With a length of 6378km, the Yangtze river is the world’s third longest river. Its basin, covering 1.8Mkm2, is home to about one third of the Chinese population – more than 400M people – and finding a balance between economic development and environmental and social needs is an ever-increasing challenge. Dams and thousands of kilometers of dykes have already cut off the river links to lakes, which once formed a complex wetland network fulfilling important natural functions such as spawning and feeding for fish, and intensive land reclamation has created agricultural and urban settlements on former floodplains and lakes. Severe flooding is now an almost annual event with thousands of lives lost and economic losses worth more than US$70B in the last 15 years.

Despite centuries of change, the lakes and floodplains of the Yangtze continue to support a wealth of distinctive natural diversity. The flora and fauna of this area are uniquely adapted to the seasonal changes in the water cycle – fish move freely between them while non-aquatic animals make for higher ground. Yet, changes to these seasonal fluctuations due to dam construction are putting further pressure on ecosystems. A recent report by WWF has identified it as the top global river basin where high value ecosystems are most at risk from current and planned dam construction, with at least 46 dams under construction or planned (including the Three Gorges dam, the world’s largest hydro power plant). The Yangtze also receives 22B tons of industrial effluent and poorly treated sewage water annually, causing major pollution problems.

Such problems are not confined to the Yangtze alone. China’s history has seen an evolving process of harnessing and exploiting its rivers and their waters, mainly through engineering and technical means. Despite positive moves such as drawing together the management of water resources with river basin and provincial management as well as other advances such as the revised Water Law adopted in 2002, China continues to show clear signs of unsustainable use of its water resources and the related ecosystems of its rivers. Devastating floods and mudslides, declining water quality and fish catch, loss of biological diversity, water shortages and falling water tables are but some of the signs that the management systems for water resources, rivers and lakes in China need urgent attention.

‘So much of China’s economy and the biodiversity that it depends on is related to the way water is managed,’ says Claude Martin, Director General of WWF. ‘WWF is advocating a move away from an overemphasis on engineering solutions to water management to a more comprehensive view – one that takes into account land use, the effects of climate change, protected areas, and upstream protection.’

Natural management

WWF is advocating a natural management solution for the Yangtze, finding a way to work with, rather than against, the river, and has been working at both the policy level and in the field towards restoration of the balance of nature and people in the central Yangtze since the 1980s.

A main component of the solution being put forward by WWF in China is integrated river basin management (IRBM), which aims to promote better management and preservation of water resources, the ecosystem and biodiversity within river basins, while improving the environmental quality and living standard of people. IRBM is rapidly being introduced in many countries as a management framework that can help draw together economic, social and environmental aspirations. In the European Union, for example, IRBM became a legal requirement under the 2000 Water Framework Directive. It is a process of coordinating the management and development of the water, land, biological and related resources within a river basin, so as to maximise the economic and social benefits in an equitable way while at the same time conserving freshwater ecosystems and species.

IRBM is also a participatory mechanism for solving conflicts and allocating water among competing users, while recognising that natural ecosystems are in part the suppliers of natural resources and the fundamental ‘natural infrastructure’ that delivers it to human users. Natural ecosystems are also key providers of a range of ecosystems services (flood mitigation, water quality improvement and fish
productions for example), which were previously overlooked in water resource management.

In China, WWF has co-funded an IRBM Task Force with the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED), a high level international advisory board to the Chinese government. The Task Force of Chinese and international experts scrutinised international experiences in river basin management gained in the Murray Darling river basin in Australia, the Rhine river basin in Europe, the Fraser river in Canada and the European Union. Altogether, the Task Force prepared 30 investigative reports and published four monographs. Its conclusions were presented to the China Council in November 2004.

The key recommendation of the Task Force was that the State Council should adopt an IRBM framework for China and introduce it through a staged process commencing with the Yangtze river basin. Furthermore, it identified the need for programmes aimed at increasing stakeholder awareness and public participation, for economic measures and financial incentives; and for innovative methodologies and technologies. Amongst those, the promotion of retrofitting technology for dams was highlighted.

According to the Task Force, China – which stands at a significant cross-road in it development – now has two options: continue on the same path as today, fuelling economic growth with unsustainable exploitation of the rivers and their associated natural resources, or move to more integrated approaches designed to entrench sustainability as the foundation of future development. Recognising rivers as the lifeline of society, the economy and the environment and adopting an integrated planning and management approach is now under deliberation by China’s State Council.

While the Chinese authorities are deliberating their response to the Task Force report, WWF is working on the ground in the Yangtze basin to promote a more sustainable approach to river management. On Swan Islet in Hubei Province, WWF is working with local authorities to re-establish the natural connections between the wetlands and the Yangtze in order to restore the area’s ‘web of life.’ A way has been devised to re-introduce water and fish fry into the wetland area. The floodgates of a dam, the sole function of which was once to prevent and drain off floods, will now be opened seasonally, taking into account the fish breeding season and allowing fish to flow into the wetlands from the Yangtze. By re-establishing this important connection between the wetlands and the Yangtze, a very important step has been taken towards restoring the area’s natural habitat and the home of the white-flag dolphin and elks.

The case for an ecosystem-based approach in China

Over the past 15 years there have been increasingly clear signals of fundamental failures with the management of water resources and river systems in China. These failures have had, in some cases, dramatic impacts on the people, the economy and the environment. Collectively, these impacts make a very strong case for China taking more holistic and integrated approaches to the management of water resources and river basins.

• Frequent flood disasters, made worse by de-forestation and loss of wetlands – Deforestation in the upper and middle reaches of the rivers and plateau regions, and loss of floodplain wetlands, exacerbates erosion and flooding, and also reduces water quality.

• Declining water quality caused mainly by pollution and land use practices – In many rivers the quality of water is deteriorating year by year and this brings with it additional human health and water treatments costs. About 62.6B tons of wastewater drains into China’s rivers each year with 62% of this being industrial wastewater and 36% poorly treated sewage water. Three-quarters of China’s 50 major lakes are polluted, as are one-third of the reservoirs.

• Reduced access to water resources caused by landscape changes and inefficienusage practices – Population encroachment on the floodplain, and bank construction for flood control, has removed or greatly reduced the areas of lakes and wetlands. There is very poor water use efficiency for agriculture, industry, human supply and for irrigation it is only 30%-40%; about half that of most developed countries. Water used by industry accounts for 72% of the total for urban water usage, yet the reuse rate of this water is only 50%; around two-thirds of that found in developed countries. Unregulated land reclamation such as has occurred with Dongting Lake, the second largest lake in China. This was reduced from 6300km2 in 1825 to 2625km2 in 1995.

• Loss of biodiversity due to engineering works, habitat loss and lack of water – Water management and flood mitigation infrastructure has significantly altered flow patterns, as has human encroachment onto floodplains and into riparian zones. An over-reliance on engineering solutions invariably impacts on biodiversity and the ‘health’ and productivity of rivers. In north-west China, aquatic ecosystem declines are occurring due to lack of water and in Honghu Lake along the Yangtze river the number of species has declined from 3000 in the 1950s to 1500 now. Over this same period the area of water surface has been reduced from 80,000ha to 27,000ha.

• Flooding and droughts exacerbated by climate change and desertification – Flooding and droughts are exacerbated by unsustainable land and water use practices with the impacts varying across different parts of China. The 2001 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that for the period 1900-1999 there was a 30%–50% increase of precipitation in southern China during winter months. At the same time there has been a decline of precipitation in northern China. The Yangtze river has experienced several major floods over recent decades, while the Yellow river to the north continues to experience droughts and water shortage.