23 Jan 2018

Great news for shorebirds! China to halt coastal land reclamation

The Chinese government has announced that it will halt all ‘business-related’ land reclamation along its coast. This is a massive boost to the tens of millions of migratory shorebirds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway that depend on the east coast's intertidal mudflats, including the Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Critically Endangered).

Rudong mudflats, Jiangsu Province, a crucial site for shorebird species ©  Richard Allen
Rudong mudflats, Jiangsu Province, a crucial site for shorebird species © Richard Allen
By Terry Townshend

This article originally appeared on Terry Townshend's blog Birding Beijing.

 

Two English-language articles reporting the change in policy were published in the Chinese media this week – one on Xinhua, China’s largest news agency, and one in The China Daily.  Significantly, the latter was posted on the website of the State Council, China’s ‘Cabinet’, indicating the high level of support for the new policy.

The news articles reported on a 17th January 2018 press conference hosted by the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), during which Lin Shanqing, Deputy Director of SOA, outlined several important elements of the new policy.

First, the government would “nationalise reclaimed land with no structures built on it, and will halt reclamation projects that have yet to be opened and are against national policies.”

Second, all structures built on illegally reclaimed land and that have “seriously damaged the marine environment” will be demolished.

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Third, “the central government will stop approving property development plans based on land reclamation, and will prohibit all reclamation activities unless they pertain to national key infrastructure, public welfare or national defence”.

And fourth, perhaps most significantly in terms of the future of China’s east coast, “local authorities will no longer have the power to approve reclamation projects”.

 

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper uses China's mudflats as a crucial rest and re-fueling site on its migration journey © aDam Wildlife / Shutterstock

 

Gu Wu, head of SOA’s National Marine Inspection Office, said that:

“In the past, land reclamation, to a certain extent, helped to boost economic development by mitigating the land shortage in coastal regions and providing space for public infrastructure and industry parks.  However, illegal and irregular reclamation activities caused a number of problems to marine ecosystems and lawful businesses,” and that “those effects have become a major public concern, so the administration decided that reclamation would be closely looked at in its annual inspection last year.”

Aquaculture and ship-building had been allowed to take place in a national nature reserve

The press conference on 17th January was preceded by two media articles criticising coastal provinces for their mismanagement of land reclamation projects, revealed by SOA’s 2017 inspections.  Hebei Province (home to Beidaihe, Nanpu and Happy Island) was admonished in this article which revealed, among other violations, that “Tourism, aquaculture and ship-building had all been allowed in a national nature reserve in Changli County.”

And Jiangsu (home to Rudong and Taozini) and Liaoning (home to Dandong and Dalian) were subject to finger-pointing in this article.

 

In Jiangsu Province:

  • “a total of 14 projects, involving 81.29 hectares of reclaimed land”, had been wrongly approved since 2012;
  • A large amount of reclaimed land remain deserted, with only 21.28 percent of reclaimed land actually developed;
  • Developers of 184 land reclamation projects had not obtained government approval before they started building their projects; and
  • The province was failing to effectively protect nature reserves. Fish farming had been operating in about 9,955 hectares of sea waters around a national wetland reserve in Jiangsu, where such commercial operations should have been banned.

 

And in Liaoning Province, the SOA found that:

  • The provincial government was failing to effectively supervise land reclamation projects and control pollutants from being discharged into the sea;
  • Although the provincial government fined polluters and violators of reclamation regulations, more than half of the fines had not been collected;
  • Among 211 waste water drains into the sea registered by the provincial environment authorities, 68 were not approved through legal procedure and some of the drains have not been carefully monitored.

 

The Red Knot, a key species of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, forages for molluscs and crustaceans © Elliotte Rusty Harold / Shutterstock

 

SOA’s announcement of the new policy on land reclamation came as something of a surprise (albeit a very welcome one) to the conservation community.  However, those with experience of working in China will know that policy development often works in this way. The process of policy formulation is opaque, and when a new policy is announced it is not uncommon for the announcement to be the first information to emerge from the government that a policy review is taking place.

Nicola Crockford, Principal Policy Officer for BirdLife International and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), sees the potential for great things with this new legislation. “This exceptionally good news brings the best hope yet that the extinctions of waterbird species, such as spoon-billed sandpiper and great knot, that were beginning to seem inevitable, can actually be averted.”

Now the hard work begins

Of course, announcing a new policy is one thing; implementation is another, as can be seen from the above list of violations of existing regulations outlined by SOA’s inspections.  It remains to be seen whether this policy will be enforced with the rigour required to ensure the integrity of the remaining intertidal mudflats. 

What’s more, halting reclamation is a necessary but not sufficient step to slow the decline in populations of shorebirds of the East Asian Australasian Flyway.  The priority now is to ensure protection for, and effective management of, the key sites for migratory shorebirds - and that’s what conservation organisations will be focusing on over the next months and years.

Nevertheless, at this stage, there is no reason to think that implementation will not happen – in fact, I am optimistic; the new policy is consistent with the high-level rhetoric of President Xi and the recent strengthening of environmental regulations.  At this stage, it would be churlish to say anything other than “Well done, China”.


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