By Alex Ngari
Around the world, migratory birds provide immeasurable value to the environment. From pollination, to controlling pests, to food sources for other wildlife species, migratory birds accord many benefits to nature and people. Many migratory species form a must-see-list of many birdwatchers with avitourism contributing billions of dollars per year to national economies.
Every year, the world celebrates World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) in May and October to raise awareness on these birds, which travel thousands of kilometres across continents in search of suitable feeding and breeding conditions. This Year’s WMBD theme “Birds Connect Our World” highlights the importance of conserving the ecological connectivity and integrity of ecosystems that are essential for migratory birds. Migratory birds are increasingly under threat from habitat loss and degradation. Unsustainable land-use changes in various ecosystems including grasslands, forests and wetlands is affecting these birds. Other threats include taking of birds from the wild and trade. All these threats are exacerbated by the effects of climate change.
Arguably, one of the biggest threats facing migratory birds today is the increase in energy infrastructure developments. These include wind turbines and powerlines, which kills millions of migratory birds every year. Africa, is witnessing increased renewable energy developments, and substantial number of the projects are located in areas of high significant value. Some are situated within landscapes and corridors important for migratory birds. Poor deployment leads to negative interaction between birds and energy infrastructure, which results to infrastructure and power utilities suffering significant losses through power outages or expensive maintenance costs. Eventually, the high cost of running such infrastructure is passed on to consumers through high electricity bills.
Clearly, the planning, generation, transmission and distribution of power needs to consciously and deliberately take biodiversity matters into account. This approach calls for a close collaboration between policy makers, conservation bodies, power utilities and other private sector entities. Luckily, there are means and approaches plus tested tools that can be harnessed to build environmental sustainability within energy policies, plans, programmes and projects. These measures should be mainstreamed at early stages of energy developments.
At the planning stage, there is need to develop Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) to inform decision makers on the suitability of various landscapes at the relevant scale. At instances where SEA is not developed, then undertaking Sensitivity Mapping becomes instrumental in helping make critical decisions.
For power generation, development of standards and guidelines usable at scale for various technologies to help pre-empt biodiversity and economic losses is key. Measures such as undertaking pre- and post-construction surveys protocols are very important. The surveys are very important in informing where the dangers are expected to occur and helping in continued improvement of any installed mitigation measures. For example, the Shut Down on Demand (SHOD) for wind farms is being piloted in Africa to address collision risks. This has been used in Egypt at the Gabal-el Zayt wind farm. A staggering 400,000 migratory bird individuals from 41 species has been recorded within the wind farm during spring migration alone. To mitigate collision threat posed to the birds, BirdLife and partners developed a SHOD protocol. Application of SHOD has helped to avert massive bird mortalities and without significant power losses for the wind farm.
At the transmission and distribution phase, many vulnerable migrants are killed as a result of collision or electrocution from powerlines. There is then need to design nature-friendly powerlines infrastructure and routing that considers migratory corridors and important sites or habitats for the birds. Stakeholders should come up with standards and guidelines to support improvement of safeguards in the existing problematic infrastructure and to make new ones friendlier to nature. Additionally, stakeholders in both conservation and energy sectors should team up to find lasting solutions to this problem. For instance, at Port Sudan, a 31-km long powerline constructed in the 1950s, and estimated to have killed thousands of long distance migratory Egyptian Vultures was replaced with an insulated one in 2013. This was as a result of intervention by BirdLife and other stakeholders including government agencies thus averting further deaths.
As we celebrate World Migratory Bird Day, it is imperative to redouble efforts to safeguard migratory birds against unsustainable developments. Migratory “Birds Connect Our World” through their epic journeys; they know no borders. Our effort to save them should go beyond borders to achieve a win-win for human development and nature.
The writer is Migratory Birds and Flyways Programme Manager at BirdLife and can be reached at: Alex.Ngari@birdlife.org.