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Social Media Mobilises to Protect Sand Martins: China's Hydraulic Engineering and Biodiversity at Crossroads

The frequent natural disasters brought about by global climate change have become an issue we can no longer ignore. As the largest developing country in the world, China has faced numerous extreme weather events in recent years, including severe floods, typhoons, and droughts. In 2023, Beijing experienced the heaviest rainfall in 140 years, leading to massive flooding. This disaster resulted in at least 33 deaths, 27 people missing, and thousands being displaced. To improve the city’s flood defence capabilities, Beijing has devised a series of hydraulic construction plans, aiming to complete these projects within the next three years.


Rising Environmental Awareness in China

The relationship between hydraulic construction and ecological protection is intricate and delicate. Hydraulic engineering serves essential purposes such as flood control, irrigation, and power generation, which are crucial for societal safety and development. However, such construction often has a negative impact on natural ecosystems, leading to alterations in river flow and water quality, affecting aquatic life, and potentially causing the loss of natural habitats, further threatening biodiversity. To find a balance between hydraulic construction and ecological protection, it is important to consider eco-friendly designs. Prioritising short-term gains at the expense of the environment will only exacerbate climate issues, creating a harmful cycle.


Despite the numerous challenges China faces concerning ecological protection, public environmental awareness is steadily increasing. An increasing number of people are participating in activities to protect animals and preserve biodiversity. For example, on social media platforms like Xiaohongshu (also known as RED), many users share their environmental initiatives and animal protection efforts, urging more people to join the cause and advocate for better policies.


Protecting the Sand Martins Along the Yongding River in Beijing

Currently, Beijing has nearly completed its post-flood recovery and is implementing new flood prevention projects. One important step is widening river channels to improve emergency flood discharge capacity. However, this project area includes a cliff along the Yongding River where nearly 200 sand martin nests are located. This is the largest breeding site for these birds in the city. At present, the baby birds have not yet left their nests, but the construction team is preparing to start work.


Many bird enthusiasts quickly became aware of this news. Through social media, numerous individuals contacted local wildlife protection organisations and reported the situation to the authorities, requesting a halt to construction to protect the birds. Due to this strong public pressure, the project has been suspended until the fledglings leave the nest. Protective measures, such as setting up warning lines and bird protection signs, have been implemented at the site.


sand martins on RED social media

A similar situation occurred in 2021 with the Hutuo River Bridge construction project in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province. The construction of the bridge was rerouted to avoid disturbing the breeding Sand Martins on a sand island. This decision caused a delay of two months in the project. However, the measure led to significant ecological protection success, resulting in an increasing number of Sand Martins nesting there annually.


Hutuo river sand martins

For the Yongding River, the original project plan to flatten the earthen cliff would eliminate suitable nesting sites for the Sand Martins, meaning they would lose another habitat next year. Due to concerns raised by bird enthusiasts and animal protection organisations, various departments have initiated special seminars to deliberate on balancing and optimising the construction plan. However, this still needs to incorporate consideration of biological habits, scientific planning, and comprehensive management. It is important to learn from past mistakes, such as the Swifts Tower built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which, due to its flawed design, attracted sparrows with the size and form of its partitions, instead of the intended swifts.


Call for Professional Opinions and Suggestions

In the UK, as rivers flow through more developed urban areas, the natural nesting spots for sand martins have also decreased significantly. To address this, conservation groups in Surrey constructed a 400-tonne artificial sandbank, creating 100 square metres of sand martin habitat. To prevent parasite infestations, parts of the sandbank are removed each year, and the sand is recycled to rebuild the bank, ensuring a long-term home for the birds.


At Blashford Lake, volunteers used materials donated by Hanson Concrete to build a wall with 183 nesting holes, each containing a metre-long plastic tube filled with sand. This wall successfully attracted sand martins to nest. Shortly after completion, sand martins began occupying the holes, with around 40 pairs nesting initially. The following summer, this number more than doubled.


The rapid environmental alterations resulting from climate change pose significant challenges to wildlife, but we must not underestimate the adaptability of the natural world. While striving to mitigate climate change, we must also consider ecological balance, creating and protecting habitats for animals. They will find and adapt to new homes if given the opportunity.


What are your thoughts on the hydraulic construction plans for the Yongding River and the protection of Sand Martin habitats? We eagerly await your professional opinion and suggestions so we can work together to contribute to environmental conservation!

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