Proposed air base relocation to the Hwaseong Wetlands would be ecologically disastrous

Dr Nial Moores, Birds Korea, August 13th 2022

The Hwaseong Wetlands in Gyeonggi Province are one of the most important remaining waterbird habitats in the Republic of Korea (ROK). Research we conducted in 2020 and 2021 in the wetlands, funded by Hwaseong City through the Hwaseong Eco-Foundation and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership, found that more than 150,000 waterbirds used the wetland in a one-year cycle. We also identified 25 populations of waterbirds in Ramsar Convention-defined internationally important concentrations of 1% or more of a population within the Hwaseong Wetlands Flyway Network Site.

Figure 1. Internationally Important Concentrations of waterbirds in and adjacent to the Hwaseong Wetlands as documented by Birds Korea during research in 2020-2021 in the Hwaseong Wetlands Project (commissioned by Hwaseong City / Hwaseong Eco-Foundation under contract from the the Secretariat of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership). Colours are used to indicate internationally important concentrations of waterbirds we found during our research. Brown hatching = foraging shorebirds at low tide; yellow =shorebird roosts at high tide (with some variation in use based on tide height); hatched blue = foraging geese; solid blue main goose roosts; and solid green = internationally important concentrations of grebes and diving ducks.
Figure 2. Small part of the high tide shorebird roost in the southeast corner of the Hwaseong Reclamation lake (marked 1 in Figures 1 and 4), April 2021

Because of their national and international importance, most of the Hwaseong-Maehyangri tidal flats were designated a national Wetlands Protected Area in 2021; and a draft Ramsar Information Sheet was filled in (but not submitted) to enable these same tidal flats to be designated a Ramsar site. Hwaseong City also proposed in 2020 and 2021 to try to designate a large part of the freshwater and brackish habitats there as a Wetland Protected Area too. As part of this very positive progress toward genuine sustainability, the mayor (now replaced) openly stated his support for Ramsar designation and called for consideration of listing the Hwaseong Wetlands as a natural World Heritage Site during Phase 2 (for which submission of potential sites needs to be agreed within the next year).

Figure 3. Figure published by Hwaseong City in 2020 showing the Hwaseong Maehyangri Tidal Flat Wetland Protection Area in green; and the proposed freshwater Wetland Protection Area in blue, including the southeastern corner of the Hwaseong Reclamation Lake, one of the most important waterbird roosts in the ROK.

It is therefore astonishing to report that, according to Hwaseong KFEM and a growing coalition of NGOs, in addition to the proposed hotel complex which continues to be promoted, high-level discussions have continued behind the scenes to relocate two airbases to within the Hwaseong Wetlands, with support for this proposal growing among key decision-makers.

Figure 4. As shown by materials already in the public domain provided to Birds Korea by Hwaseong KFEM this month (1) the proposed air base (blocked in brown) will occupy almost all of the working rice-field areas (some fallow areas will remain largely “unaffected”); and (2) the direction of take-off will mean aircraft will fly directly over the southeastern corner of the Hwaseong Reclamation lake (marked 1 in both images), causing massive levels of disturbance and running the high risk of bird strike.

Based on documents released into the public domain and shared in August 2022 with Birds Korea by Hwaseong KFEM, the air base as proposed will replace 80% or more of the rice-field and fallow areas in the Hwaseong Wetlands; and the flight path of aircraft will take them directly over the southeastern corner of the Hwaseong Reclamation Lake. The southeastern corner of the Hwaseong Reclamation Lake is now well-known to anyone with even a mild interest in the site (through site visits, reports, papers, international symposiums and TV documentaries) as the biggest waterbird roost during high tides along this part of the coast. This specific area (marked “1” in Figures 1 and 4) is currently used for roosting during high tide by e.g., thousands of staging globally Endangered Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis 알락꼬리마도요 in both spring and autumn; it is where we found a group of 19-21 globally Endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank Tringa guttifer 청다리도요사촌 in 2021; it is where we counted hundreds of globally Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor 저어새 both foraging and roosting (especially in August) and tens of thousands of geese from late October into December, including a very few Lesser White-fronted Goose Anser erythropus 흰이마기러기 – a species currently assessed as globally Vulnerable with a rate of decline in East Asia which should soon qualify the species as globally Endangered or Critically Endangered.

In addition to massive habitat loss and disturbance, also of critical concern are the flight lines of waterbirds moving to and from foraging areas to their main roost in the southeast corner of the Hwaseong Reclamation Lake. All of the shorebirds that forage in the Hwaseong Maehyangri Tidal need to move off the tidal flats during highest high tides to roost in the Reclamation Lake; and tens of thousands of geese also flight out each morning seasonally from the Hwaseong Reclamation Lake, with the majority in 2020 and 2021 flying to the southeast. For both groups of species their flight lines will bring them directly across the proposed runway or flight path of aircraft as they take off or land (Figure 5). Bird strike is a real concern as indicated by this article on January 14th 2022 on Yeonhap News: (with thanks to lead conservationist David Melville in New Zealand for the directing us to this link).

Figure 5. Main flight lines of shorebirds and Black-faced Spoonbill (yellow arrows) and of geese (blue arrows) at the Hwaseong Wetlands.

Based on our deep knowledge of the site and on the materials available in the public domain, it is possible to predict with a high level of confidence that construction of the air base as proposed would: (1) lead to massive declines in the number and diversity of waterbirds that currently depend on the Hwaseong Wetlands; (2) most likely result in declines in Far Eastern Curlew at the population level; (3) require very severe controls to prevent the otherwise high likelihood of bird strike especially with geese; and (4) cause massive disturbance to people and birds.

It is easy to sympathise with the human residents of Suwon who have had to tolerate excessive noise for years; and it is of course essential for the ROK to maintain the highest level of defence. However, it really seems extraordinary that anyone would give serious consideration to construction of such facilities in one of the most important and now well-known bird habitats in the nation, in an area that could instead be designated as a natural World Heritage Site, bringing huge pride and economic benefits to this part of the nation.

It is increasingly urgent to ask: what other locations have been considered for these airbases? What is the level of assessment that has been conducted? And in the knowledge that the Hwaseong Wetlands are internationally important, and that the nation is obligated to maintain populations of waterbirds through accession to the Ramsar Convention and CBD, what steps will be taken to mitigate the very many impacts on waterbirds?

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