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2020-12-28 10:43:20

China has passed a landmark law to protect the country’s longest and largest river, the Yangtze, to better conserve the much-beleaguered waterway’s ecology and environment.

The Yangtze River Protection Law is the first river basin legislation in the country and covers a range of issues, from curbing water pollution to protecting endangered aquatic-species and relocating hazard chemical plants. The law includes the Yangtze River mainstream, as well as its tributaries and connected lakes, covering 19 different regions.

The law was passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the country’s top legislature, on Saturday and will come into effect March 1, 2021.

The Yangtze River is known as “Mother River” in China and cuts through 11 different regions — excluding the tributaries and connected lakes — from the northwestern Qinghai province over to Shanghai in the east, with a combined population of nearly 600 million people.

In recent years, the river spanning 6,300 kilometers has been badly polluted from wastewater discharged by factories operating along its banks. Pollution, combined with overfishing and hydropower constructions, have also pushed the river’s native species of Chinese sturgeons to the brink of extinction.

The new law now prohibits building chemical plants within 1 kilometer of the river bank — relocating heavily polluting factories to the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze River — and bans the transportation of highly toxic chemicals on water. Violators can face fines of up to 5 million yuan ($765,000).

Wu Weixing, law professor at Nanjing University, told Sixth Tone that the new protection law is “comprehensive” and would create a synchronized protection mechanism for the entire river basin, as well as help different provinces avoid conflict.

“Previously, each province had their own laws,” Wu said. “The new legislation would coordinate the different interests upstream and downstream as a whole.”

The new law was envisaged after Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the ecological protection and green development of the Yangtze in 2016. The following year, the country released an action plan to protect the river’s ecological environment, setting targets to improve water quality and imposing a 10-year fishing ban starting in 2020.

The existing fishing ban on Yangtze conservation areas is also included in the current law, stipulating that illegal fishers may face a penalty of up to 500,000 yuan. Those who release nonnative species into the Yangtze may also be subject to fines of up to 1 million yuan.

Meanwhile, a draft provision to restrict new large- and medium-sized hydropower projects in the Yangtze River Basin has been removed from the final version, following opposition from the industry.

Li Yisong, law professor at Hohai University in Nanjing, told Sixth Tone that the conflict between environmental protection and economic development has been a main source of debate during the making of the law.

“Excessive development has led to the Yangtze River’s ills,” Li said. “Legislation is only the first step. There needs to be more attention on the implementation of the law.”

The story has been updated to include a quote from Li Yisong.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: People fish along the banks of the Yangtze River in Yichang, Hubei province, Dec. 27, 2020. People Visual)