China's land reclamation is endangering some of the world's rarest water birds

Birds over Bohai Bay. Image: Global Flyway Network.

In late April, the bar-tailed godwits, medium-sized wading birds that have spent the northern winter along the coasts of Australia and New Zealand, start to get restless. In the evenings, flocks spiral up into the gathering dusk, testing the winds, and if these are favourable they take off on their annual northward migration.

Six days later, after a non-stop flight, they arrive on the Yellow Sea coast of China, their accumulated fat supplies depleted after the long journey. What awaits them upon arrival along the eastern coast of China is a very different, and much less hospitable, environment than previous generations of bar-tailed godwits experienced in decades past.

Gone are many of the mudflats with their rich resources of marine invertebrates, food for these birds. Gone, too, are the coastal marshes and wetlands where the birds used to seek refuge from the high tides that inundated the mudflats. In their place are industrial developments, chemical factories and port infrastructure. Concrete sea walls sharply separate these reclaimed areas from the sea, leaving no space for the birds to rest or feed.

Exhausted, the flocks seek other mudflats, but these are increasingly hard to find, left behind by the frenetic pace of China’s rush to convert its natural coastal wetland heritage to a gleaming new world of industrial and residential development. Under current coastal reclamation plans, only a handful of sites will remain after 2020, precariously protected by the diminishing number and extent of a small number of isolated nature reserves.

Wade Shepard’s recent article on China's land reclamation programme ("The gift from the sea") documents the extent of the “all out development free-for-all” that land reclamation has become in the coastal provinces of China (a similar situation also pertains in South Korea), and the short-term economic and policy incentives driving the process.

But what of the long-term costs? At a time when western countries are beginning to realise the benefits of natural coastal ecosystems in buffering the impacts of climate-changed induced sea-level rise and storm surges and attempting to restore these areas, China is galloping headlong in the opposite direction.

One of the sites mentioned in Shepard’s article is the Caofeidian new economic zone in Tangshan, built on the formerly extensive mudflats of north Bohai Bay. Only a small stretch of mudflats remains in this area, at Nanpu.

Yet, this single site supports over 65,000 Red Knots, 60 per cent of the entire Flyway population and 80,000 Curlew Sandpipers (45 per cent of the population) on their northward migration. The reason for such spectacular concentrations of shorebirds at Nanpu is because there is simply nowhere else for them to go – yet the whole area is currently being reclaimed for construction, and all mudflats are scheduled to be reclaimed by 2020.

Shepard also notes that Jiangsu province “is currently reclaiming 21 parcels of land from the Yellow Sea, totalling 1,817 km2”. These include the mudflats at Dongtai and Tiaozini, a vital staging area for the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, a species that has been declining at an annual rate of over 25 per cent in recent years and is thought to number only 400 individuals remaining in the wild.

Bar-tailed godwits roosting on the mudflats at Yalu River in northern China, as mud is pumped out from neighbouring mudflats as part of the reclamation process. Image: David Melville.

Another endangered species, Nordmann’s Greenshank is also dependent on these mudflats. Indeed it is thought that the entire adult world populations of these two species rely on the rich mudflats of Dongtai and Tiaozini for refueling and moulting during the southward migration. The disappearance of the mudflats is likely to hasten their tilt towards extinction.

Yet the issue is not simply one for China alone. China sits at the center of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, connecting the breeding grounds of migratory waterbirds in Alaska and Arctic Russia with their wintering grounds in South-east Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Over 50 million migratory waterbirds use this flyway annually, but populations are declining precipitously, some species at 5-9 per cent per year. For many the mudflats of Yellow Sea constitute a migratory bottleneck.

How much longer birdwatchers will be able to witness the restless departure of Bar-tailed Godwits from the shores of Australia and New Zealand – as well as other waterbirds making their annual journey along the flyway – will probably be determined by pace of coastal reclamation in China.

Spike Millington is chief executive of the Partnership for the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. He is based in Incheon, South Korea.


There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.

In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.