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Keeping Wet and Wild

As China passes a new law to protect wetlands ahead of a multinational conference in Wuhan, experts are still concerned that development trumps conservation

By Wang Yan , Zhang Xinyu Updated Jul.1

Swans glide along the water in Beidagang Wetland, Tianjin, November 23, 2021. As part of one of the eight most important global bird migration routes, Tianjin sees large numbers of migratory birds in winter

The East Asia-Australasian Flyway is one of nine global migratory bird routes, covering 22 countries and regions. About five million waterbirds use the flyway to travel from southern Australia to northern Siberia, passing through the Chinese mainland and its coastal areas each year. The coastal wetland in Lianyungang, Jiangsu Province is its midpoint.  

“Lianyungang coastal wetland is a very important stopover for migratory birds to refuel,” said Cai Zhiyang, an assistant research professor at the School of Environmental Science and Engineering of Southern University of Science and Technology who has visited Lianyungang wetlands many times. “Most of these migratory birds spend the winter in Southeast Asia or Australia, and they stay in Lianyungang for one to two months before continuing their northward migration. The route is reversed when they migrate south in the autumn,” he told NewsChina.  

An article published by Avian Research in 2021 looked into the importance of the wetlands, particularly for threatened bird species. “The coastal wetlands of Lianyungang are the most important stopover site for Asian Dowitchers during both northward and southward migrations; they supported over 90 percent of the estimated global population during northward migration in two consecutive years (May 2019 and 2020),” the article read.  

The Asian Dowitcher is already classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN. A large wader, the shorebird lives on coasts and tidal mudflats during migration and wintering, where it uses its long bill to find mollusks, crustaceans and other food in the shallow waters. While their range is relatively large in southern and eastern Asia, their numbers are small, so the stopover in Lianyungang is crucial to ensure a healthy breeding population as they move to northeast China or Siberia, and then for the return journey to southeast Asia or even as far as northern Australia.  

“So far, there is no clear scientific explanation for this rare phenomenon,” Cai said. “For the Asian Dowitcher, the coastal wetlands in Lianyungang are an irreplaceable habitat, and if they are lost, it may cause the bird’s extinction.”  

Environmentalists have raised concern over a Lianyungang development project called Blue Bay, which was approved as a coastal ecological protection and restoration project. Chinese environmental NGO Friends of Nature alleged that the so-called environmental scheme is nothing more than a construction project that will wreak destruction on the natural shoreline and coastal wetlands. In May 2021, Friends of Nature filed a public interest litigation at Nanjing Intermediate Court in Jiangsu Province. Although the court accepted the filing, construction on Blue Bay did not stop. On January 6, Friends of Nature applied for an injunction to halt all activities, but the court has yet to rule. 

Swapping Mud for Sand 
The Blue Bay project is located in the coastal wetland of the Linhong estuary in Lianyungang. In the Overall Plan of Lianyungang City (2008-2030), the city government proposed “developing eastward and embracing the sea” as part of its Lianyun New City strategy. According to the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for Blue Bay, the mud flats would affect the image of the new city, while Blue Bay would give the new urban development an ideal coastal view, clear water and white sands.  

A wetland is defined as an ecosystem that is permanently or seasonally flooded, and includes coastal and riverine ecosystems, lakes, marshes, peatlands and bogs, and can be salt or freshwater. They support biodiversity and perform vital ecosystem services, such as flood prevention by acting like a sponge as well as carbon capture.  

Blue Bay has three parts: infrastructure, shoreline restoration and wetland restoration. This includes building a large semicircular beach dike to block sediment and create a new lagoon cut off from the sea, up to a depth of four meters. The mud flats are to be transformed into a sandy beach through dredging and adding sand, causing the loss of part of the shorebirds’ foraging ground.  

Princeton University researcher Dr. Mu Tong from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology has twice visited the Blue Bay area. Mu told NewsChina the dike will halt natural tidal flows. Areas that were covered and uncovered every day by the tides will be flooded, meaning the organisms the birds eat – mostly bottom feeders on the sea floor known as the benthic zone – will die due to lack of oxygen.  

The wetland restoration of the Blue Bay project, according to Cai, involves building a lake, planting trees and constructing footpaths. “This project is not conducted from an ecological perspective but for the sake of people to enjoy comfort,” Cai said.  

After environmental experts pointed out the likely damage, Blue Bay’s developers changed course. NewsChina learned that the planned rubber dam in the dike has been changed to a water gate. From June to August, the water level would be kept at about four meters, and the water gate will be lifted at other times of the year, allowing normal ebbs and flows.  

