Dam versus reserve

(China Daily)
Updated: 2011-02-26 07:21
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The Ministry of Environmental Protection has created a stir, because it proposes to shrink the Upper Yangtze National Nature Reserve for Rare and Endangered Fish by more than 1,400 hectares.

The reserve, which stretches from Yibin in Sichuan province to Chongqing, is the last place where several endangered and endemic species such as the Chinese paddlefish, Dabry's sturgeon and the Chinese suckerfish are found.

The integrity of the reserve has always been in peril. Now, that a panel of experts has agreed that a smaller conservation area would not threaten the aquatic habitat, it has to make room for a dam.

The dam that the Chongqing government is set to build will cost 33 billion yuan ($5.01 billion) and will be more than a power project. It is supposed to be vital for navigation, retaining silt and controlling floods, and thus important for the development of the area.

Environmentalists, however, say that reducing the conservation area will set a bad example. If the nature reserve in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River is reduced to make way for construction and local development, other natural habitats will share the same fate.

Over the past two decades, the stretch of the habitat for rare and endangered fish in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River has been cut short from several thousand to just 200 kilometers. Any further environmental degradation would sound the death knell for some rare species such as the freshwater finless porpoise in the river.

After conducting a survey on fish in Dongting Lake in Hunan province, the Institute of Hydrobiology, affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, warned that the number of finless porpoises continues to decline. The mammal is only found in parts of the Yangtze River, Dongting Lake and Poyang Lake in Jiangxi province, and its number is fewer than that of giant pandas.

If greater efforts are not made to protect the Chinese paddlefish, Dabry's sturgeon, Chinese suckerfish and the freshwater finless porpoise, they could follow another cetacean, the baiji (or the Yangtze River dolphin), into extinction.

Economic development, pollution, overfishing and commercial use of the river have been blamed for the extinction of the baiji. The threat to the finless porpoise is immense, for it inhabits the same section of the Yangtze that the baiji did.

All governments talk about striking the right balance between GDP growth and conservation. But when it comes to action, many of them are found wanting.

It is important to introduce greater scientific rigor in environmental impact assessments of projects by seeking experts' counsel, holding public hearings and publishing committee reports. That could serve as a public education program, too.

The country needs to learn the virtues of good environmental governance, which limits exploitation of natural resources to the sustainable level.