Fish-versus-Dams Debate Hits the Yangtze

The Chinese sturgeon, not as popular as the panda, but still considered stamp-worthy
The Chinese sturgeon, not as popular as the panda, but still considered stamp-worthy

The Chinese sturgeon (zhonghua xun) is not as popular as the cuddly and iconic panda, but China still considers it stamp-worthy. Its home is the Jinsha River on the Upper Yangtze, which boasts some of the most stunning gorges and unusual fish species in China. Like the salmon in the US, these wild fisheries provide a huge economic boost to local economies and support a diverse aquatic ecosystem. And like the US, native fish species in the Jinsha and Yangtze are being threatened by a host of problems. Top of the list are a series of new dams.

Calling for a Halt to Megadams

Due to the declining fisheries, the threat to farmland, and the risk of geological instability, Chinese experts have called for a halt on these dams, which include 12 dams on the Jinsha and three more on the upper Yangtze mainstream. They claim that these dams, including Xiaonanhai (approximately 30 km upstream from the rapidly growing city of Chongqing), would flood most of the last remaining fish reserve in the Yangtze River Basin, thereby preventing the migration of rare fish like the Chinese sturgeon.

While dams have impacted fisheries in China for decades, Xiaonanhai has become a rallying cry for critics of China's dam building programs. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, China's 2005 reported catch of wild inland fish was 17.1 million tonnes, more than four times the amount produced by the second-ranked nation, the US. The economic, ecological, and cultural importance of these wild river fisheries, in conjunction with a new Integrated River Basin Management policy by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), is giving activists added ammunition to call for a governmental reassessment of dam-building in the region.

Largely driven by the city of Chongqing's ambitious dam-building program, Xiaonanhai, would be the single largest project in its 11th Five Year Plan, costing around US$3.5 billion. With a proposed reservoir height of 195 meters, the dam would have an installed generating capacity of 1,750 MW (more than three-quarters the size of Hoover Dam in the US).

Redrawing the Lines

Map 1: Original conservation zone
Map 1: Original conservation zone
Probe International

The Xiaonanhai project is also part of the "Comprehensive Water Resources Development Plan for the Yangtze River Basin," which was approved by China's State Council in 1990. Following Xiaonanhai, the plan recommends another two dams, Zhuyangxi and Shipeng, for the Yangtze between Xiangjiaba and Three Gorges. In 1987, the State Council designated a 500-km section of the upper Yangtze as a National Yangtze Rare Fish Conservation Zone (see Map 1). Years later, the Three Gorges Corporation, builder of the Three Gorges project, started building a string of dams on the Jinsha River in the area that was set aside for conservation. Two of these dams, Xiangjiaba and Xiluodu, are near completion (Xiluodu faces safety concerns and corruption claims by the National Audit Office) Now three new dams, Xiaonanhai, Ludila, and Longkaikou, threaten this national reserve once again.

Prior to their construction, Chinese environmental groups called upon China's Environmental Protection Act, which came into force in December 1989, It states that no industrial enterprises or infrastructure projects likely to cause environmental damage can be built in scenic spots, nature reserves or other special areas designated by the central or provincial governments.

Map 2: Redrawn conservation zone
Map 2: Redrawn conservation zone
modified from Probe International

To get around this legal barrier, the Three Gorges Corporation asked the State Council to redraw the zone's boundaries to exclude the stretch of the river between the Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba dams (see Map 2). The State Council agreed to the request in April 2005, redesignating the protected fish zone to an area downstream of Xiangjiaba.

While the new dam, Xiaonanhai, sits in the experimental rather than the core zone (see Map 2), Cao Wenxuan, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and senior researcher at the Academy's Wuhan-based Institute of Hydrobiology, points out that the backwater of the dam's reservoir extends to the buffer and core zones, thus posing a serious threat for the area's rare fish. Feasibility studies for building the Xiaonanhai Dam have been conducted, but according to one expert commenting on the study, the Xiaonanhai report was poorly done and did not explain how the dam's construction would affect the environment and particularly rare fish.Experts fear that the endangered Chinese sturgeon, for instance, may quickly follow the fate of the baiji dolphin, declared functionally extinct in 2006.

MEP Responds

On Jun 11, 2009, China's MEP announced a decision to temporarily suspend the approval of two nearby dams, Ludila and Longkaikou. The announcement came after the MEP discovered that construction on supporting infrastructure for Ludila and Longkaikou had already started, blocking the flow of the Jinsha River, without the necessary EIA approval from the MEP. The Chongqing government promised to conduct an EIA, but it is unclear when this would be completed.

While the suspension is welcome news to scientists and river advocates, many critics wonder whether this action taken by the MEP will be as short-lived as the last one, when the MEP solved the conflict by simply redrawing the reserve zone boundaries. Civil society is thus staying vigilant and urging the government to suspend all projects on the Jinsha and to improve the approval process, including making sure that companies make their EIA reports public prior to approval (see NGO statement). If this doesn't happen, says Chinese NGOs, "the living environment for many of the area's unique and rare fish species will be destroyed, the beauty of spectacular canyon landscapes will be lost and the farmland and gardens of local people will be flooded." No amount of money could compensate for this loss.