2017-06-12 13:20:10

SHANGHAI — When the local government began reclaiming land in Nanhui East Shoal by building dams to prepare for development projects, its efforts led to an unintended consequence: the emergence of wetlands that have become a sanctuary for migratory birds.

But longstanding plans to turn Nanhui, in southeastern Shanghai, into a satellite city are now threatening bird species in the area and eliciting objections from conservationists. Earlier this month, an open letter from Let Birds Fly — a nongovernmental organization focused on migratory bird protection — halted construction in the short term, but the debate over the region is ongoing.

On June 1, Let Birds Fly posted on Wild in Shanghai, its official account on messaging app WeChat, asking the local government and the developers of Nanhui to stop knocking down reeds during the spring breeding season, to rethink development plans for the area, and to restore the wetlands.

Zhang Dongsheng, a bird lover and deputy professor at the College of Fisheries and Life Science at Shanghai Ocean University, told Sixth Tone that he drafted the letter after he and three other volunteers witnessed reeds being cut down a few days earlier. “The situation on the eastern coast is constantly worsening,” said Zhang. “We think it is urgent that the government carry out plans to protect the area.”

China’s lakes and coastal areas are important stopover points for migratory birds — including endangered species — that fly north from Southeast Asia every summer. But wetlands all over the country have shrunk by half since the 1940s due to human activity. 

The government has been developing Nanhui over the past decade, building roads, houses, and university campuses — and causing bird populations to diminish in the southern part of Nanhui East Shoal, He Xin, an avian researcher at the Shanghai Natural History Museum, told Sixth Tone during a visit to the area on Thursday. The northern part of Nanhui is still mostly untouched, but development continues.

The Nanhui letter has garnered more than 1,000 signatures and prompted discussion among bird aficionados on social media. The local development and construction management committee responded on June 3 with a notice posted on its public WeChat account saying that the construction work has been halted, and that site selection for a migratory bird wetland will be decided in the future after consulting experts and the public.

“An employee of the Shanghai Harbour City Development Group called me last Thursday and told me they have stopped the work, but said they were not sure whether it would resume in the future,” said Zhang, referring to the company in charge of developing Nanhui. Zhang worries that fewer reeds in the area will mean birds such as the reed parrotbill, a rare species that only lives in the reeds, will lose their habitats.

Yet according to He, by focusing on the southern part of Nanhui, the recent open letter is missing the point. He lived in southern Nanhui for two years beginning in 2010 and has seen with his own eyes how land development there has left little room for birds.

A dirt road on the southern part of Nanhui East Shoal, Shanghai, June 8, 2017. Wang Yiwei/Sixth Tone

A dirt road on the southern part of Nanhui East Shoal, Shanghai, June 8, 2017. Wang Yiwei/Sixth Tone

The debate surrounding Nanhui started 10 years ago, when plans for a new satellite city in the area were criticized for threatening the natural wetlands. Nanhui’s eastern tidal flat was recognized as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area in 2009 by BirdLife International, a nonprofit dedicated to bird research and protection. In 2007, the Nanhui District government designated it the first no-hunting area in Shanghai. However, the coastal area is not officially classified as a wildlife protection zone.

In 2012, when development started on the southern part of the shoal, researcher He contributed to a petition and signed an open letter similar to the recent one. But back then, the local government did not act on the public’s call to establish a conservation area.

And He is not hopeful that the government will carve out a chunk of wetland for migratory birds this time around, either. To the north, on Chongming Island, Shanghai has already launched a project to restore wetlands at a cost of 1 billion yuan (around $147 million), and He believes there is only so much land China’s most populous city can spare.

Reclamation and cultivation of new land is part of a strategy to deal with the city’s growing waste problem. According to a sign on the northern coast of Nanhui, a landfill is being constructed on the newly formed northern part of the shoal and is scheduled for completion by mid-2019. A new waste incinerator is also under construction in the area. Slated for use in 2019, it will be the biggest waste incinerator in the world.

Parts of Nanhui are also being turned into agricultural land, He said, to compensate for the urban development of such lands elsewhere in the city. Under the central government’s “red line” policy that is aimed at safeguarding the country’s ability to feed itself, Shanghai must maintain 1.88 million hectares of agricultural land.

He hopes that continuing land reclamation efforts will keep providing sanctuary for migratory birds. As other areas are reclaimed, they will naturally turn into wetlands if they remain untouched for long enough, He explained. To him, the city’s appetite for more developed land means there will always be new wetlands elsewhere that migratory birds can turn to, as long as reclamation and construction follow each other slowly enough.

“To be sure, construction during the summer season is bad for the breeding of birds, but the development of the shoal area is a dynamic process,” He said. “What really matters is the pace of reclamation.” Bird habitats need three to four years to develop in newly reclaimed areas, he said.

He worries that accelerating construction will inevitably harm migratory birds’ current stopover points, as land development can cause water to dry up more quickly and lakes or marshlands to disappear. But he believes that halting cultivation of the area is unrealistic.

“It is almost impossible to stop the development and restore the place to its natural state,” He said. “The demand from the city won’t allow it.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: Black-faced spoonbills fly over the eastern tidal flat of Nanhui in Shanghai’s Pudong New Area, Feb. 3, 2013. Zhang Xinyan/Sixth Tone)