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"It's a great opportunity to address the global water challenges and to share experiences learnt with other large rivers"

Interview with Sun Yangbo, from Yellow River Conservancy Commission

Sun Yangbo is the Division Director of International Cooperation at  Yellow River Conservancy Commission and IFGR member. From 21 to 25 October, YRCC will host our 9th international session dedicated to biodiversity, in the perspective of the COP15 that China will welcome in 2020. He explains to us the global challenges the Yellow River Basin must face and what he expects from the event.

At first, tell us about the missions of YRCC.

The Yellow River is the second longest river in China and the sixth longest in the world. Known as ‘the mother river of China’, its basin is regarded as the birthplace of ancient China and historic centre of China’s political, economic and social development. The river has supported life since the earliest agricultural societies more than 5,000 years ago. The current annual runoff of the Yellow River is about 58 km3, which takes 2% of total water resources of China, yet still sustained the water supply to 12% of China’s population, 15% of China’s arable land, and more than 50 major cities.

Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC), established in 1946, manages the water resources of the basin on behalf of the Ministry of Water Resources, mandated for sustainable management and development of the Yellow River Basin. The YRCC prepares and implements the basin water development plan, decides the allocation of water resources at provincial level and is in charge of constructing and maintaining structures for water resource development and flood prevention.

The YRCC is responsible for floods, sediment, ice, drought, water quality, water allocation and environmental water management in the whole Yellow River Basin. This work is carried out in an integrated way, with one of the key objectives being investing in management actions that jointly improve ecological outcomes and enhance the welfare of the people who live in the Basin. In just 10 years, the remarkable transformation of China’s second longest river by YRCC has secured water supply for over one hundred million people, restored extensive areas of wetlands and biodiversity and protected some 90 million people living in the flood-prone areas of the Yellow River from devastating floods.

The nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. Concerning the Yellow River, what are the main challenges YRCC has to face? 

Throughout history, the Yellow River basin has been associated with floods, droughts and a rising river bed. With large population increases, combined with rapid growth in all sectors, declining water quality and quantity have had a direct impact on the sustainable socio-economic development of the basin and the health of ecosystems.

Since 1949, according to the Master Plan of Yellow River Basin Development, large Scale dam and reservoirs, embankments, sluice gates, flood retention areas have been established in the basin to increase flood control and enable drought management, hydropower and irrigation in the past decades. In the 1990s, the central government has increased its investment in the water sector and enacted legislation to alleviate water scarcity and assure continued economic growth. In 2002, a new Water Law, emphasizing integrated water resources management, was passed. It has paved the way for a transition from engineering-dominated and demand based development to a resource-oriented strategy that focuses on water availability. Though great achievements have made for Yellow River Basin management and development in the past 70 years,there are still many challenges due to the Climate Change, population growth and socio-economic development, namely,

  • Ecology conservation and environmental flow management: due to problems associated with the heavy sediment load of the river, the YRCC has made balanced water allocation and sediment flushing its most critical environmental priority.
  • Soil Conservation and sedimentation management: the average sediment load that the river carries is 1.6 billion tonnes per year. Of this, only about 25% is carried to the sea, while the rest is deposited on the riverbed. Due to this sedimentation, the riverbed has risen at an average rate of 5 to 10 cm per year and the dikes have been periodically raised in response. The impact of sedimentation on channel dynamics has made management of the river difficult, especially in its lower reaches.
  • Coping with floods and droughts: millions of lives have been lost to floods and droughts during the long history of the Yellow River basin. Potential flood risks are being reduced to a level which the society and economy can address, and flood management schemes have been established for extremely large floods. The YRCC and the nine riparian provinces have jointly set up a Yellow River flood control and drought relief headquarters, which provides crucial input to planning for such disasters and mitigating their impact.

Could you give us some examples of conservation actions YRCC take and experience you have?

The mission of YRCC is to maintain a healthy life of River, and improve the well beings of People. To give you two examples:

For the downstream Yellow River: YRCC made remarkable progress in restoring the river flow and balancing water availability with social, economic and ecological developments. YRCC employs the latest technologies in remote sensing and automation to collect real-time river system information and operate a series of reservoirs on the main stream and tributaries of Yellow River in an integrated manner, as well as the highly coordinated water allocation and sediment regulation operation of the Xiaolangdi Dam. The diversity of habitat types and extensive areas of wetlands within the Ramsar-listed Yellow River Delta support at least 265 bird species. The birds, fish and macro invertebrates in the delta rely on healthy and diverse vegetation communities, which in turn depend upon on annual freshwater flooding and the associated high sediment loads. 

In the middle reach: together with the World Bank and China Ministry of Water Resources, the YRCC has been working together with local population to formulated a watershed management approach, via the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation project. Erosion has been substantially reduced through massive reforestation efforts, the discontinuation of farming on steep slopes, and the establishment of large-scale terracing and sediment control structures. This project is being hailed as a model for water conservation, a model that is increasingly being applied throughout China. This project is one of the largest and most successful erosion control programs in the world and it won World Bank President’s Award for Excellency in 2003.

YRCC will host the next IFGR session. What are you expecting from this event?

First of all, the YRCC would like to extend our warmly welcome to all the IFGR members and we are very privileged to host the 9th IFGR session for the first time in China, this event is also supported by the Chinese Ministries and French Embassy, and labeled as “China-France Year of Environment” activity. The IFGR session is a great opportunity to address the global water challenges and to share lessons and experiences learnt with other large Rivers.

Just before the opening of 9th IFGR session, there is also a strategic change for the Yellow River management. On Sept 18, 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping chaired a high level symposium on ecological conservation and high-quality development of the Yellow River Basin in Zhengzhou. The Central Government urges concerted efforts for Yellow River protection and development, and ecological conservation to be put into even higher priority for the Yellow River basin management.

The timing and discussions of the ninth IFGR session will play a unique role to facilitate this process. Besides the IFGR members, there will be around 200 representatives from Ministries, Embassy, regulatory agencies, stakeholders, experts and scholars, and other Asian country representatives in our headquarters. During the plenary session, we will discuss topics including ecology conservation, SDG goals, integrated water resources management, healthy river, biodiversity protection, and other issues related to the future of great rivers.

China will welcome the 15th Conference of Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity in China in 2020. How can this session contribute to the international political process?

This IFGR session will also put special focus on preparations for the COP15, which will be held in Kunming, Yunnan province, in 2020. The Yellow River Basin’s experiences showcase the endeavor in prioritizing the protection of ecology biodiversity and pursuing sustainable and harmonious development between river and humans.

In preparation for COP15, it is hoped that the IFGR session will work together with Chinese, French and other international stakeholders, reinforce strategic coordination and synergism regarding River and Ecology, and share experiences in biodiversity conservation in order to contribute to the creation of a fair, rational, and efficient system of global biodiversity governance.

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