The source of the Yangtze River is called Changjiangyuan in Chinese. Lying at an altitude of over 5,000 meters it is located far from the sea in the hinterland of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau
Extending over some 159,000 square kilometers, the catchment area at the source is formed by the Tuotuo, Dangqu and Qumar rivers. Here the ecology is so fragile that experts say, “If you really want to care for the source of the Yangtze just leave it alone! It is so delicately balanced that any intrusion might lead to damage or even disaster.”
The influence of the Three Gorges Project and the South-to-North Water Diversion Project can be felt far beyond the effects on the daily lives of the people living on the middle and lower reaches of the river. Their impact upon the eco-environment reaches back up the river to the source of the Yangtze. In fact the whole country is affected in one way or another. There is a sense in which these headwaters are more than just the source of the Yangtze they are a very metaphor for the ecological source of the Chinese nation.
An environment under threat
Over-grazing leading to desertification of the grasslands has attracted particular criticism for its contribution to environmental deterioration at the source of the Yangtze.
Statistics show that these grasslands began to suffer back in the 1980s when they fell prey to the rapid growth of the human population and livestock numbers. Soon there were large areas of bare earth incapable of supporting new growth. In a bitter twist of nature the very people and livestock who had overstressed the land in the first place found themselves obliged to retreat from areas that were gradually becoming barren.
Meanwhile widespread hunting has disrupted the natural food chain. It has been well established that the loss of just one link in the food chain can upset a previously stable ecological balance.
Around the source of the Yangtze, many Tibetan antelopes and kiangs have been killed. Even owls have fallen victim to the poachers. No longer threatened by their natural enemy, mice numbers have increased dramatically. A plague of these voracious little rodents nibbling away at the turf has contributed to the spread of desertification.
Sources at the Yangtze Valley Water Resources Protection Administration, which operates under the auspices of the Yangtze River Water Conservancy Commission, point to yet another contributory factor. Over the past 20 years, hundreds of thousands of people have sought their fortunes by panning for gold in the area of the source of the Yangtze. As they indiscriminately treaded river channels and grasslands underfoot their illegal activities have led to further deterioration of the environment.
Wherever the land has been stripped of its protective mantle of vegetation the underlying soil becomes vulnerable. Every spring the strong winds that sweep across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau pick up and carry off sand and silt. They take it eastwards along the paths of the Qumar and Tuotuo rivers posing a severe threat to the grasslands to the east of Hoh Xil. A 40-km-long belt of sand dunes has formed on the banks of the Tongtian River and is advancing at a rate of 5 km a year.
When summer comes the waters of the Yangtze carry large quantities of sand and silt down to the lower reaches of the river. The area around the source of the Yangtze has even started to experience sandstorms.
Residents living along the banks of the Tuotuo River can no longer drink the water from the Yangtze because of geochemical pollution. The problem is the high concentration of halogenide and water has to be brought in from tens of kilometers away.
Monitoring statistics from the Tuotuo River Hydrological Station reveal two factors operating in tandem to threaten the very river itself. The Tuotou is finding itself carrying more and more sand and silt at the same time as water volumes are decreasing.
Considering the severity of the desertification at the source of the Yangtze, is the Tuotuo River destined to disappear or even become a continental river itself before many more years have passed?
A journalist who took part in an environmental protection awareness event at the source of the Yangtze in 2001 said that, during this symbolic activity, several tons of garbage were collected along the banks of the Tuotuo River.
Responsibility for saving the source of the Yangtze
Better late than never. After the massive Yangtze floods of 1998, the departments involved launched a series of nature conservancy projects involving the source of the Yangtze.
In 2001, the Yangtze River Water Conservancy Commission launched the Prevention and Protection Project for Water and Soil Conservation at the Source of the Yangtze. With an emphasis on prevention and supervision, the project is aimed at establishing and streamlining the local legal framework and related supervisory systems of law enforcement as they effect water and soil conservation.
It will help local governments make provision for the reversion of pasture to grassland. Monitoring will be strengthened in the fields of water and soil conservation and in the eco-environment generally. The measures are intended to halt water and soil erosion as far as possible and return the eco-environment to a state of natural balance.
However one fundamental problem is yet to be resolved. China operates under the general principle that local governments at all levels should take responsibility for the quality of the environment within their own administrative regions.
However, the source of the Yangtze is in a relatively unproductive mountainous area. Qinghai Province, where the source is located, is in an economically underdeveloped part of the country. So where should the responsibility for the ecological construction of the source of the Yangtze lie?
Experts from the Yangtze Valley Water Resources Protection Administration point to other mechanisms that need to be taken into account in addition to the fragile ecology of the area. Those who live around the source of the Yangtze have priorities that are defined in terms of economic development rather than environmental protection. On the lower reaches of the river their fellow countrymen are already much further along the road of economic development and rate environmental protection upstream much more highly.
Such factors are pertinent to any consideration of measures concerning the source of the Yangtze. These would after all serve to guarantee water quality not just in the area of the source but also on the lower reaches of this mighty river and even further across the country.
So responsibility for ecological conservation at the source of the Yangtze should not just be seen as a matter to be left to the various levels of the local government. Responsibility should run throughout the length and breadth of the total catchment area and extend further to the country as a whole.
The experts added that the departments involved had already undertaken several scientific studies at the source of the Yangtze. However a clear understanding of the present state of its ecology has not yet been achieved. They are of the view that further fundamental research is needed to properly determine the current situation and better understand the various influences impacting on the area.
The research should investigate the patterns of change over time and interrelationships within the eco-system. The results of the research would serve to inform overall planning to ensure effective ecological protection at the source of the Yangtze. In particular the experts have identified a need for additional funds to support long-term monitoring of changes in the local eco-environment to aid the work of protecting the ecology from further deterioration.
(China.org.cn by Zhang Tingting, November 7, 2003)