Gallagher explores the country's wetland crisis. As industrialization spreads and climate change intensifies, China's wetland resources continue to shrink. In this lesson, students will learn what wetlands are, where they are found, and their value to humans, animals, and the environment.

Specific Subject-Area Connections
Social Studies

  • Impact of Global Trade on Regional Civilizations
  • The Political and Social Conditions of Developing Nations

Science

  • Ecosystems
  • Effect of Human Activities on the Earth
  • Environmental Public Policy
  • Freshwater Resources
  • The Role of Water in Natural and Human-Made Environments
  • Watersheds

Procedures

Background Information
Wetlands
To begin this lesson, use the Environmental Protection Agency's “America’s Wetlands” series to help students understand wetblands: what they are, their importance, how they function as an ecosystem, and the benefits they provide for humans and animals.

Read the following sections: “America’s Wetlands,” “What are Wetlands?”, "Wetlands and Nature" and "Wetlands and People" and consider the questions included below.

"America’s Wetlands”

  • What do wetlands link?
  • Where do wetlands form?
  • Why have so many wetlands in the United States been destroyed?

“What are Wetlands?”

  • What is a wetland? (Look at the definitions in both “America’s Wetlands” and “What are Wetlands?”)
  • What role does the prolonged presence of water play in a wetland?
  • Why are wetlands unique? What determines what makes wetlands different from other ecosystems?
  • What are the two general kinds of wetlands? How do the types of vegetation which they contain differ?

“Wetlands and Nature” and “Wetlands and People”

  • Create a chart showing the benefits that wetlands provide for animals, for people and for both.
  • Describe the process by which the wetland provides each of these benefits (For example, wetlands filter water by retaining excess nutrients and some pollution as the water passes through. This reduces the sediment that clogs waterways and affects fish and amphibian egg development.)
  • How does the wetland ecosystem function? Think about the relationships between plants and animals, and between different kinds of animals, in a wetland. (In particular, think about the “biological supermarket” and food webs.)

Wetlands in the your state
Use the EPA's website to locate what kind of wetlands your state has. Talk about wetlands that you have visited in your area. Then, read the EPA's factsheet about possible threats. Discuss what may be threatening the wetlands in your area.For more information on wetland services, the EPA’s fact sheet series goes into greater depth about the economic benefits of wetlands.

Special Focus: Wetlands in Louisina and the impact of Hurricane Katrina
Watch EarthAssignment's Louisiana’s coastal lowlands video and consider the following questions:

  • What is happening to Louisiana’s coastal lowlands?
  • What is driving the sinking of land?
  • Look up the following words: erosion Submergence Saltwater intrusion Discuss how they are involved in the process of wetlands degradation.
  • What happened to the marshes which protected Louisiana’s lowlands?
  • What role did wetlands (marshes) play in Hurricane Katrina?
  • What needs to happen to remake the Mississippi Delta?
  • How do state officials want Congress to pay for coastal restoration?  

Project Overview
Open the reporting page for Gallagher's photo slide show, China’s Wetland Revolution. Scroll midway down the page and click on “To view this slideshow as it ran” and open the article on National Geographic, Pictures: China’s Wetland Revolution.

Gallagher’s photos and captions provide students with a thorough overview of the reporting included in his project, China’s Disappearing Wetlands. As students look through the work encourage them to consider the questions below. Depending on the size of your class, and time available, you may choose to break students into six groups asking each group to review one photo and caption, and compile data on a class-wide document; or share their answers with their peers through a jigsaw activity.

Qinghai Lake

  • What is the issue facing Qinghai Lake?
  • What has caused this problem?
  • Why are the Chinese wetlands important?

Boy by Flooded Dongting Lake

  • What is the issue facing Dongting Lake?
  • How are groups working to protect the lake?

Dongting Lake

  • What is happening to Dongting Lake?
  • Why is this a problem for residents living in the area?

Chinese Alligator

  • What factors have led to the severely diminished numbers of Chinese Alligators?
  • What is the Chinese government doing to protect the species?

Rice Farmer

  • What human activities are putting the wetlands at risk?
  • What impact does the destruction of the mangrove ecosystem have on the Chinese environment?

XiXi’s Children

  • What is the Chinese government doing to protect the wetland ecosystems?
  • What evidence is there that these efforts are succeeding?
  • Why are experts concerned about turning wetland preserves into tourist parks?

The Chinese Alligator, Species on the Brink
Have students read Gallagher’s blog post: The Chinese Alligator, Species on the Brink II,  published in National Geographic, April 26, 2011. And, ask them to view the related video: The Chinese Alligator, Species on the Brink published by the Guardian UK on September 21, 2010.

As students review the article and video, ask them to consider the following questions:

  1. What factors are leading to the extinction of the Chinese Alligator? What is being done to address these risks to alligators?
  2. What is lake reclamation? Why would it be necessary?
  3. Has breeding the Chinese alligator in captivity been successful? Have efforts to encourage alligator propagation in the wild been successful? What do you think is causing the discrepancy?
  4. Do you agree with the research center’s decision to remove eggs from nests and incubate them until birth? Why or why not?
  5. Do you think the plan to release the alligators into the wild in the future will be successful? Why or why not?

For more background on this story, students can read Gallagher’s related blog, The Chinese Alligator, Species on the Brink I.

Dongting Hu - A Lake in Flux
Have students read Gallagher’s blog post: Dongting Hu – A Lake in Flux,  and watch the related video, Dongting Hu: Lake in Flux.

  1. What role has Dongting Lake played in this particular region in China? How has the lake helped to protect nearby communities?
  2. What is causing lakes in China to shrink?
  3. What are sand ships? What is the sand that is dug used for? What can be the result of digging too much sand from the bottom of a lake?
  4. What is happening to fish supplies in Dongting Lake? Why?
  5. What type of information and/or education must be provided to the residents living near Dongting Lake to help with preservation?

Education in the Mangroves
Ask students consider the following questions after viewing Gallagher's video, Education in the Magroves

  1. What is a mangrove? What makes them unique?
  2. What factors have put Chinese mangroves at risk?
  3. What makes mangroves such a rich environment for wildlife? How is this fertile soil and biodiversity exploited by Chinese farmers?
  4. Describe the impact of American and European demand for shrimp on ecosystems in China.
  5. Describe how shrimp farming has lead to desertification in certain areas of China.
  6. According to the experts interviewed in the report, has mangrove preservation improved or deteriorated in recent years? Why do you think this is?
  7. How is education being used to address the Chinese mangrove crisis?

Conclusion Activities
Once students are familiar with the function of wetlands and why they are so vital to nature, encourage them to identify and compare the environmental and economic consequences of continued wetland deterioration in both China and the United States. Ask students to consider the following questions:

  • Do you believe the need for wetland preservation is as pressing in the United States as it is in China? Why or why not?
  • Are the causes of wetland destruction in the United States similar to those in China?
  • What solutions would you propose to address this issue? Have similar ideas been put forward already? If so, are they working? If not, how could you help encourage the implementation of these strategies?
  • Do you believe the international community should be playing a larger role in the preservation of global wetlands? Why or why not?

This lesson can accompany a larger study of the Earth's ecosystems and/or the impact human activites are having on the Earth's surface. Students could conclude such a unit by creating posters or dioramas to represent the various ecosystems studied, and the benefits they offer humans.

Ask students to create an awareness campaign at school or within their home communities to publicize the wetland crisis both in the U.S. and China. This could be done through posters, a short video, or a "public service announcement" on the morning news program or over the PA system.