As a result of decades of unchecked development and poor decision making, China’s inland rivers are suffering a crisis and are in the midst of severe losses of biodiversity. Currently there is a serious lack of conservation measures and a shortage of funding to protect endangered aquatic species.
According to an expert from Changjiang Fishery Resources Managing Committee, there used to be more than 1,100 species in the Yangtze River, including more than 370 fish species, over 220 zoobenthos (organisms which live on the riverbed), and hundreds of aquatic plants. The rapid development of economic zones in the Yangtze River basin has caused a rapid decline in aquatic biological resources. Now many species like the Chinese river dolphin and the Chinese paddlefish face extinction. The famous Reeves’ Shad, once important to local fisheries, has not been seen for many years. “Living fossils” such as the Chinese sturgeon have also rapidly decreased in numbers and at an even faster pace.
It is baffling to me that when we were initially constructing the Three Gorges Dam, we didn’t learn from the experiences of developed countries that built fish ladders for migratory fish. Even Vietnam and Laos, our neighbors to the south are installing fish ladders in their new hydropower projects. Since the formation of the Three Gorges Reservoir, the dam has blocked the migratory routes that the fish need in order to reproduce. The “transform rivers into lakes” strategy seeks to inundate rapids and exposed shoals in the river to promote for the safe passage of ships, but many fish that are used to living in the rapids are gradually migrating upstream resulting in a reshuffling of river basin ecosystems. The dam has also had a major impact on yearly fish catches. During this year’s rare summer droughts, thousands of fishermen along the water basin were left with empty nets.
1500 kilometers upstream from the Three Gorges Dam, in Yunnan province lies the UNESCO Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site home to the upper reaches of three major rivers in Asia: the Jinsha (upstream of the Yangtze), the Mekong (known as the Lancang in China), and the Salween (known as the Nu river in China). These rivers run parallel north to south passing through 3000-meter deep valleys and 6000-meter high glaciers and snowy peaks. This is China’s most biodiverse region, sporting the most plant species per unit area in the world and is home to 77 kinds of rare and endangered animals such as snub-nosed monkeys, antelopes, snow leopards, and black necked cranes.
In the Three Parallel Rivers region, the Nu River valley represents a significant biological corridor that stretches from Tibet to Yunnan and into Myanmar. The river cuts through the deep canyons of the Hengduan Range, giving way to a vertical climatic belt that produces dynamic and unique conditions for the animal and plant life. In addition, the Nu River’s rich water resources have long-supported the livelihoods of many ethnic groups living in the valley.
There are countless fish species that depend on the Nu, including more than fifty kinds of fish in Yunnan province alone, and about twenty unique species. In 2001, Kunming Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a fish exploration team from the California Academy of Sciences caught the biggest eel in the world, the Yunnan Manli Eel, in the middle reaches of the Nu River. A large number of amphibians, reptiles and aquatic mammals such as otters also call the Nu mainstream and its tributaries home. These animals have become interdependent as they coevolved during the formation of the valleys and rivers. Their DNA carries key information about the geological and natural history of the entire East Himalayan region.
Experts from the Chinese Academic of Sciences and local universities closely monitor the biodiversity of the Nu River. International conservation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and a few domestic environmental organizations conduct research on different aspects of in certain stretches of the river. However, comprehensive and coordinated research conducted on the entire river basin needs to happen soon.
At the government level, the emphasis on biodiversity is growing. The Nu River prefecture government is increasing public advocacy around ecosystem protection and biodiversity conservation and is strengthening the protection and management of biodiversity resources but their efforts likely face a losing battle to the Goliath of Big hydropower in China.
Thanks to non-governmental environmental organizations, the Nu River hydropower controversy in 2003 and 2005 launched the dam project to national and international attention. Because of the work of organizations such as Green Earth Volunteers and Green Watershed, the central government suspended the thirteen dam cascade project on the Nu River. For the first time in the history of the PRC, the voice and activities of domestic non-governmental organizations directly influenced the decision-making of the central government. But in early 2013, construction on the mega-project resumed once again. Undoubtedly hydropower projects will erase this abundant and distinct river valley before its value can be fully recognized and researched.