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2021-01-11 12:12:28

Chinese conservationists have denounced a planned water conservation project in the country’s largest freshwater lake, saying it could submerge the winter habitats of waterbirds and other aquatic animals in the area.

Authorities in the eastern Jiangxi province brought the controversial, decadelong dam project at Poyang Lake back to the table last week by announcing they are officially soliciting public opinion. The project would build a 3,000-meter-long, 23.4-meter-tall sluice gate that would cut through the northern part of the lake where it connects with the Yangtze River.

Zhou Haixiang, an ecology professor at Shenyang Ligong University, worries the construction could have an “irreversible” impact on the local environment. The project would raise water levels and benefit winter shipping, he said, but also disturb endangered Yangtze finless porpoises by walling up their habitat.

“Waterbirds in northeast Asia rely on Poyang Lake, which is one of the most important remaining habitats for them to overwinter,” Zhou, who studies cranes, told Sixth Tone.

Just protecting conservation areas is not enough: The whole of Poyang Lake must be protected.

According to the notice published by Jiangxi’s natural resources department, the sluice gate would “regulate drought” and monitor water levels from September to March next year, in order to “relieve the ecological and livelihood problems resulting from extremely low water levels in the lake area.”

The 13 billion yuan ($2 billion) dam would take up 347 hectares of land, although no designated conservation areas would be impacted, the notice said. The project was proposed by the Poyang Lake Hydro Project Construction Office, under Jiangxi’s water resources department.

Huang Jin, an official with the provincial natural resources department, told Sixth Tone the water conservation project is currently only soliciting public opinion and has not been approved.

“If anyone has any feedback, they can submit it to us and we will ask the (project’s) owner to deal with it accordingly,” she said.

However, the dam has already been listed among the country’s major hydraulic projects scheduled to break ground between 2020 and 2022, according to the public notice.

The plan for the Poyang Lake water conservation project dates from 2009, when Jiangxi authorities proposed it to the State Council, China’s Cabinet. However, it stalled due to continuing concerns about its environmental impact.

In 2009, 15 high-profile environmental experts jointly wrote to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier at the time, calling for the project to be halted, lest it irrevocably alter wetlands and disturb endangered waterbirds. The project was postponed, only to resurface in 2016.

“Excessive human intervention will shatter the balance between natural systems,” Zhou said. “Just protecting conservation areas is not enough: The whole of Poyang Lake must be protected.”

Years later, the Poyang Lake project still stresses its commitment to environmental protection by providing irrigation, water supply, and shipping, while potentially replenishing water for downstream communities during dry periods.

However, experts say the “drought” in Poyang Lake is largely a human-caused problem, and they doubt the dam can solve it.

Zhou Jianjun, a professor of hydraulic engineering at Tsinghua University who is not related to Zhou Haixiang, said upstream reservoirs holding back water and sand mining in Poyang Lake are among the main causes of lower water levels.

“The Three Gorges Dam has cut off the Yangtze River. If the last two major lakes (Poyang Lake and Dongting Lake) are cut off (by the water conservation project), the Yangtze River ecosystem will be severely dismembered, and the biodiversity of the river basin will be completely lost,” he wrote in a 2019 research paper.

Poyang Lake Hydro Project Construction Office did not respond to Sixth Tone’s interview request.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Construction of a dam in progress at Poyang Lake in Hukou County, Jiangxi province, Dec. 18. 2020. People Visual)