In 2022, the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) Secretariat suggested a collaboration with the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust (WWT) to produce a report on the future of the Hwaseong Wetlands, situated 50km south of Seoul. The site is an EAAFP Flyway Network Site (FNS) and partly a Wetland Protected Area, on the tidal flat element. It sees thousands of migratory waterbirds visiting every spring, autumn and winter including the Far Eastern Curlew, Great Knot, Eurasian Curlew, Saunders’s Gull and many others. However, the creation of a sea wall in 2002 and subsequent land claim behind it has significantly reduced its natural functioning as an estuarine mudflat system. This has left the site with some challenges for both the birds that visit it and also the local communities, some of whom lost their livelihoods and still feel that they have not been properly compensated. There is the new additional threat of a military airbase that may be moved to Hwaseong, creating yet more challenges to the wetland. The Vision aims to review the situation, identify potential positive developments and future threats, and suggest a way forward to improve the wetlands for both wildlife and people.
The WWT team of three experts - Bena Smith, Tim McGrath and Chris Rostron - travelled from the UK to South Korea in May 2021 for a three-day visit to the site, alongside members of the EAAFP Secretariat, and representatives from Hwaseong City, Birds Korea, Hwaseong Eco-Foundation and Korea Federation for Environmental Movements (KFEM) Hwaseong. The visit included site walkovers, stakeholder meetings, and consultation with local people and representatives of the Hwaseong City Government. It was a busy schedule, but the team managed to cover a lot of the site, meet a diverse range of local people and get a good idea of the nature and challenges of the site. The team worked with local people to hold a public consultation event at the Eco-Peace Park, working closely with the local KFEM representative and the Hwaseong Eco-foundation to achieve this. The passion and commitment of local NGOs and community groups for the wetlands is clear, and offers hope for the future.
On returning to the UK, the immediate task was to collate all the site information scattered in many different publications. This led to a desktop study report supplemented with direct knowledge gleaned from the site visit. It identified some significant knowledge gaps and recommended specific ecological and social research.
The report includes a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis. From this, the major strengths were identified as the amazing biodiversity spectacle of migratory birds, storage of carbon in the mudflats, the rich resource for local people in terms of livelihoods, recreation and seafood, and the accessibility for local, regional and national visitors. Threats included a possible development of a military airbase, water pollution, and human disturbance. However, WWT also identified many opportunities including the potential for the Hwaseong Wetlands to create a Wetland Center and develop access for local and national visitors. If well managed, this would raise awareness and generate support for the wetlands whilst positively impacting on the wetlands and their wildlife, creating a positive identity locally, nationally and internationally.
WWT then produced a visioning document to outline a possible path for the Hwaseong wetlands, which is regarded as a precursor to a longer-term masterplan for the site. The core components of the Vision include a restored ecosystem, improved public access, a new wetland visitor centre and opportunities for local livelihoods and eco-tourism.
Figure 7 the proposed zonation © WWT
The vision set out 12 design and planning principles necessary for creating a site that meets the needs of wildlife, people, the site’s heritage and character, and takes into account economic development. For the site to work well, an initial draft Ramsar zonation for the wetlands was suggested (see Figure 7). This creates a broad plan for the site that can cater for busy areas of recreation and tourism, with buffer zones that allow local livelihood activities such as fishing or agriculture, to highly protected areas with minimal disturbance.
WWT recommended the focus should now be to draft a masterplan, which would look at the fine detail of how the site could be managed to meet the many needs of different stakeholders, and at the same time allow the distinctive ecosystem and its biodiversity to thrive. Prominent issues that still need to be tackled include the status of the airbase, which could have a major impact on the wetlands and their wildlife as well as local communities, and the issue of compensation for local fishermen from the construction of the seawall, which local people still regard as unresolved.
The WWT team came away from the project with a strong hope that the wetlands will be recognised for its incredible wildlife value, and that local support will generate enough energy and support to deliver firm plans and future improvements. Despite some significant issues, WWT felt that Hwaseong could become a beacon of best practices for mudflat ecosystems in the region, supporting birds and biodiversity, people and livelihoods, and helping to address the challenge of climate change all at once.
Figure 3 Hwaseong Wetlands in May 2022 © WWT
Figure 4 1st Stakeholders meeting in Hwaseong (May 2022) © WWT
Figure 5 1st Stakeholders meeting in Hwaseong (May 2022) © EAAFP Secretariat
Figure 6 2nd Stakeholders meeting in Hwaseong (May 2022) © WWT
WWT. 2023. A Vision for the Hwaseong Wetlands. EAAFP Secretariat, Hwaseong Eco Foundation, and Hwaseong City. (in Korean and English) [link]
Written by Mr. Bena Smith from WWT