The Nature Conservancy logo. Protecting nature. Preserving life.China has a complicated relationship with its rivers. The Yellow River is known simultaneously as China’s “cradle” and its “sorrow,” for its banks have witnessed both the rise of early Chinese civilization and the deaths of millions of people to floods.

The mighty Yangtze River too is both beloved and feared. Arising in the Tibetan Plateau and disgorging to the Pacific at Shanghai, the Yangtze is Asia’s longest river and the industrial and agricultural powerhouse of China. But its floods have taken hundreds of thousands of lives — and thus taming the Yangtze has been a goal of Chinese leaders for millennia.

Today, floodwaters are again rising on the Yangtze, testing an elaborate flood-defense system that, over the centuries, has been built, failed, rebuilt, refined and expanded. At its heart is the massive Three Gorges Dam, one of the world’s largest structures. The Yangtze flood system is also at the heart of a debate about rivers that has been waged for 2,500 years — a debate that the Conservancy is now joining (more on that below).

During the Han Dynasty, dense populations and intensive agriculture arose in the Yangtze River valley, attracted by the rich soil that floods left behind but also vulnerable to those same floods. Thus, the Chinese first sought solutions for coexisting with Yangtze floods more than 2,000 years ago.

These initial efforts spawned a debate on flood management that was deeply grounded in competing philosophical traditions:

  • The Confucianists, who believed in “control by controlling”, argued that the Yangtze could be confined between tall levees and directed on an orderly course to the sea.
  • The Taoists, who followed “control by not controlling”, shunned aggressive interventions with nature and advocated for letting the Yangtze chart its own course. (Interestingly, similar debates — though not officially aligned with Eastern philosophies — played out in the 19th century United States over the Mississippi and Sacramento rivers).

The Taoist approach was resilient in the face of even large floods, but sacrificed full economic utilization of the floodplain. The Confucian approach gained mastery over the river in most years, allowing cities and farms to occupy land that naturally would have flooded relatively frequently. However, mastery of the river was never complete — and thus when the levees failed, the results were catastrophic.

As it has in most of the world, the Confucian approach to river management prevailed and, for China, the ultimate expression of Confucian control of the Yangtze was a massive dam that could contain the floodwaters rushing down from the mountains.

Chairman Mao zealously pushed for construction of a dam within the Three Gorges section of the Yangtze, promoting it through both politics and poetry (check out the last five lines of Mao’s poem, “Swimming.”)

Mao’s dream was finally realized decades after his death with completion of Three Gorges Dam. Today, a series of additional dams are being built upstream of Three Gorges, each designed to both generate hydroelectricity and to further reduce floods.

But have we — not just China — reached the limits of Confucian control of rivers?

Indeed, throughout the world it has become increasingly apparent that this quest for mastery has exacted a huge toll on healthy rivers and all they provide us, even as true “control” of rivers continues to elude even the most developed regions.

Many river valleys are now too densely occupied to revert to a pure Taoist approach but, to borrow from Buddhism, perhaps a “middle way” is possible.

Note that, in Buddhism, the middle way is not simply a compromise between extremes but is, rather, a strategic path toward an optimum. Case in point: Within developed river systems, the Conservancy is collaborating with water managers to devise solutions to reduce flood risk by augmenting traditional infrastructure — dams and levees — with the “green infrastructure” of floodplains and wetlands.

What would a middle way look like for the Yangtze? The Conservancy is now preparing a proposal focused on both reducing flood risk and maintaining the environmental health of the river.

The proposal suggests that these aims can be accomplished by coordinating the operations of the new dams being built upstream of Three Gorges Dam with actions in the downstream floodplain, premised on these concepts:

1. Three Gorges Dam, and the new dams upstream of it, are intended to protect an intensively settled and farmed floodplain. However, for floods arising on the main-stem Yangtze, preliminary analysis suggests the new dams will provide very little additional flood-risk benefits beyond what Three Gorges Dam already provides.

2. Additionally, the settled floodplain area faces flood threats from other rivers; some of the worst floods in the past have come from rivers that enter the Yangtze downstream of Three Gorges – meaning the new dams cannot possibly reduce those threats.

3. Managing the new dams for flood control will severely alter river flows into the last remaining free-flowing portion of the upper Yangtze — the Rare and Native Fish Reserve — impacting hundreds of fish species, including dozens found nowhere else in the world, and a fishery that provides important food resources for people.

4. Managing the new dams for flood control will also reduce the amount of hydroelectricity the dams can generate. This is because flood management will require that, during the summer Monsoon, the reservoirs behind the dams will be lowered in order to catch incoming floods. Lowering of the reservoirs will reduce energy production by billions of kilowatt-hours during the season of greatest energy demand in China.

5. However, if the reservoirs were not lowered during the summer, the dams could release a much more natural flow into the Fish Reserve. Further, the dams could generate considerably more energy, providing hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue. A significant portion of this additional revenue could be directed toward funding environmental conservation and actions that will reduce flood risk in the downstream floodplain, such as strategically strengthening levees or flood-proofing at-risk buildings.

The Leshan Buddha LESHAN BUDDHA: The largest carved stone Buddha in the world looms over the Min River, a major tributary to the Yangtze. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Because flood control in the new dams would provide only a small amount of additional benefit for only one of multiple flood threats confronting the settled floodplain (points 1 and 2 above), removing flood control from the new dams can actually decrease the flood risk for people in the downstream floodplain — as long as a significant portion of the consequent additional hydropower revenue is invested in floodplain management that can reduce risk arising from all potential sources.

Thus the “middle way” that the Conservancy is proposing for the Yangtze would reduce impacts to the Native Fish Reserve, reduce flood risk for the downstream floodplain, and generate significant revenue to fund environmental conservation throughout the Yangtze basin.

(Note that a recent Wall Street Journal article references the Conservancy’s proposal and reports that the proposed changes in dam operations “could raise the risk of flooding.” Although removing flood storage from the dams without any compensatory investment of funds in the floodplain might slightly increase flood risk in the densely settled floodplain, the holistic approach described above that we are advocating would actually reduce flood risks.)

This was originally written by Jeff Opperman for the Cool Green Science Blog and is published here with permission.

From Tao to Mao to now: A 'middle way' for the Yangtze?
China has historically managed its rivers out of Confucian control rather than Taoist live-and-let-live. But the Conservancy has a plan for the Yangtze that bal