Originating in glacial meltwaters high on the Tibetan Plateau, the magnificent Yangtze, the third longest river in the world, descends rapidly, stretching almost 4,000 miles as it surges through mountain valleys, cuts through limestone gorges and winds past lowlands to empty into the ocean at the port of Shanghai.
Numerous tributaries flow into the Yangtze, creating a variety of wetlands that play an essential role in protecting the supply and quality of water. The river also supports an abundant array of marine life and offers critical habitat for migratory birds, including 95 percent of the wintering Siberian white crane population.
In the river's lower reaches are major industrial cities and the world’s busiest inland shipping corridor. As China's economy rapidly expands, the health of the Yangtze River deteriorates, imperiling extraordinary aquatic species like the finless porpoise, Chinese sturgeon and paddlefish. The system also suffers from deforestation, pollution, wetlands destruction and global climate change.
Though they generate carbon-free energy, hydropower dams disrupt the natural balance of freshwater habitats by altering water flows, sediment transport and water quality. As China's energy needs escalate, the government plans to build 12 new large dams on the Yangtze to join the nearly completed Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydropower facility.
Conservation that Works
On the Yangtze, the Conservancy is partnering with the Chinese government, major hydropower companies and other nonprofit organizations to develop sustainable alternatives to the design and operation of planned dams.
Conservancy scientists are assessing water flows needed to sustain river ecosystems and working with designers and operators to locate, construct and operate dams in ways that protect the river and its fish populations.
The Conservancy is also restoring the Yangtze's critically important wetlands, which play an essential role in providing clean water to tens of millions of people.
An innovative and core element of the Yangtze River project is identifying funding for freshwater conservation, such as revenues generated from the sustainable operation of the dams. Funding could subsidize floodplain restoration, flood risk management, ecological protection and health programs designed to stem the spread of water-borne diseases. In addition, new jobs could be created that will benefit rural economies.
The Conservancy is also developing a comprehensive, science-based conservation assessment for all of China that will identify nationwide preservation priorities, examine threats and guide conservation and development.
The Yangtze project marks the first phase of this blueprint, which is expected to span China's six major ecological regions, from its northern forests to its southern shores, resulting in a detailed map of places to protect and a set of conservation strategies.