Chinese provincial governments along the Yangtze River unite to stop the “disorderly” development of small hydropower plants

Stephanie Jensen-Cormier
Monday, June 4, 2018
Construction along the Chishui River, a major tributary of the Yangtze (February 2018)
Construction along the Chishui River, a major tributary of the Yangtze (February 2018)

Chinese provincial governments are reflecting top leadership priorities that call for increased attention to protect the Yangtze River.

On May 30th 2018, the Development and Reform Commission bureaus of ten provinces (Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Jiangxi, Hubei, Hunan, Chongqing, Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan) jointly announced a ban on all small hydropower projects along the Yangtze River Economic Belt. An announcement on the National Development and Reform Commission website explains that the provinces oppose the "adverse impact of the disorderly development of small hydropower" that have encroached on nature reserves.

Currently, the Yangtze River and its tributaries contribute 73% of the total hydropower generated in China. This includes the infamous 22,500 MW Three Gorges Dam. The Yangtze River basin is vital to China for many other reasons- it spans 20% of the geographical territory of China, sustains 43% of China’s population, makes up more than a third of China's freshwater reserves and contributes 42% of China's GDP. It has driven the Chinese economy throughout its history, and shaped the development and culture of the country.

According to the announcement, local governments along the Yangtze river must survey the environmental damage from the "uncontrolled" development of small-scale hydropower, warning that existing plants may be required to shut. Some of the provinces involved in making this announcement had previously incited private businesses to invest in small-scale hydro plants.


This announcement reflects President Xi Jinping’s emphasis on the need to protect and improve the state of the Yangtze River. At the end of 2017, the central government designated ecological redlines for an area that is referred to as the Yangtze River Economic Belt (YREB). Heavy and chemical industry projects are prohibited within one kilometer of the Yangtze and its major tributaries which fall under the YREB area. During the 19th Party Congress, in October 2017, President Xi stressed that YREB development should be protection-oriented rather than development-oriented.

The announcement follows the March 2016 initiative of Yunnan provincial government which banned all small hydropower projects along the Nu River, one of China’s last major free-flowing rivers.

It is essential to consider the cumulative impacts of small hydropower projects. International Rivers supports any action taken by the Chinese government to protect and restore its rivers. Sacrificing rivers for the sake of economic development is an outdated concept. Protecting the Yangtze River is critical for China to achieve a just and ecological civilization.