Three Gorges Probe

Stop over-development of hydropower is the only way to save rare fish in the Yangtze

(May 15, 2009) The Yangtze River is the third largest river in the world and the richest source of aquatic life in China. Within the Yangtze basin, there are more aquatic species and rare fish in the upper reaches than in the middle and lower reaches. But in recent years, the river and its aquatic life have come under threat from a number of detrimental practices, including: land reclamation, water pollution, over-catching and construction activities along the valley.

Recent hydro power developments have been focused primarily on the Jinsha River and its tributaries upstream of the Three Gorges dam. An increasing number of cascading hydro dams – replete with high dams and big reservoirs – are currently under construction in the region. Experts in the protection of aquatic life have repeatedly warned that the negative impacts of over-development of hydropower would destroy the river’s diverse aquatic life. The results would be disastrous for rare and unique fish living in the upper Yangtze.

Cascading hydro dams under way in the upper Yangtze

The China Economic Times (Zhongguo jingji shibao), May 15, 2009

Translated and edited by Probe International, May 2009.

Originally published: May 6, 2009

Authors: Nu Zhi, Professor in biology, Beijing University; Xie Yan, Head of China Species Information Service Centre; Zheng Yisheng, Senior Researcher, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Fan Xiao, Chief Engineer, Regional Geology Investigation Team of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau; Wang Yongchen, Director, the Green Earth Volunteers; Li Bo, Director General of the Friends of Nature China; Yu Xiaogang, Director, Yunnan Greenwatershed; Ma Jun, Director, Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs)

According to the Changjiang Water Resources Commission (CWRC)’s 2003 report on development in the Jinsha River, a cascade of 19 hydro dams are expected to be built, of which six are to be built in the short-term in the middle and lower reaches, including: Jinanqiao, Guanyinyan, Wudongde, Baihetan, Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba.

By the end of 2008, at least three dams – Jinanqiao, Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba – were already under construction, and several more are expected to start sometime this year or next.

In the meantime, a number of hydro dams are ready to begin construction in tributaries of the upper Yangtze. To give you an idea, at least 17 cascading dams are planned for the Min River, with 10 expected to be built upstream the Dujiangyan. Twenty-four cascading dams are being planned for the Dadu River. Twenty-one are expected to be built along the Yalong River. Twelve are being planned for the Wu River. And 17 cascading dams are being planned for the Jialing River.

Moreover, more hydro dams are being planned on tributaries of tributaries of the Yangtze. A total of 56 hydro dams are being planned on tributaries of the Jinsha, including: Gangquhe, Puduhe, Niulan, Hengjiang and Baishuijiang rivers; 16 on tributaries of the Wu River such as Furong and Maotiaohe rivers; 40 on tributaries of the Min River such as Mabian, Qingyi and Zanaogu rivers; 43 on tributaries of the Dadu River such as Wasigou, Suomohe, Xiaojinchuan, Tianwanhe and Nanyahe rivers, and 12 on tributaries of the Yalong River such as Jiulonghe and Mulihe rivers.

Survival space has become smaller and smaller

There are 338 freshwater fish species in the Yangtze River, accounting for about one third of the national total. One hundred and sixty two of these are unique fish species, making up more than 60% of the national total (265 unique fish species for the country).

The population of rare and unique fish species has been in decline since the 1980s. The construction of the Gezhouba Dam on the main channel of Yangtze in 1988 only made matters worse. The number of Chinese sturgeon, for example, has sharply declined because the Gezhouba Dam blocked the species’ migratory path.

To mitigate the impact of the Three Gorges dam on rare fish in the upper Yangtze, local governments built the Luzhou Rare Fish Reserve Zone and Yibin Rare Fish Reserve Zone in 1996. One year later, the government of Sichuan Province approved a plan to combine the two zones and re-name it the Provincial Yangtze Hejiang-Leibo Rare Fish Conservation Zone. In April of 2000, the State Council promoted it to a National Yangtze Rare Fish Conservation Zone. In the same year, however, the Three Gorges Corporation, builder of the Three Gorges project, was planning to build a string of dams on the Jinsha River — with two of the four dams, Xiangjiaba and Xiluodu, located in the conservation zone.