However, Mu Tong said the new design ignores that migratory birds need more than an area of mud flats.  

“They need the food in that mud flat area. High summer water levels prohibit the growth of organisms in the benthic zone, and even when the mud flats are exposed again in autumn, there won’t be enough food,” Mu said.

Controversial EIA 
Zhang Mingxiang, vice dean of the School of Ecology and Nature Conservation at Beijing Forestry University, helped draft China’s first Wetland Protection Law, which takes effect on June 1. Zhang said both protection and utilization of wetlands are important. “The purpose of protection is to ensure better utilization. Reasonable and orderly utilization, such as the construction of necessary tourist facilities and roads should be allowed if they are not excessive,” he said.  

Yet the controversies over Blue Bay focus on the lack of and false investigation of birds in the EIA report. According to court documents Friends of Nature submitted, the bird survey in the EIA report contradicts reality and there are “data errors.” “We believe that the so-called restoration by the Blue Bay project is unscientific and inconsistent with the law of ecological restoration,” said Ma Rongzhen, a pro bono lawyer working with Friends of Nature. The project is no more than a new development, not an ecological restoration, Ma said.  

At the end of 2019, Blue Bay’s developer, Golden Coast Company, commissioned Nanjing Normal University to compile a report titled “Impact Analysis of Lianyun New City and Lihong Estuary Coastal Wetland Ecological Restoration Project on Bird Activities.” It found 92 species of birds in Lihong Estuary Coastal Wetland in Lianyungang, three national first-level protected bird species and 11 national second-level protected bird species. Three endangered bird species, two vulnerable bird species and nine Near Threatened species on the IUCN Red List were recorded. Wen Cheng, an expert on the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) told the reporter that according to the information made public, Blue Bay was extremely lax in its consideration of biodiversity protection during the project’s feasibility study, planning, design and construction, and many aspects should be rectified.  

Zhang Mingxiang, conservation expert and deputy dean of the School of Ecology and Nature Conservation at Beijing Forestry University, told NewsChina that a proper evaluation of birds and biodiversity for an environmental impact assessment depends on whether the team includes professionals with relevant expertise, since this is not mandatory. 

An artificial beach near the coastal wetlands in Lianyungang has buried a natural tidal flat, December 18, 2021. Conservationists warn that lack of food could cause the extinction of some wetlands and migratory species of birds

Upgraded Conservation 
The East Asia-Australasian Flyway passes through China’s population-dense and economically developed eastern coast. As urban areas expanded, there was constant reclamation and occupation of wetlands, Zhang said. According to a journal paper titled “Lessons from Development of the US West to China’s ‘Go-West’ Campaign” published for Resources Science in November 2015, similar to the situation in the US in the 19th century when wetland reclamation, cultivation and crop planting were encouraged, 90 percent of the wetlands (up to tens of millions of hectares) in the western US were converted into farmland and residential land, which resulted in severe biodiversity damage.  

In 1992, China joined the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar Convention), which was regarded as a turning point for wetland protection in China. Before that, there was no concept of wetlands in Chinese research communities. Zhang said the Ramsar Convention requires states to identify their wetland resources, so the State Forestry Administration organized a national wetland resources survey from 1995 to 2003 and a second one from 2009 to 2013. According to Zhang, who took part in both, the surveys showed China’s wetlands were increasingly under threat. Statistics showed their total area decreased by 8.82 percent between the first and second survey, and coastal wetlands in 11 provinces decreased by 21.91 percent.  

In December 2016, the State Council issued the Plan for Wetland Protection and Restoration System, which proposed a red line area for inland and coastal wetlands of a minimum 800 million mu (53.3m hectares) by 2020, based on the second wetland survey results. According to statistics released in August 2021, China’s total wetland area remains over 800 million mu (53.3m hectares). Sixty-four wetlands in China are listed as Wetlands of International Importance. In addition, China has set up 602 wetland nature reserves and over 1,600 wetland parks. In 2003, the State Council issued the National Wetland Protection Project Plan (2002-2030), which includes three five-year implementation plans. The central government invested 19.8 billion yuan (US$3.13b) in over 4,100 projects to encourage local governments to carry out wetland ecological protection and restoration. In 2021, China introduced its first-ever Wetland Protection Law, and all provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities issued wetland protection regulations. The law takes effect on June 1, 2022.  

