Amur-Heilong River Basin

Posted on 17 November 2008  | 

Land area and water volume alone are not enough to make a river basin famous.

Several globally recognized names rank among the world’s largest river basins and even some smaller basins enjoy global notoriety. The Amazon, Congo, Mississippi, and Nile are widely known as the world’s largest river basins, but the Yangzi (or Yangtze or Changjiang), Indus, Ganges, and Mekong also make headlines around the world nearly every year.

The former 4 are all larger than the Amur-Heilong; the latter 4 all smaller. The Ganges and Mekong basins each cover less than half the area of the Amur-Heilong.

So why is the Amur-Heilong, 11th largest river basin in the world and the longest free-flowing river in the Eastern Hemisphere, so little known and appreciated outside its own catchment?

Rivers that affect the most people are in many cases the best known. This is true for many of the world’s largest rivers, particularly those in South and East Asia, where human population densities are generally high. The Indus, Ganges, Yangzi, and Yellow Rivers for example provide water to hundreds of millions of people for domestic use, industry, transport and farming.

  • The Indus and Ganges basins combined support around 750 million people;
  • the Yangzi and Yellow River basins together support nearly 600 million.
  • In contrast, the Congo and Mekong River basins are much smaller, each with around 60 million people, and the
  • Amazon, the world’s largest watershed, has a population of just 25 million.

If human population is an indicator of river basin importance, the Amur-Heilong with its 75 million people should attract as much attention as the Congo, Mekong or Amazon. Yet it doesn’t.

Over 93% of the population in the Amur-Heilong basin resides on 43% of its land area in northeast China where population density is high and settlement is recent. The remaining 7% of the populace is spread over relatively sparsely populated Mongolia and Russia, which together account for 57% of the basin area. In these countries, the environments are more harsh, economic development less vigorous, and population densities much lower.

The Mongolian and Russian portions of the Amur-Heilong basin have much in common with the bordering basins to the west (the Yenisey River basin, 7th largest in the world) and the north (the Lena River basin, 9th largest). These 2 rivers drain northern Siberia to the Arctic Ocean and together support fewer than 10 million people on a land area 52% larger than North America’s Mississippi River basin where over 70 million people reside.

The Yenisey, Lena, and Amur-Heilong are among the world’s largest river basins yet all are relatively unknown outside northeast Asia. The Lena River lies entirely within the territory of the Russian Federation whose government manages the basin. The Yenisey is shared by Russia and Mongolia, but most of the basin lies in Russia and only some of the headwaters flow from Mongolia.

Environmental, social, political and economic conditions in the upper Yenisey are similar in Mongolia and Russia, and this provides a foundation for shared understanding of land and water management. Russia and Mongolia have built on this foundation throughout a long history of cooperation on land and water management, and this enhances transboundary management of the Yenisey River.

Although the Amur-Heilong shares some characteristics with these Siberian rivers, the similarities end at the China border. Indeed, the increasing global influence of China will raise global awareness of all things Chinese...but there are additional reasons for the rise in global public awareness of the Amur-Heilong.

First, the Amur-Heilong River is one of the longest national border rivers and one of the longest undammed rivers in the world. Along the 4,444 km length of the main channel of the Amur-Heilong there are no dams and only 2 bridges, at Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk cities in Russia’s Khabarovsk Province.

While dams have spurred economic development in many regions of the world by increasing availability of or reducing costs for electricity and water, global opinion about the costs and benefits of dams is shifting. This results in part from recognition that many large dams have failed to meet expectations for water, electricity, or growth of local economies. The November 2000 Report of the World Commission on Dams concluded that feasibility studies and other assessments of large dam projects must consider the costs and benefits to the natural and human environments. The conclusions of this report underscore the global importance of the Amur-Heilong as a large undammed river. Beginning with a clean slate, the Amur-Heilong could well become a model for sound management of water resources throughout the world.

Second, the basin is home to some of the world’s most outstanding ecosystems and most charismatic wild plants and animals, including:

  • wild ginseng,
  • Siberian tiger,
  • Far Eastern leopard,
  • Mongolian gazelle,
  • snow sheep,
  • Siberian Spruce Grouse,
  • Red-crowned Crane, kaluga
  • Amur sturgeon, and
  • Hucho taimen.

