Biodiversity Restoration in Lake Dianchi, China - Part 1

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Last year was marked by the breeding of Little Grebes in Xialiangwang, one of the ‘Restoration of Freshwater Biodiversity in Lake Dianchi’ project's restoration sites.
See more photos.
Today I paid my final visit to the office of the ‘Restoration of Freshwater Biodiversity in Lake Dianchi’ project. It’s been part of my life for over a decade and I have come to feel very avuncular towards it. I expected to feel quite sad when the final reporting was completed, but in fact there is still so much going on, capitalizing on the gains they have made over the years, that I am actually full of hope for continued positive outcomes as it comes of age without the support of the Bank and the GEF.

It’s twelve years since I first became aware of Lake Dianchi on the south of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in south China.  At the time I was working with Maurice Kottelat on a World Bank Technical Paper, Freshwater Biodiversity in Asia, and Lake Dianchi was way at the top of the list of Asian lakes in terms of endemic fauna. It was as hot a freshwater biodiversity hotspot as one could find outside of the Rift Valley lakes in Africa. Not only is its biodiversity remarkable, but the lake was suffering from industrial, domestic and agricultural pollution, as well as from the tidying up of the shoreline during the Mao Tse-dung era. 

Coincident with my ‘discovery’ of Lake Dianchi, I became aware of the Bank’s Yunnan Environment Project (YEP), which was just about to get underway. The Task Manager, a British engineer called Geoffrey Read, since retired, was unusual in keeping an aquarium in his office and having a fondness for fish. He was intrigued that despite the thorough preparation of his project, no one had ever mentioned that this lake was so interesting when it was perceived to be a beneficiary of the project. This was because YEP was going to help build water treatment plants and take other measures which should reduce the load of pollutants entering the lake. 

The sparkling pool at Black Dragon Spring, a Buddhist temple, is virtually the only place on earth where you can see the endemic Kunming Mountain Barbel Schizothorax grahami. It is estimated there are only 200 mature individuals remaining.
See more photos.
I was pretty much a Bank rookie at the time and he help find some money which allowed a small team to put together a report on the status of the Lake’s biodiversity. It was also possible to get Maurice Kottelat to visit the lake and to undertake a preliminary survey with a team of local specialists led by Professor Yang Jun-xing and Dr Chen Xiao-yong from the Kunming Institute of Zoology.

The lake gets a bad rap for being polluted and covered in algal blooms. While not wanting to paint an overly rosy picture, it is not generally appreciated that the lake experiences a prevailing southerly wind which blows all the water hyacinth, algal mats and general crud to the north, which is the end closest to Kunming and thus the part which gets the most visitors, most attention, and the most polluted water.

Other parts of the lake are really rather nice and at one of the project’s restoration sites, Xialiangwang on the eastern shore, last year was marked by the breeding of Little Grebes, the first-ever sighting in Yunnan of the White-winged Tern, and the re-discovery of one of the endangered endemic species in the lake for the first time in over 30 years.

Prof Yang has directed his KIZ researchers and students, reached out to a variety of stakeholders, developed good working relationships with the all-important Yunnan Finance Bureau, first realized the commercial potential of the endemic Golden Line Fish Schizothorax grahami and the Grace Flower Ottelia acuminate,an indigenous macrophyte which lake-shore farmers are starting to grow and sell for food. He has also successfully raised money from various sources to complement the project especially for his fish-breeding facility, and has become quite a personality within local government and on TV and radio. Perhaps surprisingly, he also entered wholeheartedly into engaging with Buddhist communities (more on that in an upcoming post).

There is more to executing a World Bank project than most people imagine and the project faltered in the early years. But it then hired Ms Wang Li (see an interview on Windows Media video), a professional project manager who was also managing the very large YEP.  Her rigor and understanding of procedure, and also her knowledge of the institutions concerned with the lake’s management, allowed the KIZ scientists to do the sort of work they do best.

The project has also benefited from the occasional visits of two first-rate international consultants – Jonathan Davies from Kuala Lumpur who worked with the team on restoration of the macrophytes (the larger aquatic plants) and on the innovative Restoration Manual, and David Aldridge of Cambridge University who worked on innovative approaches to improve water quality using the massive filtering capacity of large bivalve mollusks.  He and the KIZ team were successful also in winning one of the coveted and highly-competitive Development Marketplace awards  (pdf).

Realizing the commercial potential of the Grace Flower, lake-shore farmers are now starting to grow and sell it for food.  See more photos.
Prof. Yang and his team are now working with the provincial authorities on a new Wetland Park based at one of their restoration sites on the eastern shore. Unlike most of those in China, this aims to be ‘soft’, without pervasive concrete, and taking advantage of the native biodiversity. The project team, especially Prof Cui Gui-ha, has done a remarkable job of informing the pubic and government about the unique nature of the lake and has increased both knowledge and pride.

Finally, Prof. Yang has made a real success of a fish-breeding facility ( see an interview here, Windows Media) which was part of the project but financed not by the GEF but from local sources.  Prof. Yang and his team managed to crack the secrets of breeding the Golden Line Fish, and on this visit I saw some of the 80,000 fry produced this year. A few hundred fry were released into special cages at the project restoration sites and after a year without being fed they are growing well. 

So, the project has come to a close but the work continues and the future of Lake Dianchi biodiversity is brighter now than for decades. 


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