Old Ties, New Challenges: Amur River at Risk

Nicole Brewer
Monday, March 2, 2009

The Amur-Heilong River System, which forms the border of China and Russia for 3,000 kilometers, has geopolitics to thank for its free-flowing condition. But plans to dam the so-called “Three Gorges of the Dragon River” now threaten its fish, rare birds, and people.

Fishermen in the Hinggan Gorge, on the Amur-Heilong River
Fishermen in the Hinggan Gorge, on the Amur-Heilong River
Eugene Simonov
Many great rivers of the world begin their journey within China, and most if not all of these rivers are now targeted for hydropower development. Chinese government planners seeking to expand the country’s hydropower production have also for years tried to tap the Heilong, or “Black Dragon” River (elsewhere called the Amur), whose headwaters seep from a sacred mountain in Mongolia. But so far, the Amur-Heilong River remains undammed, and each year millions of salmon and sturgeon migrate up its banks from the sea of Okhotsk in Russia.

Had history unfolded otherwise, the Amur-Heilong River would likely have disappeared under large dams long ago, and with it the longest salmon run in Asia would have collapsed. As Eugene Simonov, a consultant to WWF’s campaign on the Amur-Heilong, explains, “The river has a very interesting character in that it is the longest border river in the world. You need common consent to create these dams, and territorial claims always were a headache.”

In the late 1950s, Russia and China hatched a joint plan to build nine dams on the river’s main stem. But due to the souring of Sino-Soviet relations in the 1960s, the dams were never built. The plans were revived in the 1980s, but by that point Russia had little need for new hydropower. Satellite images of the Amur-Heilong River watershed show a sharp distinction between the two countries: the Russian side is green, the Chinese side is brown. Over 93% of people living in the watershed live on the China side.

Today, at 4,444 kilometers, the Amur/Heilong has the distinction of being the longest free-flowing river in the eastern hemisphere. But recently, engineering plans for the main stem dams were sold to China by their Russian designers. Not long after, local officials in Heilongjiang Province set up a hydropower investment company and coined the term “Three Gorges of the Dragon River” to attract funding for the 1,800 MW Taipinggou Dam. This project – the farthest downstream of the dams conceived as part of the old bilateral plan –  would cut the watershed, and critical migration routes, in two.

“This could be the nail in the coffin for efforts to restore and protect the river,” says Simonov. He believes a free-flowing Amur-Heilong River is critical to wildlife such as the Oriental White Stork, Chinese Softshell turtle, the Red-Crowned Crane, and fish such as salmon and the largest sturgeon species in the world – the Kaluga. The Taipinggou Dam is certain to have impacts on these fish populations, with ripple effects to downstream commercial fishing communities, and a disproportionate impact on ethnic minority groups such as the Nanai/Hezhe. Entire towns and villages on the Chinese side would have to be relocated for the dam.

Simonov and his colleagues would like Russia and China to cooperate on an Integrated River Basin Management (IRBM) Plan, one that focuses less on hydropower development and more on habitat protection, pollution cleanup and prevention, and water use management. But he feels interim conservation measures are needed to stave off further habitat losses. Though little known to the rest of the world, the Amur-Heilong River is at the heart of the largest contiguous forest left on earth, which at 380 million acres represents an area larger than the state of Alaska. “At this point the countries are not prepared for a full-fledged IRBM plan,” he says. “It is much more obtainable to start with critical pieces, for example creating an ‘Amur Green Belt’ which can include protected lands and waters of different kinds, ensuring biodiversity conservation and environmental security along the border.”

Already, both China and Russia have national laws in place to protect much of the watershed; on the China side alone there are 220 designated protected areas. But in 2005 a massive chemical spill on the Songhua River, a tributary to the Amur-Heilong River, served as a strong reminder to both countries that greater cooperation is critical for the river’s long term health. In the aftermath of such a pronounced disaster, Chinese and Russian officials alike would do well to more closely examine the many risks and costs of dam building on the free-flowing Amur-Heilong River.

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