The Expected Yangtze River Law: Ecology First
Flowing through 19 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions 400 million people inhabit, the Yangtze (Changjiang) River has the largest drainage basin in China. The river has always played an important role in the country’s ecological and economic development. However, in recent decades, disordered exploitation of the river has resulted in severe environmental pollution and ecological damage, which has seriously restricted further social and economic development along the river.
In early 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping remarked that restoring the Yangtze River’s ecological environment would be an overwhelming task, and announced that no large-scale development would be allowed along the river for an extended period of time. In order to better protect and utilize this vital body of water, thirty deputies proposed legislation to protect the Yangtze River at this year’s annual session of the National People’s Congress in March.
Nourishing a tremendous number of people and fostering intensive economic activity, the drainage basin of the Yangtze River also suffers serious water problems.
“In recent years, the river has become more resistant to disasters but still the threats of flood and drought loom,” says Lu Zhongmei, deputy director of Commission of Social and Legislative Affairs of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. “Although the overall water quality is good, some sections have major problems. Water pollution and water and soil loss pose serious threats to the ecological safety of the drainage basin.” Since 1996, Lu has been researching legislation for water resource protection along the river.
According to the research from Lu’s group, exploitation of some branches of the upper reaches of the Yangtze River has led to dry riverbeds, which has wrought negative impacts on environment. The middle and lower reaches of the river lack a coherent management system. Illegal sand excavation and shoreline occupation still occur. Some river mouths are stuck with sediment and face more saltwater contamination. Many intertidal zones have disappeared due to human activity. Many transregional water transfer and water control projects have been implemented, resulting in water leaving the drainage basin.
Because the river traverses many places, as many as 12 departments have jurisdiction over development and administration of the river. Due to the lack of a formal law, conflicts happen at all levels of governments and some regulations from different levels are contradictory or vague.
After a great deal of research, in the early 1990s, the Ministry of Water Resources and the Changjiang Water Resources Committee (CWRC) first proposed to enact law related to the Yangtze River. In 2003, Lu Zhongmei, then a deputy to the National People’s Congress, submitted a bill to regulate usage of the Yangtze River. In 2006,
CWRC formally submitted Changjiang River Law (legislative suggestion) to China’s Ministry of Water Resource. In 2010, Wang Shuyi, president of the Institute of Environmental Law at Wuhan University and his team drafted Changjiang River Law of the
People’s Republic of China and presented it to China’s Ministry of Water Resources. However, in the following years, progress came to a halt.
“The Yangtze River law has been delayed because the situation has proved difficult to legislate, with reality much more complicated than theory,” explains Lu. “For example, the lower reaches require upper protection of the source, while the upper regions think they should be compensated because they make the investment to protect the lower regions. But the lower areas believe the uppers should first manage the pollution before any compensation is discussed. Some provinces in the middle reaches have filled the tidal zone with real estate developments, which cause floods. Conflicts between regions over protection can only be solved with regulations.
“Another reason was that the timing was not good back then, when the national strategy for the development of the Yangtze River Delta was not as clear as it is today, and there was no urgent need for related legislation.”
As some important project like the Three Gorges Dam and South-to-north Water Diversion Project operate and the Belt and Road Initiative and the Yangtze River Economic Zone dominate the agenda, the Yangtze River is even more critical
to China’s sustainable development. Protection of the river that fosters development of the economy has become a priority.
“Agricultural departments hope the river can produce more aquatic products, water departments want to set up more projects, transportation authorities expect more ships while tourism agencies want to develop more tourist destinations,” illustrates Lu. “These departments all exercise their powers according to the law, but when intertwined, these powers may leave the Yangtze River a mess. The aim of the legislation is to coordinate those departments’ powers and at the same time define the bottom line ecologically.”
Legislation promoted by Lu and other experts is expected to regulate exploitation and protect the entire drainage basins of the Yangtze River through efforts by governments, enterprises and individuals. The expected law should set up a coordination and cooperation mechanism and construct a modern governance system for the drainage basins.
“For example, when a dam is constructed on the river, what will happen to the aquatic life?” Lu asks. “How are the fish going to migrate? What about the sailing and irrigation in lower reaches? Now, the development and reform commission has the right to examine and approve the construction of the dam, which, however, also involves water, environment, transportation and agriculture departments as well as many enterprises, cities and citizens.” Taking the total impact of the dam into consideration, the law needs to allow every party to have a voice, balance water resources and designate who has the final say. Also, the law must guarantee enforcement of the decision as well as that both environmental and developmental needs are met.
“‘One law for one river’ is an important experience in modern water-related legislation,” concludes Lu. “The Tennessee Valley Authority of the U. S. and the Rhine and Seine in Europe set good models for us. Those rivers are all governed by a specific organization under the guidance of either a domestic or an international law. We can borrow their experience to design legislation for the Yangtze.”
Section of the Yangtze River in Letianxi Town, Yichang City of Hubei Province. The longest river in China, the Yangtze endures frequent droughts and floods. CFP