Three Gorges Probe

New Yangtze dams spell disaster for fish

Kelly Haggart and Mu Lan

December 21, 2005

A group of Sichuan University undergraduates has won accolades for a research project that warns of the serious threat that new dams planned for the upper Yangtze pose to the river’s wild fish, and the communities that depend on them.


As the Three Gorges Project Corporation prepares to start work on a string of dams on the Jinsha River (as the upper Yangtze is called), a group of Sichuan University undergraduates has won accolades for a research project that warns of the serious threat the structures pose to the river’s wild fish, and the communities that depend on them.

The company building the Three Gorges project has announced that work will begin before the end of this month on Xiluodu, located 1,000 kilometres upstream of Three Gorges and slated to be China’s second-largest dam. Construction work is scheduled to start in March on another big dam, Xiangjiaba, and ground will be broken on two further projects – Wudongde and Baihetan – in the next few years.

The four new hydropower stations will have a combined installed capacity of 38.5 million kilowatts, twice the generating power of Three Gorges.<a href="#1“>1 Apart from producing power, the projects are designed to tackle a serious problem facing the Three Gorges reservoir: They are meant to help block silt and prevent the dangerous buildup of sediment behind the Three Gorges dam.

The projects will also fulfill another function, absorbing some of the construction workers and equipment that will be made redundant as work winds down at the Three Gorges site.

But environmental groups have warned that the new dams could wipe out fish species whose migration routes to traditional breeding grounds will be blocked. Subjecting these concerns to scientific scrutiny, 13 students from Sichuan University’s Environmental Protection Volunteer Association conducted intensive fieldwork in the region between July 2004 and February 2005. They concluded that as many as 60 fish species could be driven to extinction after construction of the four dams, especially Xiluodu and Xiangjaba. Species under threat include the endangered Chinese sturgeon (Zhonghua xun), white sturgeon (bai xun), Yangtze (or Dabry’s) sturgeon (dashi xun) and rouge fish (yanzhi yu).

The students also drew attention to the fact that the dams are to be built in an area that had been set aside as a national rare-fish conservation zone. In 1987, the State Council designated a 500-km section of the river between Hejiang and Leibo counties as the National Yangtze Rare Fish Reserve Zone. Under China’s Environmental Protection Act (Section 3, Article 17), which came into force in December 1989, 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.

To get around this barrier, the Three Gorges Project Corp. asked the State Council to redraw the boundaries of the conservation area to exclude the heart of the zone – the stretch of the river between the future Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba dams. The State Council agreed to the request in April 2005, relocating the protected fish zone to an area downstream of Xiangjiaba, thus clearing the way for the dams to be built.

The fish, meanwhile, haven’t moved – and, indeed, species cannot be shifted without consequence from a niche carved out over millennia. The new reserve zone is a bit bigger than the original area, but the extra space will be no consolation to the fish, the students pointed out. The original zone reflected the true boundaries of the traditional breeding and feeding grounds of rare species such as the white sturgeon and Yangtze sturgeon.

In a recent article, Prof. Chen Guojie, senior researcher at the Chengdu Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment, also warns that the spawning zones of such species will be almost totally obliterated if Xiangjiaba is built. Furthermore, the new dams will bring about changes to the river regime – altering water velocity and temperature, and sedimentation patterns – that will have a major impact on the species’ new habitat, and their chances of survival in it.

The Sichuan University students focused their research in the rare-fish reserve zone, as originally designated, in the section of the Yangtze between Hejiang (150 km upstream of Chongqing) and Leibo counties. Under the guidance of their professors and experts from other research institutes, they interviewed officials, scientists, engineers, fishermen, restaurant owners and local residents. They interviewed 108 people in all, and visited more than 20 government agencies involved in environmental protection, and water and fishery management. They also went to fish markets and restaurants to find out what was being bought, sold and consumed.

The students’ work recently won recognition in the form of a Ford Motor Company conservation and environmental grant. The theme of this year’s Ford grants to Chinese environmental groups and researchers was water conservation, and the Sichuan University student group has received 10,000 yuan (US$1,200) to pursue further research. The awards committee, which included Qu Geping, former director of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration, praised the students for their comprehensive project.

At the awards ceremony in Beijing last month, another grant recipient, Prof. Yu Xiaogang of the Yunnan-based Green Watershed environmental group, commended the Ford panel for choosing water conservation as its overarching theme this year, showing that “it has seen the important link between water resources conservation and China’s efforts to achieve sustainable development and build a harmonious society.”

The students found that human activities, particularly dam-building, have already led to a precipitous decline of rare fish in the Yangtze River. For example, the 2,000-km stretch of the river from Leibo county in Sichuan province to Jiujiang city downstream in Jiangxi province was once teeming with white sturgeon, which is classified as highly endangered both on China’s own national list and on that of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). But since the Yangtze was blocked for the first time by the Gezhouba dam in 1981, and the sturgeon cut off from their traditional spawning grounds upstream, they are now rarely seen.

Overfishing and illegal fishing have also helped to decimate rare-fish populations in the original reserve zone, the students found. To increase their haul, local fishermen use nets that catch ever smaller fish, and drive speedboats into shoals of fish and shock them with electric instruments. The local fishery management agency, equipped only with old, slow patrol boats, has a hard time policing the illegal practices.

Consumption habits are also a problem. Years ago, fishermen would throw the young fish in their catch back into the river so they would have a chance to grow and spawn. But now local residents have developed a taste for younger fish, as restaurants owners keep telling them that smaller fish are tastier.

According to the revised boundaries approved by the State Council, the new rare-fish reserve zone will cover the section of the Yangtze from Yibin downstream to Chongqing, along with the lower reaches of the Min River and a small section of the Chishui River near where it joins the Yangtze.

Experts have repeatedly urged that the whole of the Chishui River as it flows through Guizhou and Yunnan provinces should be included in the protection zone. Although the central government has yet to decide on that issue, Prof. Yu of Green Watershed says there is one piece of good news for the river: The Canadian International Development Agency has earmarked 50 million yuan (US$6.25 million) for a Chishui valley management project, which, it is hoped, could help keep new dams at bay.

But could China’s national liquor turn out to be the real saviour of the Chishui River? Guizhou provincial officials have pledged not to allow dam-building on their section of the Chishui because the Maotai Liquor Company, which draws water from the river, has promised to pay more local taxes if the river and its water quality are kept undisturbed.

However, neither Canadians nor Maotai drinkers are likely to be able to save the Chishui valley from dam development. Downstream in Yunnan province, the Yudong dam has already been built, and more dams are planned as part of that province’s ambitious hydro development plans. Thus, even with part of the Chishui included in the fish protection zone, disturbances elsewhere on the river appear set to steamroll ahead.

Notes: 1 Generating capacity of the Three Gorges Project Corp.’s planned dams on the Jinsha River: Xiluodu, 12.6 million kilowatts; Xiangjiaba, 6 million kw; Wudongde, 7.4 million kw; and Baihetan, 12.5 million kw. Map information: Sichuan University students.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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