Tell someone living in the Mississippi Delta that they’re connected to the Yangtze and they’ll probably look at you like you’re crazy. The two rivers are literally a world apart, after all. Paddling from one mouth to the other would require traversing the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, squeezing through the Panama Canal, braving the Pacific Ocean and finally surviving the East China Sea. You might as well dig a hole to China.

But Secretary of State Hilary Clinton traveled to Beijing last week to announce a new partnership that is making the Mississippi and the Yangtze more connected than they’ve ever been before. Thanks to an agreement just recently signed by the Yangtze River Basin Fisheries Resources Management Committee and The Nature Conservancy, two rivers that define their respective continents will now help shape each other’s futures.

Although the rivers might be separated by a considerable geographical gulf, they have quite a lot in common. First, they’re equally enormous. Both measure just over 3,900 miles (roughly 6,300 km) in length. The Mississippi River System is longer than coast-to-coast U.S. Route 20; the Yangtze is longer than the entire span of the Great Wall of China.

Second, both provide a significant portion of the global population with food, water and jobs. More than a third of China’s population — or, more people than live in the entire U.S. — dwell in the Yangtze’s river basin and depend on the resources it provides. And one study estimates that the annual economic value of the benefits provided by the Mississippi River Delta ecosystems is anywhere from $12-47 billion.

Finally, both rivers face similar environmental problems that threaten people and wildlife. The populations of certain crucial fish stocks along the Yangtze have plummeted precipitously, and the hydropower industry is beginning to look for ways to balance between energy needs and the need to preserve nature’s benefits. Meanwhile, the Mississippi is dealing with a problem the Yangtze would be happy to have: an overabundance of Asian carp.

This dilemma — the result of an increasingly interconnected world — is precisely the kind of conservation issue that the new partnership aims to tackle. For example, Chinese expertise in the breeding habits and behaviors of Asian carp could be a huge boon to the Mississippi River, which is currently besieged by the invasive species.

The Conservancy has already helped facilitate exchanges between freshwater conservationists on both banks of the Pacific. For years, Chinese and American scientists have been shuttling back and forth between the Mississippi and Yangtze, helping each other perfect their monitoring techniques and strategies. One such trip brought U.S.G.S. scientists to China, where they helped train their colleagues in the use of new equipment that’s revolutionizing the way fish species are tracked along the Yangtze.

Our new agreement with the Yangtze River Basin Fisheries Resources Management Committee will expand and accelerate this type of work, taking it to a scale that can make a huge difference for an incredibly varied cross-section of people and aquatic life. While they may not look connected on a map, both the Yangtze and Mississippi are flowing in the same direction; and by sharing knowledge and solutions, scientists from two countries can steer these great rivers away from danger.

[Image: Wisconsin DNR Water Quality Component Specialist Shawn Giblin explains a water sampling process to a delegation of Chinese scientists along the Upper Mississippi River System. Image source: Erika Nortemann/TNC.]

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