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A law in aid of the Yangtze

The Yangtze.

On 1 March a law came into force in China prohibiting fishing in the entire watershed of the Yangtze river (including its tributaries and lakes) for ten years to preserve biodiversity.

A majestic but threatened river

The Yangtze flows for 6,300 kilometres, starting its course in the Tanggula mountains on the high Tibetan plateaux and ending it in the East China Sea via a huge estuary close to Shanghai. This river is impressive for several reasons: it is the third longest river in the world, and sixth by discharge (30,000 m3/s on average). Along its course, it receives the water of nearly 700 tributaries and drains a hydrographic basin covering 1.8 million km² that accommodates a fifth of the country’s population, i.e. close to 280 million people. Besides its impressive size, the Yangtze contributes to China’s economic dynamism, since 20% of national GNP is produced in its delta. Finally, its biodiversity is unique as is the variety of natural ecosystems all along its course. Its waters are populated by sturgeons, sawfish, Japanese cranes, Chinese alligators and the largest salamander in the world (Audrias davidianus).

A new set of restrictive regulations has been brought into force to preserve it.

An increasingly restrictive policy…

Following decades of pollution and overexploitation, Pekin decided to intermittently prohibit fishing in the Yangtze in 2003. Every year, the activity was suspended for three months and then extended to four from 2016. The aim was to protect the fish stocks in the Yangtze basin. Other conservation actions were also taken, such as the closure of chemical factories and the creation of protected nature reserves. These measures gave significant results but they remained insufficient for the Yangtze, which is also the world’s largest contributor to plastic waste in the oceans.

A fisherman on the Yangtze.

Faced with this observation, on 26 December the People’s National Congress adopted a new law to strengthen the protection accorded to the river which came into force on 1 March this year. Besides the prohibition of fishing activities throughout the watershed, all projects of chemical installations within a radius of 1 kilometre from the river are henceforth forbidden, and existing projects cannot be developed. Other polluting industries will be obliged to move away, while the extraction of sand from the river bed, which aggravates the erosion of the river banks, will be severely limited.


… But not enough?

Although the government’s decision has been widely praised, critics have denounced a law that appears to reduce the problem to the sole activity of fishing. That’s the opinion of Sieren Ernst, leader of the Climate Cost Project

Prohibiting fishing won’t be enough to change the Yangtze into a healthy river”.

Another cause must be sought in the form of the eleven dams built on the course of the river which have contributed to disturbing the ecosystem and more especially fish migrations. Many scientists have called for the cooperation of all the ministries to ensure that the ecological protection of the river is included in all the country’s urban and economic development plans.

The Climate Cost Project calls for

a global programme for managing the ecosystem of the entire Yangtze basin that will monitor the region’s biological health, and that of human beings”.

Human health is now at stake since large traces of thallium have been discovered in the upper course of the Yangtze, originating from several metallurgical factories located on the banks of the river Jialing, a tributary of the Yangtze. The risk is taken seriously by the authorities, since thallium can affect the nervous system, lungs, heart, liver and kidneys if large quantities are consumed within a short period.

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