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Status of Environmental Data for Decision Making in Amur-Heilong
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Sorry for warning You from the start, but basic water and environmental data used for decision making in Amur Heilong River Basin are biased, fragmented, and unreliable. They are ill suited to solving transboundary problems. 
The largest body of data ever collected jointly by neighboring countries is contained in two project documents entitled "Joint Water Management Schemes for the Argun and Amur Rivers" (1961, 1993).  These represent extensive research on many essential aspects of river system functions.  While the basic data are invaluable, conclusions derived from them are often biased because the data were compiled for a narrowly defined purpose - building reservoirs in the main channel.  1993 data were further complicated first by the debate between environmentalists and hydro-engineers that occurred during data analysis, and second by avoiding politically sensitive issues in the bi-lateral dialogue, including bank erosion, flood protection, pollution, and border issues.  We could not trace Russian volumes of the Schemes that had been translated to the Chinese or vice-versa.  This might mean that neither side had a chance to study the information held by the other side, bringing into question the legitimacy of the joint conclusions.  These enormous datasets were shelved in the late 1990s and never used for water resource management
Another prominent body of data on biology, ecology, and management of Amur-Heilong fish was collected and analyzed in the “Works of Amur Ichthyologic Expedition” (Nikolsky, G., editor, “Works of Amur Ichthyologic Expedition.” Moscow State University 1950-1956).  The expedition set out to develop recommendations for restoring depleted fish stocks and, in the process, developed a compendium of basic and applied knowledge on freshwater biota which remains the most complete knowledge base on the subject.
In recent years academic research on the Amur-Heilong River has been carried out by several principal institutes in the region.  In Russia studies were poorly coordinated and rarely progressed beyond primary research on narrow subjects.  Most of these focused on issues of secondary importance to the main questions of ecosystem function and basin-wide water management.  In 2003-2005 a decision was made by the RFE Division of the Russian Academy of Science to increase funding for Amur-Heilong studies, but no coherent research program has been established.  The number of field expeditions and projects has, however, increased.  Unfortunately, many of the results are high quality but irrelevant to decision-making. 
In China, academic research has advanced in the fields of wetland science.  Several monographs have been published on the wetland ecosystems of the Sanjiang and Song-Nen plains and their human-induced impacts (for example: Liu Xingtu and Ma Xuehui. Natural Environmental Changes and Ecological Protection in the Sanjiang Plain. Forestry Science Publishers. Beijing 2002. 355 pp).  Wetland ecosystems of the northeast receive growing attention from various national institutions and journals (see Wetland Science Journal).  The most influential of these, the Chinese Academy of Engineering Sciences, conducted the multi-year Northeast Water and Soil Conservation Research Programme (2006).  Existing bilateral China-Russia programs supporting joint research have started only a few small research projects relevant to Amur-Heilong basin environmental management.
International assistance projects supported by the GEF, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Japan Association for International Cooperation and Assistance (JAICA) and international research institutes since the 1990s have been promoting wider approaches and have served as vehicles for formulating basin-wide priorities and synthesizing data across large parts of the basin.  Some of the best available English-language sources on the Amur-Heilong environment originate from those projects.  Many of them are repeatedly quoted in this Reader.  However, the nature of some of these projects prevented them from producing quality information and assisting decision making.  Such projects were heavily laden with policy agendas of funding agencies, participating national agencies, and consulting institutions.  The short time-frames of these projects allow little time for data acquisition and often preclude peer review.  In many instances this leads to low report quality and repeated sale of the same datasets to different projects rather than production of new reports from high quality data.  Unfortunately, despite the presence six GEF projects in the region, little coordination has been achieved between them.  The legacy of the development phase of the "Songhua River Flood, Wetland, and Biodiversity Management" Project undertaken in 1998-2001 by ADB-GEF is an especially valuable asset for advancement of future studies.  Although it was later implemented as a flood management infrastructure project without much of the original focus on wetlands and biodiversity, it produced a large body of information on the relation between wetlands and flood-control and other critical issues.
In recent years domestic funding has increased for applied research supported by resource management agencies in both China and Russia.  Periodic reports produced by these agencies are valuable sources of data.  In Russia, advances in studies on pollution and river dynamics have been achieved by agencies that assign such research to local research institutes.  In contrast to these successful research projects, the third cycle of the "Amur Basin Comprehensive Water Management Scheme" was ordered by ABWMA in a similar process.  The general problem of such studies is the lack of capacity among management agencies to set objectives and control implementation of the research project by the contractor.  In the case of the "Scheme," no such control existed for nearly two years.
Planning done by resource-management and environmental agencies is also an important primary resource both for background information and for data on current policy.  Agencies prepare extensive plans covering wide varieties of topics and containing and analyzing volumes of environmental data.  Preparation of large plans requires contributions from an array of professional disciplines.  Many applied science institutions specializing in environmental and other scientific fields exist both in China and Russia.  Some more innovative plans require subcontracting researchers from academia.  In Russia such planning efforts in the environmental field have recently undergone a sharp decline due to the dismantling of environmental agencies, while in China they seem to be on the rise.  A large proportion of agency resources are devoted to these planning exercises.  However, as a rule, the scope of planning is limited to responsibilities of a given agency and follows strict planning guidelines, many of which were written 10-20 years ago.  Such plans are strong on specific sectoral detail but weak on cross-sectoral issues that often are most important when considering environmental problems. 
In China there is a tendency for more integrated planning that blends traditions of socialist state-planning with a new understanding of market mechanisms and complex environmental issues using advanced scientific analyses.  One policy calls for Jilin and Heilongjiang to become two early models of "Green Provinces."  Within these provinces each prefecture was asked to prepare a plan for environmentally-friendly development.  While this seems a useful and appropriate new direction for northeast China, closer analysis reveals flaws.  For example, the "green development" plan for Hegang Prefecture was written in 2003-2004 ("Hegang Shi Shengtai Shi Jianshe Guihua. 2004").  An important component of the planning background for this prefecture was omitted from the green development plan.  This was a proposed dam project at Taipinggou in Hinggan Gorge on the main channel of the Amur-Heilong River.  Rather than discuss this large dam project that would undoubtedly have the most profound impact on the local and regional environment, repairs on nine small rural reservoirs were prescribed in detail.
Important monitoring data include the "Nature Chronicles" kept by Russian Zapovedniki (strict scientific nature reserves each having a research department).  Although focused on monitoring biota, this research includes basic meteorological and hydrological monitoring in the reserve vicinity and is often relevant to broader studies of ecosystem function.  Several reserves in China also have research departments and carry out observations on fauna numbers and movements, and other natural features, depending on key issues in their locations.  Such long-term monitoring results are invaluable for study of impacts of large-scale projects on natural ecosystems and for tracing influences of climate change.  A collection of articles by Zapovedniki researchers on ecosystem responses to climate change in the Amur-Heilong Basin published in 2006 with WWF support is a fine example of proper use of this monitoring system (Kokorin 2006).
Basic monitoring of meteorology, hydrology, and pollution is carried out by the Russian Hydrometeorological Agency (RosKom Gidromet), with a sparse network of monitoring stations spread throughout the immense expanses of the RFE.  This network provides useful but insufficient data to determine the diversity and spatial-temporal distribution of pollutants in the Amur-Heilong River main channel.  Since 2000, more or less regular monitoring of pollution was jointly carried out by Roskom Gidromet and Chinese counterparts from SEPA. This program was strengthened following the 2005 Songhua spill.
Environmental monitoring of the local effects of dam construction on the Bureya River was originally planned largely as a public relations measure.  Initiated and funded by RAO-UES Russia, this monitoring scheme neither envisioned the investigation of the Bureya Dam’s impacts on the Amur-Heilong River, nor fully took into account the cumulative impacts of two dams in the Amur-Heilong watershed.  However, it proved to be a revolutionary achievement and sat in stark contrast to the previous absence of any systematic effort to assess effects of dams on basin rivers.  Several institutes of academia, three zapovednik research departments, and numerous contractors monitor both the site and downstream.  Continuous pressure from environmental NGOs helps ensure objectivity.  WWF-facilitates this process by publicizing early results of research in popular brochures (such as Podolsky S. –editor. Bureya Dam – Zone of High Tension. WWF Russia, 2005, 80 pages).  However, the main body of data collected to date is poorly analyzed, partly for fear that funding will cease when first conclusions are drawn.  There is also no clear procedure for using monitoring results to specify funding of mitigation measures.