The world’s most diverse temperate forests, extensive grasslands, and wide, fertile belts of floodplain wetlands characterize the basin. The basin includes 4 of the world’s top-priority 200 ecoregions as delimited by the World Wide Fund for Nature.

These and other natural features are summarized in Part One of this report.

Third, and probably the most compelling reason for the recent increase in awareness of the Amur-Heilong, is the suite of environmental threats brought by the rapidly growing economies and human populations described in Part Two.

Although the history of human settlement in the basin is short, damage done by excessive resource exploitation in the 20th and 21st centuries has severely depleted not only natural resources, but also the capacity of some renewable resources (such as fisheries, wetlands and forests) to recover.

The native peoples of Siberia represent a diverse range of ethnic groups. In the 17th century their total numbers are thought to have been less than 250,000. Their economies were based mainly on fishing, hunting and reindeer herding. Europeans arrived in the last decades of the seventeenth century and by 1710 numbered 66,000.

When the early European explorers were just beginning to roam eastern Russia, the major rivers in China had already experienced nearly 2 millennia of engineered water management. In the early nineteenth century, the Yangzi and Yellow Rivers had already been “harnessed” and “controlled” for human use, while the Amur-Heilong was scarcely known outside the native communities living along its banks.

Settlement of northeast China occurred at a pace similar to that in Russia prior to the second half of the twentieth century. A treaty between Russia and China in 1689 settled one of the first border conflicts. At that time cross-border trade relied on barter of silk and tea from China for furs and hides from Russia.

Agriculture began in northeast China over the ensuing 50 years to provide food grains to military forces guarding the border. But there was little increase in the farmed acreage until the Eastern China Railroad was constructed in the late nineteenth century under a Sino-Russian treaty and the region became involved in global trade.

Nevertheless much later and after the Peoples Republic of China was founded in 1949, farmland accounted for less than four% of the total area of the Sanjiang or “Three Rivers” plain in eastern Heilongjiang Province. Even by the mid-1960s the three northeastern most counties of Heilongjiang Province remained unfarmed.

The pace of exploitation changed after 1966 at the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution when hundreds of thousands of young urbanites were sent to northeast China to begin “harnessing” the great northern wilderness. Their conversion of uplands and wetlands to farmland, and felling of forests was followed in the late 1970s and later by efforts on larger scales supported by international financing and imported heavy equipment.

These efforts continue today although national and provincial laws and regulations have been drafted to regulate the extent and pace of exploitation.

The remaining wildlands of northeast China are small, isolated, and fragmented representatives of the 900,000 km2 of wilderness that was present only a few centuries earlier. Whereas the human population in Russia’s Amur basin is small and declining, China’s Heilong River basin population is 15 times larger and growing. Mongolia’s portion of the Amur-Heilong has also changed most rapidly during recent decades and this has been prompted in part by a shift from a planned to a market economy.

But eastern Mongolia’s topography and climate are poorly suited to farming and better suited to the nomadic herding that has been practiced there for millennia. Eastern Mongolia was never richly endowed with forests as were southeast Russia and northeast China. And, at 224,000, the human population in Mongolia’s Amur-Heilong basin is only a small fraction of that in Russia (4%) or China (0.2%), and is growing slowly. For these reasons the changes in the Mongolian portion of the basin have been less dramatic than in China.

There has been relatively little conversion of wildland to farmland in Mongolia but formerly rich grasslands have been degraded by overgrazing over large areas. Forests are isolated, and limited in extent, and have been degraded by over harvest and anthropogenic fire. Rather than develop rural environments, people in eastern Mongolia are moving to urban centers where employment and education opportunities are better and standards of living higher. In rural areas, the one economic sector that is expanding rapidly is mining of the rich mineral resources.

As the above short summaries show, the 3 basin countries differ in their recent histories, socio-economics, demographics, and development strategies. This leads to a mix of conditions that complicates the management of the tri-national river basin as a single entity.

Long-term goals for the management of Amur-Heilong resources differ between the 3 basin countries and this accounts to a large extent for the many conservation issues on which so little progress has been made.