Chinese environmental groups voiced their concern and warned that the four dams (Xiangjiaba, Xiluodu, Wudongde, Baihetan) may wipe out up to 60 fish species, as their migration routes to traditional breeding grounds would be blocked. They pointed to China’s Environmental Protection Act (Section 3, Article 17), which came into force in December 1989, stating that 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 legal barrier, the Three Gorges Corporation 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, re-designating the protected fish zone to an area downstream of Xiangjiaba – clearing the way for the dams to be built. The new reserve zone covers 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 where it joins the Yangtze.

Xiaonanhai dam would destroy the final refuge for rare fish

Only three years after re-designating the rare fish conversation zone, the government of Chongqing Municipality started working on a proposal to build the Xiaonanhai Dam at Luohuang Town, only 30 kilometres upstream from Chongqing city centre and in the National Yangtze Rare Fish Conservation Zone. The Xiaonanhai project is part of the “Comprehensive Water Resources Development Plan for the Yangtze River Basin,” which was approved by China’s State Council in 1990. Following Xiaonanhai, the plan recommends another two dams, Zhuyangxi and Shipeng, for the main channel of the Yangtze between Xiangjiaba and Three Gorges.

According to one expert from SEPA (the State Environmental Protection Administration) who made comments on the project feasibility study at a Ministry of Agriculture press conference last February, the proposed dam would be a huge physical barrier for the rare fish. Not only would it fragment the river, it would block the migratory path for the rare fish in both directions (upstream and downstream).

But even before the dam is completed, the expert pointed out, its construction would flood both the buffer and experimental zones of the National Yangtze Rare Fish Conservation Zone. It would also transform a rapidly flowing water environment into a static water environment, to which the fish would have difficulty adapting after the dam is built.

Furthermore, if the Chongqing Municipality goes ahead with the three dams, Xiaonanhai, Zhuyangxi, and Shipeng, hundreds of kilometres of reservoirs between Xiangjiaba (upstream) and Three Gorges (downstream) – both the core zone and experimental zone of the rare-fish reserve – would be flooded. This would leave a 41.9-kilometre length of buffer zone remaining – or less than ten percent of the original rare-fish reserve’s channel length. As many as 30 locations identified as critical habitat and breeding grounds within the reserve zone would be seriously affected.

Obviously, the current situation puts the authorities in a dilemma. If the three dams are built, the authorities would need to once again redefine the boundary of the reserve zone. If this is not done, it becomes impossible for the reserve zone to effectively protect the river’s aquatic life. And if the government attempts to re-define the zone, where will it find a stretch of river not affected by the hydro dams in the upper Yangtze and its tributaries, as they have been built all across the region.

No remedial measures feasible

To find a solution to the above issue, several measures have been proposed by experts. One of them involves cloning the rare fish and releasing the fry (of the rare fish) to the upper Yangtze. But some experts doubt the feasibility of such a project, given that the living environment for the rare fish will have been eliminated by the dams as a result of dam building. Even more experts argue that the current technologies for artificial reproduction of rare fish are far from successful and mature. Even the official feasibility study has also admitted that.

Another proposal has suggested that after construction of the Xiaonanhai Dam, authorities build a special fish channel in the affected zone. But fisheries experts doubt whether that would work without further feasibility studies and scientific experiments. Professor Cao Wen Xuan, member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and senior researcher at the Academy’s Wuhan-based Institute of Hydrobiology, says building such a channel would be an ineffective measure because fish in the upper Yangtze have adapted to thrive in a rapidly flowing water environment. The fish would have difficulty adapting to a new and static water environment after the dam is built. Furthermore, the rapid current along the upper Yangtze would be eliminated if the hydro dams were built. Therefore, building a special fish channel in the affected zone is far from a solution to the problem.

