Human Population and Impacts in the Amur-Heilong

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Several major tributaries of the Amur River are already blocked by hydropower dams. Construction of Burea Hydro.
© WWF Russia / Zov Taigi

Human Populations and Environmental Impacts

The Amur-Heilong River Basin has become an arena for economic cooperation and competition between the countries of Northeast Asia.

Transboundary Challenges


Intense economic development has increased human-induced pressures on both ecosystems and species. Repeated reports at the beginning of the 21st century describing degraded or lost biodiversity, habitats, water quality and other natural resources raise concerns over how much more human pressure Amur eco-regions can bear without losing the potential for natural recovery.

The Amur-Heilong River Basin exemplifies transboundary regions in need of shared environmental responsibility. Land-use patterns and cultural traditions and pace of economic development are drastically different in Russia, Mongolia and China, but sustainable development requires cooperation in the field of environmental protection and nature resource management.

Contrasts in Human Populations

Uneven distribution of human population is one of sharpest contrasts of Amur-Heilong River Basin. The total human population in the Amur-Heilong is about 75 million people and population ratio for China , Russia and Mongolia is 400:25:1. Average population density is 35 people/km2 in the basin, which translates into more than 90 people/km2 in China, 3.5 people/km2 in Russian Far East and 0.83 people/km2 in Mongolia.

Ethnic composition and cultural traditions differ significantly between countries of the basin. The most commonly spoken languages of the Amur Heilong River Basin are now Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Mongolian, closely followed by Buriat and Korean languages. The ethnic composition of indigenous people is mainly influenced by Mongolian-language tribes in Amur Headwaters that today are mainly represented by Buriats, Khalkh, Barga, and Daur groups – all those best adapted to nomadic life in the Daurian Steppe. Then north and east of Amur-Heilong still has communities of the Tungus-Manchurian language ethnic groups: Owenk, Olunchun, Hezhe-Nanai, Udege, Ulchi and other hunters and fishermen of Northeast Eurasia.

Human Impacts

The degree of human impact on the environment in the Amur River basin is uneven, but is already quite substantial in all three countries. The plains support extensive agriculture, especially in China, while other dominant land-use types are extraction of mineral resources, and forestry. Development of international trade spurs construction of transportation infrastructure, and oil&gas pipelines provide additional challenges. Several major tributaries are already blocked by hydropower dams, while lower reaches are severely affected by water pollution from industry and agriculture. Poor land-management practices and accelerating climate change lead to widespread wildfires and land degradation.

Threats to biodiversity have been assessed by many projects in each basin country, but rarely considered across international borders. Some of these threats arise and affect ecosystems mainly within a single country, but still have transboundary causes and consequences. Illegal logging and forest fires, for example, are now confined largely to Russia. Overgrazing by livestock sporadically occurs in Mongolia and Russia, and is rapidly growing throughout northeast China. Expansion of agriculture and infrastructure is largely an issue in China where rapid economic growth has enabled large government investments in irrigation, flood control, and road-rail infrastructure. Transboundary transport infrastructure is rapidly growing to connect Russia and Mongolia with China and other Asian markets. Excessive harvest of biological resources: timber, terrestrial wildlife is also triggered by international market demand. Fish resources are overexploited and total catch decreased manifold in recent decades, which necessitated Russia and China to agree on common fishing rules. Transboundary pollution and degradation of spawning rivers by logging and mining adds pressure on remaining fish populations.

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GLOBIO assessment map vividly shows distribution patterns of major human activities across the Amur-Heilong River basin
© GLOBIO

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