The 6,300km-long Yangtze River runs through a 1,800,000 km2 basin - more than seven times the size of the UK. It is home to 470 million people – a third of China’s population - and a rich abundance of animals and plants. The basin produces 50-60% of all fish eaten in China, while industry and agriculture in the Yangtze basin generates 30-40% of China's GDP.
The central Yangtze basin was once described as the land of a thousand lakes but during the 1960s, demand for urban and agricultural land meant many lakes were disconnected from the river and left to dry up. The region became less able to cope with floods. Some fish couldn’t migrate, and their numbers fell. Partly as a result of this, the Yangtze River dolphin became functionally extinct and the finless porpoise is under threat.
As China’s economy has developed, industrial pollution in the river and its lakes has grown. Agriculture, including large-scale fish and pig farming, is another massive cause of pollution. Additionally, the central Yangtze is home to the world’s biggest hydropower station, the Three Gorges Dam. At 185m tall and 2,335m long, its impact on flows and biodiversity along the Yangtze is huge.
Climate change also threatens to bring further floods and extreme weather events to the area.
What is WWF doing?
Ensuring a healthy flowing river
An integrated approach that balances the needs of a growing economy and population with those of the environment is needed to ensure a healthy functioning Yangtze. To achieve this WWF is carrying out crucial research and policy work with the Ministry of Water Resources.
We are looking to demonstrate best practice in freshwater management in the Dongting Lake sub-catchment, while developing recommendations for a master plan for the area.
We are also increasing our influence over the operation of the Three Gorges Dam to ensure that enough water is being released – thereby restoring the natural pulse of the river and supporting the needs of communities and wildlife downstream.
Finally, we are working through the Yangtze Protected Area Network to safeguard high value wetlands by promoting improved legislation, effective management and active conservation projects. We are piloting nature schools, which will educate protected area managers and engage businesses and local communities in the management of these protected areas.
Industry and agriculture have profound impacts on the Yangtze, particularly through water pollution. Water issues are usually secondary to economic growth and there’s often an unwillingness to address them. We are guiding companies to reduce their water footprint and pollution in the river and help them to identify the potential water risks they face, such as scarcity. One of our focus sectors is aquaculture (fish farming) – one third of the animal protein eaten in China is freshwater fish, and over half comes from Yangtze fisheries. We are developing and demonstrating sustainable fishing practices and standards to secure better water resources.
Through our work with the aquaculture sector, we are engaging with fishermen working in the central and lower Yangtze region to improve their practices and reduce their impact on the aquatic environment. We are also working with communities through our ‘wetlands 1+1’ scheme, which will ask local businesses to invest in water initiatives. This might include adopting and restoring water sources or supporting local people to reduce water pollution by farming organically.
Communities are also being empowered to participate in making decisions for their local protected area through nature schools and other projects. This is helping people within the areas to improve their livelihoods.