Tianjin Wetlands Under Threat From Resumed Land Reclamation
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2017-08-17 10:21:57

Environmentalists are concerned that the resumed construction of a levee in the Bohai Sea, off the northern coast of China, will further destroy wetland areas that migratory birds depend on for rest and sustenance.

The unfinished sea wall will, when completed, close off 24 square kilometers of coastal mudflats in Hangu District, an outlying area of the city Tianjin.

“From afar, I saw a dredge working on the levee,” Zhang Long, an environmental activist who also goes by the name Zhang Yunbo, told Sixth Tone. He has visited Hangu almost every week since 2015 to monitor the coastal environment, and first noticed the construction work late last month. He reported his findings Tuesday on his public account on messaging app WeChat.

“If the levee is closed, the mudflat that is now an important resting place for wading birds will vanish, as there will be no exchange of water,” said Zhang Zhengwang, a biology professor at Beijing Normal University. He told Sixth Tone that without water flowing in and out, the flora and fauna consumed by migratory birds will vanish.

The Bohai Bay coast near Tianjin is an important stopover for birds flying between north and south Asia, according to Zhang Zhengwang. During the spring and fall migration seasons, tens of thousands of birds — some of which are endangered species — rest and refuel in the area’s wetlands.

The levee currently under construction in Bohai Bay, Tianjin, Jul. 25, 2017. Courtesy of Zhang Long

The levee currently under construction in Bohai Bay, Tianjin, Jul. 25, 2017. Courtesy of Zhang Long

Zhang Long reported his findings to both the Tianjin Oceanic Administration and its national equivalent on Aug. 1, but he did not receive a reply from the State Oceanic Administration until after he published his article. Zhang Long said he was told that the resumed construction was illegal, that the administration had stopped the work, and that the case was being investigated. Neither the Tianjin nor the state administration was available for comment when contacted by Sixth Tone.

Two other activists who recently visited the area told Sixth Tone that the opening in the sea wall has been made significantly smaller, and that a ship carrying concrete blocks can be seen anchored nearby. Both refused to reveal their names for fear of repercussions from the party carrying out the construction.

The levee was initially built in 2008, but for unknown reasons it was left unfinished with a 500-meter-wide opening.

It is also unclear who is behind the resumed construction. According to Zhang Long, the levee was originally built by Tianjin Hanbin Investment Group Co. Ltd. Two employees of the company who answered the phone told Sixth Tone that they were not familiar with the matter.

Since construction of the levee began, the project has raised questions of procedural due process. According to a local media report from October 2008, the Hangu District government and Tianjin’s water conservancy bureau jointly initiated the construction of a 6.1-kilometer-long sea wall whose proposed location matches that of the current levee.

However, Zhang Long said that the construction of the levee was already nearly complete when the project was announced, and before any environmental assessment was possible. “Construction before approval was a common practice in the area,” he said.

The levee cost about 356 million yuan (then roughly $52 million) and its intended use was to reclaim the land within it. Hangu District in 2008 unveiled a plan to “expand west and move south,” and media reported the following year that the reclaimed area would be used as an “innovation base” for universities and companies specialized in information technology.

Despite calls from environmental protection groups to establish a nature reserve along the Tianjin coast, numerous land reclamation projects in Bohai Bay have dramatically eroded its natural coastline, just as similar projects have elsewhere in China. In 2009, Tianjin launched China’s biggest sea reclamation project, which eventually reclaimed 160 square kilometers to expand the city’s Binhai New Area. The natural coastline of Hangu District has shrunk, too, from over 150 kilometers to about 20 kilometers.

But China’s central government has started making strides to protect the wetlands. As early as 2010, the Ministry of Environmental Protection designated Hangu’s shallow sea ecosystem a “priority zone for biodiversity protection.” In 2017, the State Oceanic Administration asked Tianjin and the three provinces bordering Bohai Bay to stop approving reclamation projects.

Although construction has been halted for now, Zhang Long and the other activists said the significantly smaller sea wall opening also threatens the area’s ecosystem because of the reduced water flow.

Zhang Zhengwang, the professor, agrees. “Not only should the construction be immediately stopped,” he said, “but the levee itself should also be demolished.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: Construction waste is dumped by the seashore as part of a land reclamation project in Tianjin. Feb. 23, 2006. Jiang Baocheng/VCG)