From November 21 to 29, China will host the 14th Meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (COP14) in Wuhan, capital of Central China’s Hubei Province. Zhang Mingxiang said that 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of China’s signing of the Ramsar Convention, but speeding up wetland protection legislation is needed to implement the convention.  

Zhang added that when drafting the Wetland Protection Law, lawmakers took into consideration how effective restoration projects will be. “Sometimes good intentions do not mean making things good, not to mention when people do things just in the name of good intentions,” Zhang said. Part of the law is designed specifically for wetland restoration, stating that important projects will be submitted to provincial forestry and grassland departments, which will consider the opinions of other departments, including water resources, environment, agriculture and housing. Failing to abide by the law will incur fines from 100,000 yuan (US$15,720) up to 1 million yuan (US$157,200).  

In Zhang Mingxiang’s opinion, a good wetland restoration project should identify existing ecological problems and determine their causes, such as water shortages, pollution or alien species invasion, before conducting restoration activities.  

Wen Cheng believes biodiversity should be an important indicator of restoration. “In the planning and design stage, biodiversity conservation should be the goal. The designer and contractor should clearly understand which common species and which rare and endangered species live or once lived in the project’s location. In the planning and design process, there should be specific and measurable indicators of biodiversity restoration after the project. To be more specific, we need to know which species we should engineer restoration solutions for to ensure their numbers don’t fall further, and what solutions we should engineer to allow reintroduction and preservation of species when the project is done. We can then use these indicators to test whether the project is successful,” Wen said.  

Ensuring the proper use of funds earmarked for ecological restoration takes strict referral to scientific information, establishing standardized technical specifications, and tracking and evaluating biodiversity results, Wen added. 

Bird’s Eye Scrutiny
Despite increased attention, threats remain to wetland areas, including Chifeng Port Wetland project in Nanhui Dongtan Wetland area in Shanghai, and the Shahe Wetland Park which is already under construction at Shahe Reservoir in Beijing, although they do not include commercial developments. These projects are under scrutiny because of ongoing ecological restoration activities which may destroy the wetlands and result in further loss of habitat for migratory birds.  

BirdLife International, a global partnership of NGOs that focuses on conservation, recognized Nanhui Dongtan Wetland as an internationally important bird habitat in 2008. Zhang Dongsheng, an associate professor at Shanghai Ocean University, conducted a bird diversity survey from September 2020 to August 2021 which recorded 237 species of wild birds. But Nanhui Dongtan Wetland is still not included in the list of important wetlands in Shanghai. Since 2017, extensive areas of reed beds have been replaced with 233 hectares of Chinese fir trees. The National Forestry and Grassland Administration (NFGA) ordered Nanhui Dongtan to make up for the destruction by creating the 1.7-square-kilometer Chifeng Port Wetland. But in February 2022, bird watchers in Shanghai found sizeable areas of reeds were flattened during the restoration process, posing potential threats to the reed parrotbill, whose habitat is already squeezed. Zhang Dongsheng told NewsChina that he had already advised the project leaders to keep the reed beds, and they seemed receptive.  

The situation of the Shahe Wetland in the rural north of Beijing is similar. According to statistics from birdreport.cn, 294 bird species, including first- and second-class national protected animal species such as the relict gull, great bustard, tundra swan and reed parrotbill have been recorded. Still, Shahe is not listed as one of the capital’s important wetlands. The Shahe Wetland Park project has been going on for years, and has already come under scrutiny. The EIA report was approved in September 2017, but some issues, including fountains for a “water dance show” and several boat docks, posed dangers to birdlife. A revised proposal and feasibility study in 2020 removed the initial construction plans.  

Since April 2021, Let Birds Fly, a Chinese non-profit foundation, filed several public interest lawsuits in Beijing’s Changping District, which alleges that Shahe Wetland Park emphasized landscaping and ignored wetland protection. On February 24 this year, the district held a hearing to address the issues.  

Since July 2021, Friends of Nature has been requesting Changping District Landscaping Bureau, which oversees Shahe Wetland Park, to make the final plans available for public review, to no avail. According to Friends of Nature, this reflects the lack of government openness in wetland conservation.  

Despite questions and challenges from environmental NGOs and ecological experts, the construction in Shahe Wetland Park, like the Blue Bay project in Lianyungang, is ongoing. On March 24, a supervisor with Changping District Landscaping Bureau surnamed Zhao told NewsChina that the construction of Shahe Wetland Park is “in good order.”