Health and Happiness for China’s Rivers in 2017

Stephanie Jensen-Cormier
Stephanie Jensen-Cormier on an abandoned barge that had been used to explore the best spots to build large dams on the Nu River.
Stephanie Jensen-Cormier on an abandoned barge that had been used to explore the best spots to build large dams on the Nu River.
International Rivers

Wishing all of our supporters across the world a Happy New Year!

As we enter 2017, I find myself thinking back to another recent New Year’s celebration.

In 2015, I travelled to a friend’s village in Hebei province to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Even though getting to the village in Beijing’s neighboring province was a short trip by high-speed train and car, it deeply contrasted with my reality in Beijing. One of his relatives and a few of the village children took me on a tour of their small town. The northern edge of the village was demarcated by what everyone referred to as “the river.” The river was used to irrigate the fields and was an important place of privacy for young people, especially couples who wanted to get to know each other before marriage. But “the river” had been dry for several years, and the only evidence left was the depressed shape of a riverbed on the dry and cracked earth. The agricultural land surrounding the river was also barren.

This phenomenon isn’t confined to just one village. China’s rivers are an important part of its identity and heritage, having sustained its people throughout their 5,000-year history. But in recent decades, they’ve been overexploited. Many of China’s rivers, important sources of food and energy, have literally disappeared as they’ve been polluted, dammed, diverted and overused by agricultural and industrial companies producing goods for China and the rest of the world. According to the Chinese Bureau of Statistics, there were 50,000 rivers in China in the 1980s; only 23,000 are left today.

Dried-up agricultural land and dry river bed in a village in Hebei.
Dried-up agricultural land and dry river bed in a village in Hebei.
Stephanie Jensen-Cormier/International Rivers

Fortunately, people have woken up to the problem. Like the people in my friend’s village, citizens all over China and the government are beginning to understand the dire state of their rivers. The good news is that Chinese people recognize that the quality of their lives is tied to the health of the environment. We saw encouraging trends in 2016, and we believe there are many reasons to be hopeful for China’s remaining rivers.

Here are a few reasons to be optimistic that 2017 will be a year of health and happiness for China’s rivers:

  • River restoration efforts begin. At this time last year, President Xi took on the overwhelming task of restoring the iconic Yangtze River, which at 6,300 kilometers is the longest river in Asia. The President explained that in order to achieve this, effective immediately, no further large-scale development would be allowed along most of the Yangtze. President Xi added that coordinated development must be achieved in sectors including water, road, port, wetland and environment, as well as in various regions along the river. The area protected from large-scale development is refered to as the Yangtze Economic Zone and stretches from Sichuan province all the way to where the Yangtze meets the sea in Shanghai. When it was reported in January 2016, many outlets were very critical of the large scale development that had already taken place on the river.
  • President Xi continues to signal his concern for the environment. When China hosted the G20 in September of 2016, President Xi told world leaders “we will make China a beautiful country with blue sky, green vegetation and clear rivers.” 
  • Dams canceled. Then, at the end of last year, China's State Energy Administration published both the Power and Hydropower Development Plans for the 13th Five-Year plan period (2016-2020), and they contained wonderful news: The plans no longer included five dams along China’s Nu River, which had featured in the previous 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015). (The dams had never been built.) For years, the prospect of these dams on the fast-flowing and beautiful Nu River has been the subject of a serious battle between environmentalist groups and the China Society for Hydropower Engineering. The river, known as Nu in China, is 2,815 kilometers long and flows through Myanmar, where it is known as the Thanlwin, and in Thailand, where it is known as the Salween. This was another victory for river conservation groups, who have spent over a decade working to protect China’s last major free-flowing river.
A farmer by the Nu River.
A farmer by the Nu River.
Stephanie Jensen-Cormier/International Rivers

Now, here are a few promising trends for the year that we’ve just begun:

  • “Ecological progress” now a factor in civil servants’ job performance. The Chinese government announced that from 2017 onwards, provincial, city and county government officials’ performance evaluations will include their actions on “ecological progress.”  The “ecological progress” targets will be based on resource utilization, environmental quality and public satisfaction. Officials who don't reach three or more of the targets will fail their assessment and be held accountable.
  • River protection features prominently. In his 2017 New Year Address, President Xi noted that the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) was well under way. During his remarks, the President mentioned only one environmental issue: protecting rivers. “Every river will have a river chief,” explained President Xi, saying “…this gives us great comfort and satisfaction.”
  • River chiefs. The Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Water Resources will develop the mechanism for the appointment of “river chiefs.” “River chiefs” will protect rivers and lakes, by controlling and preventing pollution as well as restoring the local ecology. They will be held accountable for any damage to the rivers under their oversight. In order to increase transparency regarding the work of “river chiefs,” their names and responsibilities will be made public. For large rivers and lakes will have multiple “river chiefs” chosen from the provincial, city, country and township levels of the government. This initiative works in tandem with another objective in the 13th Five-Year Plan which is to re-link (or restore) China’s rivers. We are following real cases for river restoration, and I look forward to reporting back to you.

I am also encouraged to witness the enthusiasm of young Chinese to promote river conservation.  We can expect to see many actions from this enthusiastic demographic, including continuing action from groups like Green Hunan, Green Watershed and Green Earth Volunteers as well as new participation from high school and university student groups across the country.

The health and well-being of rivers and humans are very closely linked. If we work towards improving the health and happiness of China’s rivers in 2017, then we ensure the same for the citizens of China and for neighboring countries that share transboundary rivers with China. Rivers are the arteries of this country, and powerful representations of the Chinese nation. Healthy rivers will contribute towards some of China’s top objectives, including internal stability and peacefulness among neighbors. If we keep China’s rivers healthy and free-flowing, they will continue to sustain the Chinese people and downstream neighbors for generations to come. 

On January 28, China celebrates the beginning of the Year of the Rooster, an animal known for waking people up. Please join International Rivers in our wakeup call to bolster the health and happiness of China’s powerful yet fragile life-supporting river systems. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017