The Chinese government has valued a river more than a dam. In a recent decision – only just made public yesterday – China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) blocked the proposed Xiaonanhai Dam and any future dam projects on the last stretch of free-flowing water on the Yangtze River.
The Xiaonanhai Dam controversially involved the redrawing of the boundaries of the Yangtze Native Fish Reserve. This area is the only remaining stretch of river that can support hundreds of species of fish, including dozens that are found nowhere else in the world. Xiaonanhai’s reservoir would have converted miles of the Yangtze from a swiftly flowing river into a stagnant lake, conditions that can’t support most of the species the Reserve was intended to protect.
In recent years, the cost of development and unprecedented dam building in the Yangtze River Basin have only just become clear. In 2013, WWF China declared that the Yangtze was on the brink of ecological collapse after finding that only 17 of 143 known fish species could still be found in the upper reaches of the river (where it is called the Jinsha). With six megadams already built, three under construction and another 15 planned on the Yangtze, the rejection of Xiaonanhai is a welcome reprieve for China’s mother river.
Chinese environmental NGOs have welcomed the government’s decision, particularly the government’s recognition that Xiaonanhai Dam would have pushed the Yangtze fish reserve past the river’s ecological red line. Zhang Boju from China’s first environmental NGO, Friends of Nature, said, “We feel heartened by MEP’s decision, which demonstrates the Ministry’s concern about the ecological environment of Yangtze River and its efforts to defend the ecological red line. We sincerely hope the document released by MEP will be fully implemented.”
For the sake of China’s rivers, we hope to see more decisions like Xiaonanhai. Unfortunately, it is still rare to see China’s decision makers act courageously, prioritizing the protection of China’s ecological assets for the benefit of future generations. However with the huge environmental costs of China’s development being tallied – including its global impacts as the world’s bigger dam builder – much more of this courage is needed.