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China - the Yangtze

The 6,300km-long Yangtze river runs through a 1,800,000 km2 basin - more than seven times the size of the UK. It’s home to one-third of China’s population - 470 million people - and a rich abundance of animals and plants. Industry and agriculture in the Yangtze basin generate 30-40% of China's GDP. But the pressures have brought problems for the Yangtze wetlands.

Watch this short video about the Yangtze, and how we helped bring one its "lost lakes" back to life...

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Why we're involved

The central Yangtze basin was once described as the land of the 1,000 lakes, because of its many floodplain lakes and oxbows, which were particularly rich in biodiversity. 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 cope with floods, and more susceptible to summer flooding. The disconnection also reduced biodiversity, and stopped fish migrating to their breeding grounds - leading to a substantial decline in the Yangtze’s fish stocks.

Lake Hong in eutrophic state

Declining fish stocks is one of the reasons the Yangtze river dolphin (the Baiji) became functionally extinct in 2006. And it threatens the 1,200-1,800 finless porpoises left in the Yangtze basin, which are also at risk from illegal and intensive fishing practices and pollution.

As China’s economy has developed over the last 40 years, industrial pollution in the river and its lakes has grown. Agriculture, including large-scale pig farming, is another massive cause of pollution.

Fishing is a problem too. The Yangtze basin produces 50-60% of all fish eaten in China. Most fish are reared intensively in ponds using damaging fertiliser as fish feed. The ponds are drained into the Yangtze at harvest time.

Construction site of the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze river.

The central Yangtze is home to the world’s biggest hydropower dam, the Three Gorges Dam. It’s 181m tall, 2,335m long, and causes a large number of problems - such as disrupting fish spawning cycles and stopping silt being delivered downstream, where it's vital for protecting the Shanghai estuary from flooding.

Climate change
Climate change also poses a serious threat to the Yangtze. Predictions indicate sea level rise will mean more water flowing into the Shanghai estuary area, and the Yangtze will suffer from increased flooding.

In 1998, the north and south monsoons arrived at the same time. This killed 3,000 people, made 14 million homeless and caused US$24 billion of damage.

Drought is also a threat. In spring 2011 the central and lower Yangtze had its worst drought in 50 years, severely cutting water supplies and further threatening endangered species.

Lake Hong Fisherman

How we're helping

We’ve been working in the Yangtze basin since 2002, with funding from HSBC. Our HSBC Climate Partnership aims to reduce the impact of climate change on people and their livelihoods in the Yangtze basin.

Improving protected areas
Years of mismanagement at a time of huge development led to the degradation of many of the Yangtze’s protected areas. Our partnership has tackled this by working with the provincial governments in five provinces and Shanghai to set up a network of 40 effective protected areas, covering 16,500km2.

The protected areas provide vital refuges for China’s endangered species. Many lie on a major bird migration route between Siberia and Asia.

Since the network was set up, we’ve seen populations of 47 threatened species increase, including the critically endangered Yangtze alligator. The network has been so successful that the Chinese government has asked us to extend it throughout the entire Yangtze, to eventually cover 102 areas and 185,000km2.

Chinese alligator

Reconnecting lakes
Our partnership has helped reconnect over 50 floodplain lakes back to the Yangtze, bringing life to floodplain ecosystems and increasing their capacity to absorb flood water.

This work all started with a trial back in 2004 which showed that by opening sluice channels connecting the Zhang Du Lake back to the Yangtze, the lake’s water quality improved and fish were able to migrate from the river into the lake, replenishing their numbers and genetic stock. The trial also showed that the lake could store vast amounts of excess water during a flood.

Thanks to this trial, the local government let us re-link several more lakes and eventually made lake reconnection a provincial-level policy. This work also provided vital refuges for the endangered finless porpoise.

Purifying water
We’ve also transformed floodplain lakes by introducing new eco-fishery practices. We drastically cut pollution by restoring aquatic plants and encouraging fishermen to use natural fish feed. This also helps them breed better quality fish that they can sell for more.

It’s estimated that tens of thousands of fish farmers have benefited. Our approach was adopted into Ministry of Agriculture policy, and is promoted by the government in the Yangtze basin.

The partnership is also working in wetlands surrounding urban areas to restore water quality. In the Shanghai area, for example, we’ve shown how wetlands can purify and protect drinking water sources for millions of people in the city.

Cleaning up The Yangtze

Advising and influencing
We’re also working to raise awareness locally and nationally in China about the threats of future climate change, and possible solutions. This has included showing how businesses and organisations in Shanghai can reduce their CO2 emissions.

We’ve also been invited to work with the Three Gorges Project Corporation to review its dam’s water release schedules, making sure they’re as similar to natural flows as possible.

When we started work with HSBC in 2002, our ambition was to restore one lake. Today we’re working at the heart of the Chinese government, influencing national water policy-makers and managers. We’re giving advice on how best to allocate water, how to assess and manage natural flow in rivers, and flood risk management.

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