Design of environmental flow requirements for Argun River Basin

UNECE Water Convention Pilot Project: Dauria Going Dry: adaptation to climate change in transboundary headwaters of the Amur River Basin (Russia-China-Mongolia). Presented on April 13 2011 at UN in Geneva. SEE PRESENTATION HERE

Problem statement.

Dauria wetlands support globally significant populations of at least 20 bird species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, including the Red-crowned Crane, and resting and feeding areas for several million migratory waterbirds. Dauria International Protected Area (DIPA) was created by Mongolia, China and Russia in 1994 to protect and study ecosystems of the region. Increasingly altered by human activities Argun River basin with Dalai Lake and still relatively pristine Uldz River basin with Torey lakes form a great comparative pair for a study on transboundary water management options and climate adaptation in Amur River Headwaters. The project coalition led by Daursky Biosphere (representing DIPA) and WWF Russia is aiming to harmonize transboundary river protection and management in Dauria

Indigenous 30-year climate cycle effectively drives dynamics of Dauria ecosystems, but multiple manifestations of global climate change are also very evident there. In last 55 years Daurian mean annual temperature has already increased by 2 degrees. In the past in dry phases of the climate cycle populations of rare species have been especially vulnerable to human pressure. There will be more prolonged severe droughts within the natural cyclical pattern, resulting in low grass productivity, higher evaporation, greater competition for remaining water bodies between humans, cattle and wildlife. Argun-Hailaer, Khalkh, Kherlen, Uldz, Onon rivers- virtually all notable basins of Dauria are transboundary. Greatest threat — competition for water made the goal of national policies and demolishing transboundary wetlands to store waters on national territories. Unfortunately this threat is rapidly unfolding into crisis as countries start implement unilateral measures to alleviate drought consequences. Russia is the only country that at the moment cannot induce much harm to regional waters, because it does not possess any headwaters of common rivers.

Recent rapid socio-economic changes and loss of nomadic heritage in Dauria Steppe  makes ecosystems and local communities less resilient to naturally fluctuating resources and to droughts and floods made more extreme through climate change. Drastically different cultures, population density and mode of economic development and water use in Russia, China and Mongolia, make it very difficult to build transboundary mechanism to protect common water resources. Meanwhile risks for wetland ecosystems and dependent population are further exacerbated by recent proposals for several inter-basin water storage and water transfer projects in the Argun River basin in China and Mongolia. China plans to increase water consumption in Argun-Erguna River basin by 1000% in 25 years. Just one Hailaer(upper Argun)river -Dalai Lake  water transfer canal built in 2009 — can transport 1.05 cubic km. annually (or 30% of annual flow)

Water consumption from  new reservoirs upstream is projected at 1.2 cub. km. annually. Cumulative impacts may be enormous, thus, several projects in China may reduce upper Argun River flow by 50%-60%, and stop flooding on which well-being of floodplain wetlands depends. Halted flood cycle prevents soil saturation and nutrient replenishment on the floodplain, decreasing pastures and hayfields; shrinking water supply forces communities in China and Russia to use polluted water, dig deeper wells, purchase water from elsewhere, or migrate to other areas.

And just one of those -Hailar-Dalai water transfer canal may cause Dalai lake pollution, result in change in ecological character of lake site by halting its hydrological dynamics, create excuse for large-scale industrial water supply to adjacent mines from Ramsar site. Protected areas that could be affected by the Hailaer-Dalai water diversion in China occupy more than 1 000 000 ha.

Environmental flow norms ad part of  solution

Environmental flows describe the quantity, timing, and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems (Birsbane Declaration 2007). The goal of environmental flow management is to restore and maintain the socially-valued benefits of healthy, resilient freshwater ecosystems through participatory decision-making informed by sound science. Sound environmental flow management hedges against potentially serious and irreversible damage to freshwater ecosystems from climate change impacts by maintaining and enhancing ecosystem resiliency.

Scientific research is undertaken by DIPA and project partners on the environmental flow requirements of the Argun  and Uldz rivers during different phases of the climate cycle. The research will be collated into a technical guidance document, and the environmental flow concept will then be promoted and instituted amongst key water management agencies. Current thinking on key components of environmental flow presented in Table 1.This will provide the technical foundation for harmonizing bilateral water management policies with Mongolia and China. Results will be used to promote the critical need for implementation of the existing Sino-Russian provincial agreement on the conservation of the Argun River Basin. The project will also develop another environmental flow case-study for model transboundary Uldz river basin.