Fatal issue: the disappearance of the rapidly flowing water environment

Based on the EIA report and the information derived from the public participation process, the greatest impact brought about by hydro power development is the disappearance of the rapidly-flowing water environment, which is crucial to the survival of rare fish living in the upper Yangtze.

As experts have pointed out, the method of building cascading hydro dam projects has made the situation much worse by both fragmenting the river and drastically altering the species’ habitat. As one study shows, the operation of multiple reservoirs would not only affect the special fish species in the upper Yangtze, but also in upstream areas such as Qinghai and Tibet.

Stop over-development of hydropower is the only way to save rare fish in the Yangtze

In order to save the rare fish species in the upper Yangtze, we are appealing for emergency measures, including balancing the relationship between the economic development and environmental protection, and stopping the construction of hydro dams. The specific proposals are as follows:

1) To carry out a detailed investigation of fishery resources in order to avoid rash planning and decision-making without a full understanding of the resources.

For example, based on the EIA report on the proposed Ahai hydro power station on the Jinsha River, there are 154 fish species and 54 unique fish species in the affected river section. But an on-the-spot investigation only discovered 16 fish species in total. According to historic data and previous surveys, there are 90 fish species in the river section that would be affected by the Guanyinyan dam, which is under construction on the middle Jinsha. But the EIA report claimed there were only 40 fish species. The inconsistent statistics and confused data will produce an incomplete conclusion in the EIA and feasibility study; this may result in misleading strategies and ineffective measures dealing with the effects of new hydro dams.

2) To strengthen studies on the reproduction of the rare and unique fish species, although it would be a mistake to consider reproduction a viable remedial option until the technologies are more developed and have a proven successful track record.

To date, Chinese experts have a limited understanding of rare and unique fish species, with particular shortcomings in understanding their habitats. But neither are the artificial propagation technologies successful or mature. Under such circumstances, we suggest the government pay more attention to the situation and strengthen studies on the reproduction of the rare and unique fish species by providing greater funding and recruiting more scientists. At the same time, we hope the authorities will postpone the construction of hydro dams on specific river sections. Only when we have access to the technology to reproduce and protect rare fish species should the government reconsider the development of hydropower.

3) To leave the final living space for rare and unique fish species untouched by strictly implementing an appropriate and moderate hydropower exploitation policy.

As experts have pointed out, it’s not feasible to protect the population and species primarily through artificial measures. The best way to support wildlife is to protect their habitats.

While doing the feasibility study on the Ahai hydropower station, for instance, experts in EIA argued that nowhere else in the world has a country so intensely developed a river for hydropower. Instead, they develop hydropower in a moderate and selected manner. This allows them to help protect natural habits, yet provide new sources of energy. Even if it is necessary to build a cascade of hydro dams on a river section, it’s important for the builder to retain certain areas of flowing water between dams. This area should be big enough to reduce the adverse effects on a river’s ecosystem.

For the above reasons, we hope the decision-makers will seriously consider our suggestions: develop hydro power in a selective and moderate manner, while retaining sufficient areas of flowing water between power stations to alleviate the adverse effects of hydro dams and save the rare and unique fish species from extinction.

We also have specific suggestions for two proposed dams on the Jinsha valley:

First, we hope the decision-makers can cancel plans to construct the Xiaonanhai, Zhuyangxi and Shipeng dam projects —which have limited economic benefit but and tremendous impact on the environment and the habitats of rare fish—and leave the National Yangtze Rare Fish Conservation Zone unaffected. This, we believe will protect the final refuge for rare and unique fish species in the upper Yangtze.

Second, we hope the decision-makers will suspend construction of the Guanyinyan dam on the middle reaches of the Jinsha River, as experts believe this river section is particularly important to several rare fish species currently on the brink of extinction. Foregoing the project and two other smaller hydro dams proposed by local governments would help protect the habitats on which the rare fish species depend.

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