The rise of China casts a shadow over Hong Kong’s crowded wetlands | Environmental News

Hong Kong, China – Barry Ma stares through the lens of his high-powered telescope and raises his arm as he nods in excitement.

“over here!” he says in an undertone. “look here.”

Ma spotted a pair of tiny grebes — a bird that looks like a duck, but of an unrelated species — swimming in a pond in the Hong Kong Wetlands, located in the city’s rural New Territories.

An environmental guide for WWF Hong Kong (WWF-Hong Kong), Ma leads a small group of visitors through the Mai Po Nature Reserve under the bright sun on a humid morning.

He has identified a number of species within the 380-hectare (939-acre) reserve: white-breasted waterfowl; yellow-bellied Pryniats; black-winged stilts; robins; eastern magpies; Great egret and little egret.

But his enthusiasm is tempered by an uncertain future for the wetlands, which are also home to frogs, fiddle crabs, pangolins, water buffalo—even a handful of Eurasian otters, an elusive nocturnal mammal.

Wetlands of Hong Kong
The Hong Kong wetlands are an important stopping point for migratory birds, including black-faced spoonbills [Courtesy of Barry Ma]

Urbanization is coming to the wetlands, and it remains to be seen if the region’s biodiversity can continue to thrive alongside human development.

The Hong Kong government, which is nominally semi-autonomous from Beijing under a system known as “one country, two systems”, has recognized the importance of protecting the wetlands and has put forward proposals to conserve their biodiversity. At the same time, officials and the business community are committed to expanding the city’s integration with southern China.

For a glimpse of what’s to come, one need only look across Deep Bay, the body of water that separates Mai Po from mainland China.

The gleaming highlands of Shenzhen, with a population of more than 17 million, loom just behind the wetlands, providing a stark reminder of the region’s rapid economic industrialization.

The future of Hong Kong’s wetlands, an important stopping point for migratory birds, looks precarious. And efforts to preserve wetlands – by both government and environmental NGOs – are now under scrutiny.

Mai Po lies deep in the Hong Kong government’s proposed Northern Metropolis — an ambitious plan to transform the mostly rural area into a sprawling residential and commercial community that would cement its connection with Shenzhen, an important tech hub home to companies like Tencent, Huawei and DJI.

Hong Kong contains a 380-hectare (939-acre) sanctuary that is home to a variety of birds, including the eastern magpie. [Courtesy of Barry Ma]

The plan is part of Hong Kong’s pivot toward the so-called Greater Bay Area, which includes parts of Guangdong Province, including Shenzhen, as well as Macau and Hong Kong. It has a population of nearly 90 million.

The Northern Metropolis plan has been greeted with cautious optimism among conservationists, but they say more details are needed.

“We understand that governments are economically oriented, but we are focused on what they can do to conserve nature,” Yu Yat-tung, director of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, told Al Jazeera. “We await more details on the conservation side.”

Yu added that Northern Metropolis’ proposal should be more than “words on paper.”

“We need to see a concrete plan.”

Similarly, Billy C.H. Howe, Principal Lecturer in the University of Hong Kong’s School of Biological Sciences, said the proposal to protect wetlands appears to be a positive step, but “there is a general lack of detail about implementation.”

Howe said whether Northern Metropolis’ plan will actually benefit the wetland system as a whole remains to be seen.

“It’s very hard to say.”

The government envisions Northern Metropolis as a hub for the innovation and technology sectors, and will make room for hundreds of thousands of new housing units.

The current population of the new northern areas is about 960,000 people, with about 390,000 housing units, according to the government. The current population of Hong Kong is approximately 7.4 million.

The government says that when completed, in about 20 years, the Northern Metropolis project could support a population of 2.5 million and increase total housing to 926,000 units.

Jobs in the region will jump to an estimated 650,000 from 116,000. While this growth is expected to put pressure on the wetlands, the government has promised to preserve the region’s biodiversity by integrating rural and urban development while promoting conservation and ecotourism.

A map on a large screen showing the Great Bay area in front of a crowd.
The Hong Kong government is seeking greater integration with southern China’s Greater Bay Area, which is home to nearly 90 million people. [File: Kin Cheung/AP]

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, the city’s leader, called Metropolis North a “foothold for the strategic development of Hong Kong” in his political speech in October.

“A number of major development projects have already started in the region,” Li said in his speech, adding that the region will eventually be a “new international internet and technology city” that will promote business development with sustainable living.

Li also promised to protect the wetlands, saying the government would purchase privately owned wetlands and fish ponds “with ecological value and develop a wetland conservation park system, aiming to increase the ecological capacity for the development of the Northern Capital Region.”

Wetlands occupy nearly 5 percent — more than 50 square kilometers (19 square miles) — of Hong Kong’s 1,110 square kilometers (425 square miles), according to government statistics. They provide a range of benefits to both humans and wildlife by mitigating climate change, providing a food source and rainwater harvesting that helps prevent flooding.

In its Northern Metropolis proposal, the government estimated that the total area of ​​the coastal wetland and conservancy would be about 20 square kilometres, which includes the existing wetland park and Mae Po Nature Reserve.

WWF Hong Kong has managed the nature reserve for nearly 40 years under the authority of the government’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation, which itself is responsible for the entire 1,540-hectare (3,805-acre) Mae Po inland site in Ramsar Bay.

Eric Wickramanayake, WWF Hong Kong’s director of wildlife and wetlands, said the Northern Metropolis project proposal is expected to be “custom-built” to include wetlands within the infrastructure.

“We need to work closely with the authorities,” Wakramanayake told Al Jazeera, adding that his organization also acts as a watchdog. “We cannot oppose development at any cost – development must happen – but development must integrate conservation priorities.”

Conservation also helps preserve the livelihoods of workers who depend on the wetlands and their resources, Wakramanayake said.

“There must be solutions to ensure that people are fed, housed and have a stable future,” he said.

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