August 1, 2008

Draining the life out of a paradise

John Garnaut, Dalai Lake, Inner Mongolia
June 7, 2008. From

UP TO 2 million swans, spoonbills and other migratory birds have flocked to Dalai Lake and its surrounding wetlands since early May.

Some, like the red-crowned crane, a Chinese symbol of immortality that is threatened with extinction, come here to breed. Others, like the tiny red-necked stint, merely pause to refuel en route from Australia to their Arctic breeding grounds.

The wetlands are a vital "staging ground" in the Daurian Steppe at the intersection of the Chinese, Mongolian and Russian borders, on the so-called East Asia flyway. Nearly 300 bird species have been counted here. Many fly from as far as Australia and New Zealand in an endless pursuit of summer. But next year these birds might be in for a terrible shock because China's largest gold company is secretly laying a huge pipeline to drain water from Dalai Lake. The lake's only artificial outflow will hasten an already rapid fall in water levels. Worse, it is likely to be a catalyst for larger water diversion schemes that threaten the whole cross-border ecosystem.

"This is extraordinarily serious," says Mark Barter, a world expert on the flyway. "The bigger birds are flying 8000-10,000 kilometres non-stop to get there and the human species is absolutely and utterly stuffing it up for them."

Leading Australian shorebird expert Clive Minton says: "About half of Australia's shorebirds are migratory, and all of those 1.5 to 2 million migratory birds are using some part of China as a stopover."

Beijing has signed national laws and international treaties to protect the Dalai Lake National Nature Reserve.

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