Table 1. Critical components of Environmental Flow in case of Hailar-Dalai water transfer

Critical  Components Measurable parameters
I For Argun River
1 Sustaining floodplain habitat for waterbirds and fish, meadow  productivity Timing of floods, flooding frequency, duration of rise and fallFlooded area (wetted perimeter)Density and breeding success of indicator species of birds and fish

Area and productivity of meadows (ton/hectare)  related to flooding frequency

2 Sustaining geomorphological processes Reporduction of important stream habitats and meandering processes, braided channels.Frequency and magnitude of flow events necessary to reproduce habitat featuresAdditional condition: limitations on length and location of embankements and other engineering structures
3 Biota survival in low flow periods and changing concentration of pollutants (minimal flow) Timing, frequency and duration of low flow (and no-flow freezing) periodsCritical low-flow discharge ( still sufficient for survival of biota)Species composition, abundance and productivity of plankton and benthos, dynamics of fish populations, invasion of exotic species
II For Dalai Lake:
1 Sustaining cyclical habitat dynamics Fluctuation of water level (magnitude, timing, speed, frequency)Habitat succession and acreage and abundance of indicator species
2 Sustaining geochemical dynamics of lake ecosystem Cyclical change in water chemistry (salinity, PH, etc)Succession and abundance in indicator species, absence of exotic speciesAdditional condition: limitations on pollutant discharge through diversion canal

Establishing environmental flow norms we should also consider  climate change effects on water temperature and  flow volume, etc. In last 50 years average thickness of ice cover on Dauria rivers decreased by 22 centimeters.

To protect and manage wetlands we should consider flow dynamics interplay with other factors such as wildfires, overgrazing, waterfowl hunting and egg collection, thermal power plant impact, embankment construction.

Lack of field observations is the greatest impediment to developing environmental flow norms and therefore DIPA concentrates on data collection and management. In 2010 DIPA developed monitoring system and established 3 field monitoring transects with more than 100 standard observation plots, which allow to discern changes in stream flow, water surface, plant communities succession under climatic fluctuations. Agreed with DIPA partners on transboundary monitoring effort. We also started establishment of International Bird Observatory: agreed on common monitoring protocols, developed network of observation points for bird migration and nesting periods. Wetland monitoring in both Argun and Uldz River basins is enhanced by developing combined remote-sensing and field-transect monitoring methods in transboundary wetlands. This will allow scientists to measure the effects of climate change and other impacts on water levels and ecosystem health, and will help improve water management for human use and economic development.

Policy opportunities and challenges

From many multilateral conventions the Ramsar Convention is one of the most relevant policy tools in the Amur-Heilong basin with 15 wetlands already listed under convention.  The Ramsar Convention Regional Initiative approach provides a suitable framework for multilateral cooperation on transboundary water management and transboundary environmental flows for wetland conservation, but three countries are slow to realize it. All three countries also have bilateral agreements on Use and Protection of Transboundary Waters.

There are hopeful developments in each country: China has strong National Wetlands Protection Policy and Action Plan that prescribes water allocation to important wetlands(2003). Russia adopted new Water Code prescribing development of «Standards of acceptable impact» (SAI) for environmental flows, as well as chemical, thermal, radioactive and microbial pollution)(2007), Mongolia adopted a new law «On prohibition of mining in water protection zones»(2009).

We recommend the following priority measures to face transboundary water management challenges in Dauria:

1) Establishment of Chinese-Russian-Mongolian intergovernmental task force on economic and ecological adaptation of management policies in Dauria to changing climate conditions

2) Agreement on  environmental flow norms for transboundary rivers of  Argun basin and provisions for sustaining natural dynamics of water allocation to wetlands.

3) Expanding transboundary wetland monitoring system  to measure the effects of climate change and human impacts.

4) Wetland protected area network enhancement to  provide for migration and  breeding of species and preserves key hydrological features and all important refugia during drought period (e.g. expanding DIPA to Argun  floodplain and Buir Lake). In 2006 the trilateral Joint Committee of DIPA approved a plan to expand and upgrade the nature reserves of the DIPA, but implementation of this plan needs strong international backing and additional resources. 

5) Awareness raising program program on climate adaptation in transboundary Dauria

6) Establishing a specific basin-wide agreements for Torey-Ulz and Argun basins protection and management.

Dr. E.Simonov, Consulant to WWF Amur Programme, Dauria International Protected Area (DIPA)

Dr.V.Kiriliuk, Daursky Biosphere Reserve (DIPA)

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