Finally in terms of data, there are the environmental impact assessments (EIAs) that are mandatory in China, Russia, and Mongolia.  Environmental impact statements (EIS) prepared by the firm undertaking a project are reviewed by a committee of experts assigned or licensed by environmental authorities.  In Russia, and more recently in China, special provisions are made to allow public access, hearings, and comment during an EIA.  Therefore EISs are prepared for use in a competitive and highly political process.  This leads to limitations on the types of data and the level of detail included in an EIS.  Nevertheless, for public and outside experts, it is usually the only opportunity to get acquainted with details of a proposed development.

Saying all that we invite you to explore Amur Digest, compiling which we had no choice but to use abovementioned data. We also invite You to look at the collection of references and links to web-sites in Amur Heilong River Basin Reader containing some information on nature conservation and development issues in Amur-Heilong River Basin.


Amur-Heilong on the Globe

Basemap of Amur Heilong River basin

Topography of Amur Heilong River basin

Political divisions



Introductory tour of Amur basin



Amur-Heilong Natural  Heritage



Also look:



Guidance from compiler


Amur-Heilong River Basin at a glance

Table on Amur comparison with other basins

Natural and Cultural  Heritage of Amur

Useful links on Amur-HeilongRiver Basin issues

Amur-Heilong River Basin Reader – link to full PDF and References




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