The most glaring impacts to the Argun/Hailaer river system will be felt in the downstream habitat. The Argun has a fragile ecosystem, and the water level here (as at Dalai Lake) has been low since 2001. There are no major tributaries to the Argun at any point along the 200-kilometer stretch from the canal location to the mouth of the Gen River near the Heishantou-Priargunsk border crossing to the north. Therefore, removing one cubic kilometer of water from this system each year will lead to severe downstream impacts.
Impacts on Birds
Surveys of the Ergun-Argun Midflow waterways, floodplains, marshes and oxbow lakes show that the area is a critical resting place for many of the world’s migrating waterbird species, as it is part of the Daurian bottleneck on the continental branch of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. One to two million birds, among them 19 IUCN Red List species, gather in the river valley every spring and autumn. Internationally significant populations of Swan Goose, Red-Crowned Crane, Great Bustard, Red-Necked Stint, Broad-Billed Sandpiper, Bean Goose, Tundra Swan, Gadwall, and Northern Pintail are known to make their home in the area. Most of the work done in the Ergun-Argun Midflow has been lead by Dr. Oleg Goroshko on the Russian side of the border, who affirms that the entire Ergun Midflow wetland cluster meets Ramsar criterion 1a,1c,2a,2c,3a,3c (Goroshko 2006), and international Important Bird Area (IBA) criteria a4(i), a4(ii), a4(iii), a4(iv). It is listed as IBA#57 in the Russian section of the latest Asian IBA list. Since important migratory routes will be affected, negative consequences for various species populations are possible in remote areas as far as Australia.
This project will decrease the quality of the wetlands along the Argun/Hailaer River to the point that they may no longer provide viable habitat for large populations of waterbirds and numerous other species that depend on wetland habitat. Diversion of water during a period of low water will further decrease the region’s water tables, reduce water retention and increase desiccation of floodplain wetlands, destroy many shallow water habitats, and alter sedimentation and channel formation patterns. The proposed diversion of up to 30% of the average annual flow may also leave the downstream stretch without sufficient flow during the summer rainy season. If this occurs, the river will not break its banks to inundate the floodplains and marshes, and the bulk of the wetlands will simply dry out.
Dalai Lake National Nature Reserve management has voiced its concern regarding impacts to the small Erka Wetland Nature Reserve immediately downstream from the project. Upon raising this issue with the appropriate Hulunbuier Prefecture authorities and Environmental Protection Agency, the concenrened staff were dismissed with the assurance that the impacts will not be very significant. The agencies to which they appealed proposed monitoring impacts once the canal is finished, but this is a highly inadequate response. However, some of the available documentation clearly indicate that the impacts to the Erka Wetland should be offset by artificial inundation from the same canal. While this may help the Erka Wetland, this is not an option for any of the other Ergun-Argun Midflow wetlands.
Disturbing the Natural Water Cycle
Dalai Lake has a natural wet-dry cycle. Studies show that the Daurian steppe experiences 30-year climatic cycles of high- and low-rainfall years. The area is currently experiencing a low-rainfall period is expected to end in 2010, at which time the Dalai Lake water level will rise again. While project proponents trumpet the environmental benefits to the lake, the truth is that the ecology of the lake may actually suffer greatly due to artificial stabilization of the lake water level and loss of the wet-dry cycle. This lake is very similar to all the other brackish Daurian lakes that periodically shrink and can even disappear during these dry spells. The regional flora and fauna are adapted to the steppe’s natural fluctuations, as studies on the Russian Daursky Biosphere Reserve’s Torey lakes and other smaller steppe lakes showed. These studies demonstrated that fish, for example, produce greater yields in these fluctuating water bodies than in stable spring-fed lakes in the same region. This project has been shuttled through the system so rapidly, that it is virtually impossible that proper studies were done on the environmental impact to Dalai Lake. Since the real impacts to Dalai Lake have not been fully assessed, a precautionary approach must be taken, especially given the acknowledged importance of Dalai Lake as a National Nature Reserve, a component of the Dauria International Protected Area, a Ramsar site, a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve, an International IBA and Important Shorebird Site of Wetland International’s Shorebird Site Network, and a North East Asian Crane Network Site.
Pollution from the Hailaer River
Another cause for concern is pollution: the Hailaer River is heavily polluted by the major settlements and industries in the Hulunbeier Prefecture. Accidental spills and chemical dumping are commonplace on the Hailaer River, as evidenced by data regularly collected downstream at Russian monitoring stations. The pollution so severe, that a special international Russian-Chinese commission was formed in 2003 to address pollution of the Argun/Hailaer. This river water will bring new pollutants and pathogens into Dalai Lake, where the most dangerous nondegradable pollutants will accumulate and persist, leading to a rapid deterioration of the lake ecosystem.
Impacts on Human Communities
In addition to affecting the region’s wetlands, a reduced water supply will cause great harm to human communities downstream. This project puts agriculture, fisheries, and drinking water availability on the line, as the diminished inflow of water will have ever-increasing pollution concentrations. These impacts will be felt in the already economically-depressed Xinbaerhu, Chenbaerhu, and Erguna districts in China, and in Russia’s Zabaikalsk, Krasnokamensk, and Priargunsk regions. This river is THE main source of water for the region, and the deteriorating quality of regional water resources is already putting a strain on local communities.
Unpredictable Impacts throughout the Region
The Daurian wetlands are part of an interconnected system of bird and other animal migration routes. When the Dalai Lake habitat becomes inhospitable during dry periods, birds and other animals find an alternative suitable site within the river valley’s wetlands. Later, during wetter intervals, the fauna return to Dalai Lake. Interference with the wet-dry cycle will alter this movement of fauna, affecting the whole Daurian ecosystem in unknown ways.
A reduction in water flow will also change the course of this river that forms the China-Russia border. The ways in which a fluctuating border can potentially create international tensions have not yet been addressed.
A Unilateral Project Jeopardizes Trilateral Conservation Efforts
This water diversion project is a classic example of an inappropriate engineering solution being used to address natural water scarcity, when sustainable land-use strategies adapted to regional ecological conditions should be adopted instead. If completed, the canal will trigger similar efforts to divert the Kherlen River and other Mongolia rivers, and will fully preclude Russia, China, and Mongolia from establishing a coordinated, equitable, and environmentally-sound water use strategy.
Cumulative Impacts of the Planned Water Infrastructure Projects
5 to 10 new large reservoirs are built and/or planned upstream from the water diversion canal that have the capacity to dampen flood peaks and desiccate the floodplain even without the canal’s contribution to water diversion. Simultaneous use of the canal and numerous reservoirs will enable the water authority to manipulate the river’s flow at any time. This will cause profound changes in the entire region’s flood-drought cycles, thus destroying the floodplain wetlands.