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Friday, 12 October, 2001, 15:44 GMT 16:44 UK
Plan to tame Yangtze floods
Man rows boat on flooded Yangtze AP
In 1998 the river brought misery and death: The plan may change that
Alex Kirby

China and the UN are preparing an ambitious plan to prevent any repetition of the disastrous 1998 floods on the Yangtze river.

The work, which will cost $10m (7m), will restore lost lakes, and reduce deforestation and erosion.

It is designed to save lives and livelihoods, to slow damage to the environment and to safeguard wild species.

The pilot phase is expected to start in two months' time. The scheme has been developed by Chinese researchers and colleagues from the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep).

Panda eating AP
Pandas should gain from the river plan
It follows a visit to China in 1999 by a Unep team to establish the causes of the 1998 floods. The Yangtze, at 6,300 km (3,900 miles), is Asia's longest river and the world's third longest.

The floods were reported to have killed 3,656 people, destroyed 5.7 million homes and damaged seven million more, and forced 14 million people to move to new areas. The economic losses were put at $31bn (21bn).

The team identified three factors which had significantly worsened the impact of heavy rain:

  • deforestation and overgrazing, sharply reducing the capacity of forests and grasslands to retain water;
  • loss of lakes and wetlands, cutting the capacity of the river's middle and lower reaches to store water;
  • rising erosion rates, causing rivers and wetlands to fill with silt.
Forest cover in Sichuan province, it said, had fallen from 20% of the land area in the 1950s to 9% by the late 1970s.

And in the early 1950s, the Yangtze basin had contained 4,033 large and small lakes, of which it estimated that about 1,100 were lost in 45 years.

Losing capacity

Unep says the surface area of the lakes along the Yangtze amounted in 1949 to 17,198 sq km, but by 1980 to only 6,605 sq km.

It says one of the largest reservoirs in Guangxi province, Changgang, is losing half a million cubic metres of capacity annually as it silts up.

Soldiers in mud AP
Troops lay sandbags to hold back Yangtze
And the bed of Dongting lake, which receives about 1,290 million cubic metres of silt and soil annually, has risen more than a metre since 1955.

The plan worked out with China aims to return farmland to natural forests, grasslands and other habitats in the Yangtze's upper and middle reaches, in the hope of reducing erosion as rainwater is retained more easily.

Rich in wildlife

It will also involve restoring thousands of lakes and natural drainage systems.

Unep describes China as one of the world's richest countries for wildlife, with more than 3,000 higher plant species and over 6,000 mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles.

Species it expects to benefit from the plan include the giant and red pandas, wild yak, and Yangtze river dolphin, or baiji, as well as the 400 million people who live in the Yangtze basin.

The scheme involves the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi, the cities of Chongqing and Chengdu, and Tibet.

If it is approved by the Global Environment Facility, work on the full project should start in May 2003.

See also:

01 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
China builds second biggest dam
20 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
China flood toll rises
09 Aug 99 | Asia-Pacific
China's floods: Is deforestation to blame?
02 Sep 98 | Asia-Pacific
China cuts back to fight floods
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