Hong Kong, China – Barry Ma looks through the lens of his powerful telescope and raises his arm, pointing excitedly.
“Here!” he said in a low voice. “Look here.”
Ma spotted a pair of little grebes – a duck-like bird, but an unrelated species – swimming on a pond in Hong Kong’s wetlands, nestled in the city’s rural New Territories.
An eco-guide for the World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong (WWF-Hong Kong), Ma leads a small group of visitors through the Mai Po Nature Reserve in glorious sunshine on a humid morning.
It identifies a number of species inside the 380-hectare (939-acre) reserve: white-breasted moorhens; yellow-bellied prinias; black-winged stilts; Oriental robins; great egrets and little egrets.
But his enthusiasm is tempered by an uncertain future for the wetlands, which are also home to frogs, fiddler crabs, pangolins, water buffaloes and even a handful of Eurasian otters, an elusive nocturnal mammal.
Urbanization is coming to wetlands, and it remains to be seen whether the region’s biodiversity can continue to thrive alongside human development.
The government of Hong Kong, nominally semi-autonomous from Beijing under a system known as “one country, two systems”, has recognized the importance of protecting wetlands and has put forward proposals to preserve their biodiversity. At the same time, officials and the business community pledged to expand the city’s integration with southern China.
To get a glimpse of what lies ahead, just look across Deep Bay, the body of water that separates Mai Po from mainland China.
The gleaming skyscrapers of Shenzhen, with a population of over 17 million, rise just beyond the wetlands, stark reminders of the region’s rapid economic industrialization.
The future of Hong Kong’s wetlands, an important stopover for migrating birds, looks precarious. And efforts to preserve wetlands – both by government and environmental non-governmental organizations – are now under scrutiny.
Mai Po sits deep inside 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 will further strengthen its connection to Shenzhen, a major hub technology that houses companies such as Tencent, Huawei and DJI.
The plan is part of Hong Kong’s pivot to the so-called Greater Bay Area, which encompasses parts of Guangdong province, including Shenzhen, as well as Macao and Hong Kong. It has nearly 90 million inhabitants.
The Northern Metropolis plan has been met with cautious optimism among environmentalists, but they say more details are needed.
“We understand that governments are economically oriented, but we focus on what they can do for nature conservation,” Yu Yat-tung, director of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, told Al Jazeera. “We are awaiting further details from the conservation side.”
Northern Metropolis’ proposal must be more than “words on paper,” Yu added.
“We need to see a concrete plan.”
Similarly, Billy CH Hau, a senior lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, said the proposal to protect wetlands appears to be a positive step, but “there is a general lack of implementation details.
It remains to be seen whether the Northern Metropolis plan will actually benefit the overall wetland system, Hau said.
“It’s very difficult to say.”
The Metropolis of the North is envisaged by the government as a center for the innovation and technology sectors, and will provide space for hundreds of thousands of new housing units.
The current population in the northern New Territories stands at around 960,000, with around 390,000 residential units, according to the government. Hong Kong’s current population is approximately 7.4 million.
The government says that when the northern metropolis is completed, in about 20 years, it could potentially support a population of 2.5 million and bring the total housing stock to 926,000 units.
Jobs in the region would increase from 116,000 to around 650,000. While such 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.
Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, the city’s leader, described the northern metropolis as “the fulcrum of Hong Kong’s strategic development” in his keynote speech in October.
“A number of major development projects in the region have already started,” Lee said in his speech, adding that the region will eventually become a “new international I&T city” that will foster business development with a sustainable lifestyle. .
Lee also pledged to protect wetlands, saying the government would purchase private wetlands and fish ponds “with ecological value and develop a system of wetland conservation parks, with a view to increasing environmental capacity for the development of the northern metropolis”.
Wetlands occupy about 5% – just over 50 square kilometers (19 square miles) – of Hong Kong’s 1,110 square kilometers (425 square miles), according to government statistics. They provide a multitude of benefits to humans and wildlife by mitigating climate change, providing a food source, and collecting runoff that helps prevent flooding.
In its Northern Metropolis proposal, the government estimated that the total area of wetlands and coastal conservation would be around 20 km², which includes the existing wetland park and the Mai Po Nature Reserve.
WWF-Hong Kong has managed the nature reserve for nearly 40 years under the government’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation, which itself is responsible for the entire Mai Po Inner Ramsar Site. Deep Bay of 1,540 hectares (3,805 acres).
Eric Wikramanayake, director of wildlife and wetlands at WWF-Hong Kong, said the proposal for the northern metropolis should be “tailor-made” to include wetlands in the infrastructure.
“We have to work closely with the authorities,” Wikramanayake told Al Jazeera, adding that his organization also serves as a watchdog. “We cannot oppose development at all costs – development must take place – but development must incorporate conservation priorities.”
Conservation also helps safeguard the livelihoods of workers who depend on wetlands and their resources, Wikramanayake said.
“There should be solutions to ensure people are fed and housed and have a stable future,” he said.
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