Sustainable Use of the Yangtze River
About Photo: Upper Yangtze River in Yunnan, China. The Conservancy works on the Yangtze—from a fish sanctuary at the top of the river to dams and hydropower projects along its length—making the Yangtze safer and more productive for the 400 million people who depend on it.
The Yangtze River has been the primary lifeline of Chinese civilization for thousands of years. Not much has changed today: 400 million Chinese depend on the Yangtze for food, drinking water, crop irrigation, transportation, and energy, but competing interests could leave millions without the resources they need.
For example, hydropower produced by dams on the Yangtze provides the electricity that so many depend on, yet when dams aren’t operated properly, the alteration of the river’s natural flows can have seriously negative impacts on fish populations and water levels for irrigation, interrupting other people’s food supply.
If the needs of people and nature aren’t balanced along the Yangtze:
- There could be a severely negative impact on Chinese agricultural production, since half of the country’s crops are grown in the Yangtze River basin and depend on the river’s flows for irrigation;
- Fish could disappear from the river, if its flows aren’t managed to mimic natural rhythms;
- Wetlands could be destroyed, threatening the fresh water supply for tens of millions of people;
- Catastrophic flooding could threaten communities along the river.
Complicated is Our Specialty
Competing needs along the Yangtze create a complicated situation, but the Conservancy is perhaps best known for our ability to work with all stakeholders and achieve balanced solutions that work for everyone. In some ways, the complexity of preserving natural systems while simultaneously ensuring the river can continue meeting human needs is the kind of project where the Conservancy’s value is best revealed.
Dams on the Yangtze produce a lot of good: the electricity produced by Three Gorges Dam (the world’s largest hydropower facility) and others supply millions of people with electricity. But dams can also wreak havoc on a river, stifling the river’s natural flows so that fish no longer migrate, breed and reproduce; and flooding or drying up riverside areas —abruptly changing how communities have lived on and irrigated their lands for centuries.
A global expert on freshwater flows and the health of rivers, the Conservancy partnered up with major hydropower companies like the Three Gorges, as well as the Chinese government, to figure out how dams on the Yangtze could be designed, built, and operated in ways that would produce optimum levels of electricity, but also release water in ways that closely mimic the Yangtze’s natural flows and thereby encourage fish migration and reproduction, as well as allow communities to maintain their traditional agricultural methods.
The Three Gorges is already putting the Conservancy’s recommendations in place, but when fully implemented, the detailed plan resulting from this project will help ensure that existing and future dams on the Yangtze:
- Release water in ways that mimic natural water flows in order to sustain fish populations—the major protein source for tens of millions of people living in the area.
- Restore the Yangtze’s critically important floodplain wetlands, which provide clean water to tens of millions of people.
- Create funding for freshwater conservation through revenues generated from sustainable dam operation. Funding could subsidize floodplain operation, flood risk management, ecological protection, and health programs to limit the spread of waterborne diseases.
A Conservation Blueprint
Working with China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Conservancy recently completed the Urban Water Blueprint for advancing conservation across China by identifying biodiversity priorities, creating action plans for crucial conservation regions, and providing information to redesign and expand the country’s nature reserve system. One of the in-depth regional assessments included in the blueprint was on the Yangtze River Basin, and this has now become part of the central government’s National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plan, which will guide environmental advancements in China for years to come.