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Minimizing Dam Impact on the Yangtze River

By Misty Herrin

As China’s demand for energy skyrockets, so, too, does pressure to harness the power of the mighty Yangtze River. Twelve new dams are planned for the upper reaches of the Yangtze; three are already under construction. While these dams will provide energy for millions, they will have serious impacts on ecosystems and the fish supplies that sustain the very same families.

The Nature Conservancy is engaging with dam builders and public agencies to improve how the dams are designed and operated. The Conservancy has established formal relationships with the Three Gorges Company and the Yangtze Water Resources Commission to rethink the relationship between hydropower and conservation along the Yangtze. discussed the significance of these partnerships with Dr. Qiaoyu Guo, the Yangtze River project manager for The Nature Conservancy’s China program.

What has this collaboration meant for people and nature along the Yangtze?

Qiaoyu Guo:

So far, it's led to some very promising first steps. We're working together to improve plans on four of the new dams in the upper Yangtze as well as the Three Gorges Dam.

We all agree that we’ve got to balance the need for hydroelectric power with the need to protect the water and fish supplies that sustain 400 million people living in the region.

Why are these partners interested in working with The Nature Conservancy?

Qiaoyu Guo:

I believe that one of the advantages the Conservancy has working in China is the track record we developed in the United States, working with the Army Corps of Engineers to keep rivers flowing as naturally as possible in places where dams have been built. We have these good international case studies and lessons learned from our projects in Arizona, Honduras and other places around the world.

What will we be doing in regard to these dams?

Qiaoyu Guo:

We are collaborating with Chinese colleagues to reduce the impact the dams will have on ecosystems. We’re working to keep the energy production constant and adequate while also protecting the upstream and downstream habitat that’s so important for fish, birds and agriculture.

For example, the pattern of flows is integral to river health ? and the good news is that we can work with dam operators to do something about that. Water releases from dams can be arranged to mimic nature and follow the needs of fish, such as ensuring high flows during the wet season and low flows during the dry season.

We’re also helping create a program to track the health of the river and its species ? information that can be used to tweak dam operations in the future.

What does the Conservancy get out of partnering with big hydropower companies in China?

Qiaoyu Guo:

Dams are a reality in China. We don’t like them from a biodiversity conservation standpoint, but we are the organization that can work with agencies in China and international experts to help find solutions. We’re positioned to develop successful freshwater approaches here on the Yangtze and then replicate them with other dam projects around the world.

China also has some of the world’s biggest dams. Our work here has the potential to model more sustainable practices for the global hydropower industry.

What kind of sustainable practices?

Qiaoyu Guo:

A good example would be the possibility of directing some of the revenue from hydropower generation to conservation. We would like to see a network of protected areas along streams in the Yangtze River basin and restoration of ecosystems that have already been affected. That idea comes out of the work we’ve done in other places, such as Ecuador’s Condor Bioreserve and in the Mississippi River.

And we’ll work with our Chinese partners to improve flood management and protect communities. While floods can be quite dangerous and destructive, they enable fish to move out into floodplain wetlands to feed and reproduce. That’s why we see huge increases in fish populations following floods. Floods also recharge wetlands and groundwater supplies, and fertilize farms by leaving behind fresh nutrients.

So we need to find ways to manage risks to people while allowing some flooding to continue. It’s complicated and the only way to get there is by working together.

About the Interviewee

Qiaoyu Guo is the Yangtze River Project Manager based in Beijing. She graduated from Beijing Normal University and obtained her Ph.D. in water ecology in 2003. Dr. Guo acted as senior program officer for the Ministry of Water Resources in China from 2003-2005 and began working for The Nature Conservancy in 2005.

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