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Tales from the riverbank – China: smoke and the water


Reflections on my recent visit to China: on politics, rivers and royal cranes…

China, day 1

Grey cloud clings to Beijing as our flight descends. I get first sight of the city moments before wheels and tarmac meet. Is this fog, smog or low autumn rain?

Stumbling, sleep-deprived, through customs, security seems tight. Then I remember – my arrival coincides with the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

These are red letter days for the country. A decadal shift in leadership looms. Analysts the world over are pondering the implications.

In his hour-and-then-some speech, outgoing Premier Hu emphasises the need for environmental protection as a keystone of “scientific development”. A cause for cautious hope?

China, days 2-3

Traditional boat on the Yangtze River in China.A traditional boat on the Yangtze River in China. © Michel Gunther / WWF-Canon

Change may be coming for China’s rivers too.

Dirty, drained, dammed or dredged, many are in a parlous state. Beijing is concerned. Last year the Party made better care of rivers and of water resources a priority for the country.

Everything is bigger here, including the multi-billion Yuan budget now earmarked for water management. How should the authorities spend these funds wisely?

For two years WWF has collaborated with the biggest brains in Beijing’s water ministry to help steer China’s river management.

Together, we’ve explored global best practice on river basin planning, water allocation and flood management. A key theme has been the need to maintain key freshwater ecosystems and the services they provide to people.

Now we are turning our attention to new challenges: coping with drought (a perennial problem here, and likely to get worse as the climate changes); and restoring the rivers run ragged by China’s race to develop.

Where in the world will we find the most salient lessons? How can China apply those lessons, in river systems large and small?

After two days in smoke-filled rooms, fuelled by green tea and nicotine, we’re a little nearer to the answers.

China, days 4-8

Sometimes clarity is not a good thing.

Construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China.The Three Gorges dam, when it was under construction. © Michel Gunther / WWF-Canon

Like traditional ginger beer, the Yangtze should be brown and cloudy – fed by sediment from its Tibetan birth. But now it flows steel-grey through some central reaches. Much of the sediment lies behind the Three Gorges Dam.

The dam is changing the bloodflow of the Yangtze, as well as its complexion. With little sediment to soften the scour of the water, the river bed is eroding downwards, by as much as 17 metres in some places, I’m told. As the river bed drops, the water level follows.

Poyang Lake lies adjacent to the Yangtze, in Jiangxi Province. The lake is replenished by five rivers running from south, east and west. Its outlet to the north is a single natural channel, a part-blocked plug slowing the flow from the lake to the big river.

Because of this, the water level in Poyang breathes with the seasons. In summer it rises with increased flow from its feeder streams. Winter comes and its waters recede.

This is when the cranes arrive.

Common cranes in flight. © Yifei Zhang / WWF-Canon

My colleague Lei Gang, a keen birder with all the best gear, promises me that four crane species can be seen here – common, Siberian, white-necked and crowned. But I see only three (I wasn’t destined to meet avian royalty, it seems). My consolation is the multitude of other birds which paddle, dip or dive in the shallows.

We are here because the leaders of Jiangxi province want to build a barrage across Poyang’s outlet channel. They are concerned that the drop in Yangtze water levels will mean that the lake will drain faster. Besides, they spy regional economic spin-offs from a major infrastructure project.

Scientists, including my WWF-China colleagues, are concerned that if the barrage goes ahead winter habitat for the cranes, and for hundreds of other species of plants and animals, may be inundated.

A siberian crane.A Siberian crane. © Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon

Some kind of scheme may be needed to manage water levels in the Lake. Is the current plan the right option?

We drive off-road through labyrinthine hillside forest, hoping to get a bird’s eye perspective of the site of the barrage. But the weather beats us. We reach the misty mountain top and our view is obscured.

China, day 9

Flight CA937, destination London Heathrow, is buffeted by robust northerlies as it departs Beijing. It’s a bumpy take-off, the worst I’ve known in quite a while.

I think of China, its rivers and Poyang. Their futures are not clear.

But there isn’t a cloud in the sky.

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