Many natural resources are severely threatened as discussed in Part Three of this report.

Some of these crises are well documented, such as the many wildlife species recognized as globally threatened on the Red List of the IUCN World Conservation Union.

Less well known but equally urgent crises include the quality and quantity of water in the wetland ecosystems and the ecological integrity of regional forests. These resources are, of course, linked because surface and groundwater quality and quantity are determined in part by the type and quality of vegetation cover on land. Both forests and water are threatened ultimately by the time lag between economic development and conservation in East Asia and throughout the world.

Waters of the Amur-Heilong River have been polluted for decades by industry and agriculture in all 3 basin countries, but most severely in China. The most recently publicized chemical spills on China tributaries of the Amur-Heilong reflect 2 different proximal causes of river contamination by toxic materials: one an accidental explosion at a chemical plant and the other intentional dumping of waste.

In both cases, the rush for financial gain in a developing market economy outpaced the application of constraints to protect the river and its ecology. The results are water and fish too toxic for use by wildlife, livestock or people.

Similarly, in commercial forestry, protection has lagged behind the pursuit of profit. Northeast China’s forests were logged or burned by anthropogenic fires from the 1950s through the 1990s and in the process a catastrophe was born. When unusually heavy rains fell in autumn 1998, the rivers flooded, property was destroyed and 154 people were drowned.

Recognizing the role of degraded forests, China responded by banning logging in most natural forests. This reduced the supply of domestic timber and caused a spike in demand for timber imports. Russia stepped in to meet this new demand by felling her forests virtually without regulation.

Unless this situation is addressed by effective controls on logging in the Russian Far East, China’s mistakes will be repeated in Russia, where some of the world’s most unfragmented, high value forests remain outside the tropics.

Conservation in Russia must catch up with exploitation and do so quickly.

One thread ties many of these basin-wide issues together in this report, and that is the concept of transboundary responsibility. The above examples of water and forests demonstrate clearly the need for basin countries to accept their shared responsibility for conservation and sustainable use of these resources.

However, an even more pressing example is provided by fisheries and sturgeon fisheries in particular. Sturgeon have been over fished for decades and the remaining stock of mature sturgeon cannot produce enough roe to meet the demand from world caviar markets.

The Amur-Heilong River is home to 2 endemic species of sturgeon, both of which yield caviar of high value. But populations of both species are declining due to overfishing to the extent that both are globally endangered per the IUCN Red List.

Legal fishing (in China) and illegal fishing (in Russia and China) continues despite knowledge in both countries that both species are sliding rapidly toward extinction.

Sturgeon in the Amur-Heilong now mainly occupy the main river channel, which, for most of its length, marks the China-Russia border. The two countries share the river and its resources, and this precludes either country resolving the sturgeon crisis on its own.

If the Amur-Heilong sturgeon fishery is to be restored, both countries must not only contribute, but enthusiastically and cooperatively wage a protective crusade for sturgeon and all other life in the river.

But the problem is not only overfishing. It includes water pollution, forestry, and potentially even hydropower generation, each of which will affect aquatic resources depending on the balance achieved between economic gain and environmental protection.

In recent years there have been many attempts at transboundary management of the Amur-Heilong’s natural resources. Unfortunately, most of these have failed to yield results, leaving only a few cases of effective cooperation for sustainable resource use. Most of these are transboundary nature reserves that are only small and isolated islands of protection on large landscapes of unregulated exploitation.

In Part Four of this report we discuss in 4 essays and 2 case studies new approaches needed to acknowledge and address the transboundary threats to natural resources in the river basin, and to overcome past failures.

Our goal in this Amur-Heilong River Basin Report is to

  • Present a compelling case for launching prompt and effective action backed by appropriate technology and adequate funding to restore the natural wealth of this globally important but largely unknown natural treasure.
  • We hope that administrators, managers, researchers, politicians, planners, conservationists, and business interests will find this Report useful in defining their role in this process.
  • Most importantly, we hope the Report will accelerate the spread of global awareness of this magnificent region and contribute to the restoration and long-term protection of its many unique features.
Cover page of the Armur-Heilong River Basin report
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