The ambitious scheme, the brainchild of researchers in China and at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), aims to restore thousands of lost lakes and natural drainage systems so that the river, whose banks and basins are home to 400 million people, can cope better during times of heavy and prolonged rains.
Studies, carried out by UNEP in the wake of the devastating floods of 1998 in which millions were made homeless, thousands were killed and economic losses from industries such as agriculture totaled $31 billion, have found that siltation of the river has also made it far more vulnerable to flooding.
The project plans to restore natural forests, grasslands and other key habitats in the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze to reduce soil erosion and soil sweeping into the river.
Experts believe such schemes will not only increase the volume of water the Yangtze can hold but may help fight global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
China is one of the richest countries in the world for wildlife, with more than 3,000 species of higher plants and over 6,000 species of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles. The scientists believe the forestry and habitat restoration schemes will boost the prospects for many of these rare and endangered animals and plants including the giant panda, lesser panda, golden monkey, wild yak, white-lipped deer, Yangtze river dolphin, Yangtze alligator, Minjang cypress and dove tree.
(See notes to editors for more details on the project)
News of the project comes as Shafqat Kakakhel, the Deputy Executive Director of UNEP, today (Friday) in Beijing signed an historic agreement with the China State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA).
The Letter of Agreement establishes a UNEP/SEPA Joint Centre for an Environmental Information Network, which is designed to fulfil a number of important roles.
Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP, said: "This is a very important agreement which will deepen and broaden cooperation between China and our organization. We attach great importance to improving environmental awareness across the globe. With 22 per cent of the world's population, China is globally as well as regionally important in respect to the environment. So it is planned to use the Beijing Olympic Games, to take place in 2008, as a focus for raising environmental awareness among the people of Beijing and the Chinese people as a whole, on issues such as energy efficiency, reducing pollution, tackling climate change and environmentally-friendly transport. This will be a long-term initiative with the games acting as a springboard for this important awareness-raising work".
Wang Qiao, the new Director of the Joint Centre, said: "The centre will also play a key role in UNEP's third Global Environment Outlook report, due to be published next year, the project on the Yangtze ecosystem restoration as well as contributing to the development of Internet databases such as UNEP.net. We see this agreement as an important step forward in China's efforts to manage its growth in a sustainable and environmentally-sound way".
Other projects expected to be carried out by the Joint Centre include a Millennium Ecosystem Assessment for western China. The Chinese goverment is planning a big expansion of economic and industrial activity here.
Jinhua Zang, Programme Officer in UNEP's Division of Early Warning and Assessment, said: "Western China is ecologically a very fragile and important area with plateaus and mountains. Indeed it is where we find the headwaters of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. So ensuring that development takes places in an environmentally-friendly way is a real challenge. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment will play a key role in this and help identify strategies and policies that will help ensure the minimum damage and disruption to western China's ecosystems, habitats and wildlife".
Another important role for the new Centre will be to act as the data centre for UNEP's North West Pacific Regional Seas programme.
Notes to Editors:
The proposed project to reduce the risk of devastating floods on the Yangtze, Asia's largest river with a length of 6,300 kilometres, has been submitted to the Secretariat of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) for approval.
The cost of the pilot phase is estimated at $544,000 and is expected to commence in December 2001. The full project, costing $10 million, is scheduled to begin in May 2003.
In 1999 a team including Jinhua Zhang and Takehiro Nakamura from UNEP visited China to try an identify the causes of the 1998 floods which, it was reported, affected an area of 25.78 million square kilometres, killed 3,656 people, swept away 5.7 million homes and damaged a further seven million and led to the relocation of nearly 14 million people.
The Report of the UNEP Scoping Mission to the Yangtze River Basin identified three, key, environmental factors that significantly aggravated the impacts of heavy rains.
These were sharp declines in the water retaining capacity of forests and grasslands due to deforestation and overgrazing, decreases in water storing capacity in the middle and lower reaches of the river due to loss of lakes and wetlands and silting up of the rivers and wetlands in the Yangtze basin as a result of rising rates of erosion.
For example in Sichuan, forest covered 20 per cent of the Province in the 1950s but by the end of the 1970s it had fallen to nine per cent. Areas in Sichuan suffering from soil erosion in the 1950s amounted to nearly 20 million hectares. By the 1990s this had climbed to nearly 25 million hectares.
The authors of the report note that forests reduce the amount of rainwater running off into the river. The roots of trees help divert rainwater into the ground.
The impact of erosion on the water carrying capacity of the Yangtze and its tributaries can be seen in Hunan Province. The river beds of the Xiang, Zi, Yuan and Fen rivers were found to be between 0.6 and three metres higher as a result of siltation and soil loss from the deforested and overgrazed land.
The Dongting Lake is now getting about 1,290 million cubic metres of silt and soil. The lake's bed has risen more than a metre in the last 45 years, the report says.
The loss of lakes, which once helped store floodwaters, is also dramatic.
"In the beginning of the 1950s, a total of 4,033 large and small lakes were found of which 759 were lakes with a surface area of more than one square kilometres. The total surface area of lakes in the Yangtze river basin was 25,828 square kilometres. Of the 4,033 lakes, it is estimated that approximately 1,100 were lost in the last 45 years, "says the report.
In 1949 the surface area of lakes along the Yangtze amounted to 17,198 square kilometres. By 1980 only 6,605 square kilometres remained or a loss of water carrying capacity of 56.7 billion cubic metres, the team found.
Another factor, contributing to environmental degradation of the land, has been weak protection of conservation areas. Over a third of protected areas in China have no management body and just under a third have no staff. This has, according to the report, led to local populations encroaching on ecologically important areas.
Some important actions have however been taken since the floods of 1998. In Sichuan Province a logging ban was introduced and loggers were re-employed to plant trees and cultivate forests. The scheme has targeted land, degraded by deforestation and inappropriate agriculture, on steep mountain slopes which are most prone to erosion. Farmers have been compensated for loss of income.
One of the main thrusts of the proposed, multi-million dollar, restoration initiative is to create so called Ecosystem Functions Conservation Areas (EFCAs) in key sites including the headwaters of the Yangtze and its tributaries and along stretches deemed vital for flood control.
Wetlands, lakes and other important drainage and water retaining features are to be restored. The EFCAs create new powers to prohibit environmentally-damaging activities and population growth that exceeds the carrying capacity of the local environment. Poverty alleviation is another key part of the plan.
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UNEP News Release 01/102