The troubles of Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake, are getting drowned out by the clamor generated by the superstorms Typhoon Haiyan and Cyclone Phailin. A crisis is still a crisis, however, even if it is not punctuated by 150mph winds and catastrophic flooding.
Poyang’s water levels ebb and flow according to the season. In late spring and summer, the lake fills up. In late fall and winter, the lack of rain lowers the water level. The total amount of water is the source of approximately 15 percent of the Yangtze River.
The problem is, Poyang’s waters are receding earlier in the season now. The local government reported that the lake now enters its dry season more than seven weeks earlier than it did in the second half of the 20th century. The region receives 60 percent less precipitation, and the lake’s water level is reaching a historic low. More than a million people have suffered drinking water shortages as a result this autumn, and the lake’s fishing industry has literally been grounded.
The changing landscape and climate also threaten local and migratory wildlife. The wetlands surrounding the lake are the wintering grounds for the critically endangered Siberian Crane and more than 300 other bird species. The government of Jiangxi Province, where Poyang is located, has worked to make Poyang the site of a thriving ecotourism industry—but the lack of water threatens that economic sector as well.
China’s national government has tried to secure a future for the Siberian Cranes and its winter neighbors, establishing the Poyang Lake National Nature Reserve in 1983—one of the first among 286 national reserves established in the past 20 years. Ninety-nine percent of the remaining Siberian Cranes spend their winters at Poyang Lake; the survival of this cultural icon depends on the survival of the lake.
A second reserve, the Momoge National Reserve in Jilin Province, was established as a way station for the cranes during their migration from Northern Siberia. Overall, almost 15 percent of all Chinese land is protected, which is slightly more than the global average.
Wetlands, which the Siberian Crane needs for every stop on its migration, are still almost as threatened as crane itself. China has lost 3.3 million hectares (8.15 million acres) of wetlands to urban development, ten percent of its total. And even protected areas cannot stave off droughts. While Poyang is ringed by the National Reserve and 15 other locally protected areas, all of these sites are threatened by the lake’s lack of water.
This is a problem made more severe by the many dams, both large and small, in Poyang’s watershed—more than 9,600 on the five rivers that flow into the lake. Jiangxi’s government has proposed one more water control structure at the mouth of the lake, to stabilize the water levels, but the proposed water levels that the project would provide are tuned more to economic needs than environmental—the lake would have too much water in the dry season—and the cranes would have to find a new place to spend the winter.
All this is taking place in Jiangxi, an inland province very far away from substantial media coverage. Climate change coverage tends to focus on the superstorms, like Haiyan or Phailin, or severe droughts, like the one that shriveled the middle of the U.S. last year.
With weather catastrophes large and small piling up around the world, one would think that all national governments could finally come to terms with the crisis and agree on lowering greenhouse gas emissions. However, the present climate change negotiations taking place in Warsaw could be the one place on the planet where nothing climate-related is happening.
As a climate change refugee, the Siberian Crane presents a more graceful icon than a struggling farmer or fisherman. All face great difficulties in surviving the future, though, unless the future of their lake can be secured.