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Places We Protect: The Yangtze River

The Yangtze is the world's third longest river, ranking behind the Nile and the Amazon rivers.


For thousands of years, the Yangtze River has sustained Chinese civilization. Four hundred million people — more than the population of the United States — depend on the Yangtze for freshwater. The Yangtze is also the world's third-longest river and China’s principal waterway, and its rushing waters are electrifying the world’s fastest-growing economy.

A Threatened River

From its source on the Tibetan Plateau, the magnificent Yangtze 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. But as non-sustainable development in China has increased, the health of the Yangtze River has deteriorated, leaving extraordinary aquatic species like the finless porpoise, Chinese river dolphin, Chinese alligator, sturgeon and paddlefish imperiled (or even extinct) and threatening the health and safety of the people living near and dependent on the river. This system suffers from numerous threats, including:

As China’s energy needs escalate, the government plans to build 12 new large dams on the Yangtze to join the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydropower facility. Without conservation-minded scientific expertise, these dams would likely lead to the demise of the Yangtze’s aquatic life, including fish like the four Chinese carp species (black, grass, silver and bighead) that are the most important freshwater fish species for food in China and have been for nearly 2,000 years. These species provide the gene pool for fish that supply the main source of protein for tens of millions of Chinese people. The Nature Conservancy is working to find a balance between humans and the ecological health of the Yangtze River, one that sustains both humans and nature.

Sustaining China’s Yangtze River

As one of the world’s leading freshwater conservation organizations, The Nature Conservancy is working with the Chinese government, major hydropower companies and other nonprofit organizations to develop sustainable alternatives to the design and operation of dams planned for the Yangtze River. The project has completed a detailed plan that optimizes electricity production and flood control while minimizing harm to the river’s aquatic ecosystems. Implementation of this plan will provide the following:

  • Release water flows from key dams that mimic natural river flows needed to sustain fish populations.
  • Restore the Yangtze’s critically important floodplain wetlands, which play an essential role in providing clean water to tens of millions of people.
  • Create funding for freshwater conservation through 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 waterborne diseases. 

To date, the Three Gorges Dam has already released flows according to the Conservancy’s recommendations to trigger breeding in downstream carp species.


View this slideshow to learn more about the water release and fish monitoring program on the Yangtze.


The Conservancy continues to work with these authorities with hopes that this plan will become a model for sustainable hydropower development and ecosystem restoration for the rest of the world to emulate.


Read these blogs to learn more.


The Nature Conservancy’s Conservation Blueprint — a painstaking scientific analysis of China’s ecosystems — is helping to guide future conservation along the Yangtze. A comprehensive study of the Yangtze river basin played into the central government’s recent National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, which will guide environmental progress in China for years to come.

Fast Facts about the Yangtze River
  • The Yangtze River watershed spans more than 1.1 million square miles and is home to one-third of China’s population.
  • The Yangtze is the world’s third longest river, ranking behind the Nile and the Amazon rivers.
  • Around half of China's crop production is grown in the Yangtze basin.
  • The river basin is home to 400 different kinds of birds and 350 species of fish.
  • 95 percent of the wintering Siberian While Crane population is supported by the Yangtze River.

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