China Energy Industry

No more major developments on the Yangtze River?

President Xi Jinping’s pledge to prioritize environmental protection and halt new development projects on the Yangtze is a promising turnaround for China’s beleaguered river pulse but don’t hold your breath.

A pledge by President Xi Jinping to make environmental protection and restoration of the Yangtze River a dominant focus has prompted media commentators to ask if his words will save China’s once-mighty waterway.

Addressing a Jan. 5 forum to promote the development of a “golden waterway” economic belt anchored by the Yangtze River Delta, Xi stressed the importance of ecology and “green development” to boosting plans for the region as a world-class economic corridor rivalling that of the Boston-Washington corridor and Tokyo-Kansai belt.

Extolling the Yangtze as an “important ecological treasure,” Xi told officials the future focus for the country’s river pulse was “major protection” instead of “major development” and that authorities along the 6,300-km waterway must work together to improve the state of the river.

Degraded by years of over-development, the Yangtze has been especially taxed by the epic Three Gorges Dam and its slew of never-ending problems that even the government was forced to admit in 2011, when its economic, geologic and environmental woes became impossible to deny. [See: China’s mea culpa: Three Gorges Dam problems must be “solved urgently” and Return of the dambusters]

Short of shutting and dismantling the dam (and other hydro projects that feed on the Yangtze), President Xi’s exhortations to rehabilitate the river will prove a tall order. High-profile Chinese environmental activist Dai Qing said the damage caused by Three Gorges was in some cases irreversible. “No amount of money can fix the problem. It fundamentally cannot be resolved,” she said.

The gravity of the multiple issues that tax the upper Yangtze’s Three Gorges reservoir region — the flooding of millions of people off their land, the danger to plant and animal life, the heightened risk of landslides and earthquakes, interruptions to river traffic, water pollution, droughts, the project’s unaffordable electricity and so on has done little to dampen a revived political passion for large dam construction.

In 2012, despite warnings of seismic risks from dam-building overload, 130 large dams were either near completion, under construction or proposed for China’s western region. That same year, a development plan dominated by five state-run corporations proposed 25 new dam reservoirs, with an overall capacity equaling that of four Three Gorges Dams, for the Yangtze’s upper reaches. In January 2013, China’s State Council lifted an eight-year ban on five mega-dams slated for the “free flowing” Nu River China’s largest river without a dam ignoring concerns about geologic risks, global biodiversity, resettlement, and impacts on downstream communities.

Experts weighing in on President Xi’s “remarkable” change in direction for the Yangtze, view the current pledge to give the river a much-needed pause as various in its meaning. Some say the new drive to protect Chinese rivers is in line with recommendations for the next five-year plan or that Xi is seeking greater harmony between growth and conservation but will not halt development altogether. Yet others doubt local officials will be able to put Xi’s words into action given the number of vested political and commercial interests that seek to profit from the river.

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