Dammed If We Don’t

China’s Three Gorges Dam has been a controversial project. The massive structure, situated on the Yangtze, is now the world’s largest capacity hydroelectric power station — but its environmental toll has been similarly large, and even China’s State Council has admitted that the dam isn’t without flaws. But it’s there, and the challenge is to manage it in a way that sustains nature and the people who live on the Yangtze.

And now, there’s been an encouraging new development: with input from The Nature Conservancy, the Three Gorges Corporation significantly increased the amount of water discharged from its floodgates in mid-June. The move is designed to improve spawning conditions for the dangerously depleted fish populations that live downstream from the dam, and it marks the first time that the dam has made operational shifts to benefit nature.

And the benefits could be huge. Roughly 400 million people live along the Yangtze, and many of them depend on its carp species for food.

Unfortunately, the wild populations of these species have been hit hard by a variety of threats, including the construction of Three Gorges. In some parts of the Yangtze, natural fish stocks have died off by as much as 90 percent.

The floodgates’ outpour — which pushed out 2,000 additional cubic meters of freshwater a second — coincided with the release of well over a thousand fish back into the Yangtze. By tracking a number of electronically tagged fish that were included in the release, scientists are hoping to assess the population’s breeding numbers and determine how successfully the new water levels replicated the healthy Yangtze carp habitat of old.

While more conclusive results won’t be available until around mid-July, early reports from scientists suggest that the affected area is already showing noticeable increases in fish eggs. That’s great news.

Certainly, the problems presented by a carp shortage aren’t going to disappear overnight. This stretch of the Yangtze is still inhospitable to fish, thanks to past overfishing and the persistence of pollution. Some of these species can take as long as seven years to attain sexual maturity, so we may not observe substantial returns for years to come.

But I find the Three Gorges Dam’s willingness to improve environmental conditions along their stretch of the Yangtze encouraging. There are two reasons why:

  • First, the dam has been fully operational for only three years. The dam has taken criticism, and its operators have reacted quickly to take steps toward restoring a more natural flow.
  • Secondly, it shows the outcry for conservation in China is increasing. I’ve been proud to see the Conservancy as a force in that growing movement, and this latest project is the culmination of years of research, training and planning.

This project — and our partnerships with scientists, communities and hydropower concerns — provide a model for how conservation can work along the Yangtze. We’ll need smart science, creative thinking and more collaboration if we’re to sustainably integrate Three Gorges into the Yangtze and improve the health of the river and the people who depend on it. After all, the dam’s not going anywhere.

(First image: The Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province, China. First image credit: ©Sun Xiaoming, TNC. Second image: Carp release. Second image credit: ©Zhang Kejia, TNC)

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  1. depletion of natural fish stock to 90 percent is worse case which will be causing the natural imbalance. Making the dam operate at natural conventional design help the scientists solve the problem

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