Ramsar expert team visits Poyang Lake, P.R. China

Ramsar expert team visits Poyang Lake, P.R. China

31 May 2010

The Jiangxi Provincial Forestry Department, P.R. China invited the Ramsar Convention Secretariat to form a team of experts from the Convention, ICF, IUCN and WWF to visit the Poyang Lake Ramsar site from 12 – 17 April 2010. This was due to concerns that the normal decline in winter water levels of the lake has been occurring much earlier and this period of decline was lasting longer than previously. As a result, the lake environment was said to be becoming unsuitable for the approximately 400,000 waterbirds that winter in the lake, including 98% of the world population of the critically endangered Siberian crane Grus leucogeranus.

Flock of Critically Endangered Siberian Crane wintering in Poyang Lake (photo by Mr Ji Wei-tao)

The site is also important for several other threatened species including the largest surviving populations of finless porpoise Neophocaena phocaenoides asiaeorientalis, and a large diversity of fish species many of which are of economic value.
In response to the concern over winter water levels in the lake, the Jiangxi Provincial government has proposed the Poyang Lake Water Control Project which involves constructing a dam with sluice gates across the mouth of the lake where it exchanges water with the Yangtze River. The dam would then be able to manage the rise and fall in the water level in order to restore the wetland It is proposed that the dam would allow free flow of water between Poyang Lake and the Yangtze River during the summer high water periods. By closing some or all of the sluice gates starting in autumn, the dam would hold water back in the lake during the winter dry periods.

The aim of the visit by the team was to review the environment of Poyang Lake and the proposed Poyang Lake Water Control Project. A full report of the visit has been produced (here) and a summary is provided below.

The team organized by the Ramsar Convention Secretariat was only able to spend four full days in China to carry out their work. However, they were able to hold discussions with a range of scientific experts and both central and provincial government officials. The following points are therefore based on the information they collected through these discussions and from their own experience of best practice for wetland conservation and management from around the world;

Whilst must of the team’s discussions were focused on the Poyang Lake Water Control Project itself and its benefits/impacts on Poyang Lake, the team felt that more investigation and debate was needed first to:

  • Determine whether there was in fact a long term reduction in the size of the lake and whether the concern that the fall in winter levels was starting earlier and lasting for a longer period, was part of a natural short-term cycle that the lake undergoes rather than a long-term trend;
  • Then if the above concerns are scientifically proven, then studies must be carried out to identify the reason(s) for the change in the hydrology of the lake. These reasons may include a change in rainfall patterns, and greater abstraction and storage of water from the streams and rivers upstream of Poyang Lake;
  • Then identify the range of possible solutions to address the problem taking into account the international ecological importance of Poyang Lake and the need for sustainable economic development of the communities living around the lake and in the lake basin;

The above mentioned steps must be carried out in a manner that is independent, scientific, and transparent involving all the relevant stakeholders and using the best expertise and knowledge both nationally and internationally, and following the steps set out by the Ramsar Convention; in evaluating these possible solutions, the objective should be to maintain the historic water levels and patterns of fluctuation within and between years, as recorded over the past 50 years, in order to maintain the ecological character of the wetlands and to safeguard the many ecosystem services provided by Poyang Lake.

  • If it is found after the above investigations that there is a long-term negative change in the hydrology of Poyang Lake and that the Poyang Lake Water Control Project was the only solution to the problem, then a full Strategic Impact Assessment would need to be conducted on all phases of the project before it can be endorsed.
  • In view of the increasing population and economic development of the Poyang Lake Basin, an Integrated River Basin Management approach needs to be developed to ensure the sustainable development of the basin. A representative management committee for implementing this should be established for implementing this, comprising representatives from key agencies and stakeholders.

The team would like to extend their gratitude to the Jiangxi Provincial Government for inviting them to Poyang Lake and to allow them access to visit the lake and to hold open and friendly discussions with scientists and officials from a range of provincial government departments on the future of this beautiful and important lake.