International Perspectives

December 2017 | Volume 23, Number 2


Along with rapid economic development in China have come many environmental threats. The Chinese government adopted an “ecological civilization” (or promoting ecological progress – 生态文明 ) national strategy to change the land development patterns, promote resource conservation and utilization, protect natural ecosystems and the environment, and improve quality of life in China. Serious damage to the nation’s rivers has been caused by rapid industrialization and urbanization. Bodies of water have been seriously damaged; water pollution has become one of the most serious environmental hazards in China, with 30% of rivers contaminated to different degrees; and water quality is a “hot” topic for everyone (Ministry of Environmental Protection 2015; World Water Assessment Program 2012). Many riverbeds have been channeled, and watershed ecosystems have been degraded. This not only destroys natural landscapes, aggravates riverbed erosion, and decreases the ability of many rivers to store and conserve water, it also blocks the free flow of rivers, reducing heterogeneity and biodiversity. Thus, water protection is an important part of the “eco-civilization” initiative.

To protect rivers and water, China has implemented a series of measures revolving around three elements: treatment of water pollution, ecological restoration of large rivers, and protection of water sources. However, without systematic efforts to rebuild the biodiversity of complete river basins, and by only focusing on small parts of some rivers, these measures are insufficient to protect large basin ecosystems in China. A National Protected Rivers System (NPRS) could help protect China’s rivers. The benefits of establishing a NPRS include promoting comprehensive changes in river utilization, maintaining the integrity and diversity of watershed ecosystems, and increasing the effectiveness of the China National Protected Area System (CNPAS).

In recent years, China has observed and come to highly value the benefits and governance of the US National Park System. China has even announced plans to designate new units in a true Chinese National Park System (CNPS), with more strict focus on nature protection (Wong 2015). China hopes that some trial park designations will demonstrate increased societal benefits flowing from a higher quality environment. This initiative can produce a more desirable model for sustainable development decision making such as described in Watson (2013).

While the US National Park System was created in 1916 and has had tremendous impact on nature protection around the world, the US Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA) (Public Law 90-542) created the first national protected river system – the Wild and Scenic Rivers System (WSRS) – in 1968, creating a method of continuously adding rivers for protection. In 2018, the system will celebrate its 50th anniversary with 208 rivers protected in 40 states managed for a diverse set of values (Palmer, this issue). The WSRA emphasized the importance of identifying and protecting “outstandingly remarkable values” of rivers under the premise of respecting nature and meet- ing the needs of society. Because of the unique benefits of river ecosystems, the protection of national parks or other public lands alone are not comprehensive enough to accomplish sufficient river protection. Thus, the WSRS emerged in the United States as the times required and threats were increasing, protecting river ecological systems, emphasizing rivers’ free-flowing importance and scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, and other values (US Public Law 90-542).

Chinese scholars have proposed establishment of River Nature Reserves in China and encouraging stricter river protection and management (Yang et al. 2016). This article offers an assessment of the potential for systematic river protection, laying the foundation for a future NPRS in China.

China’s Protected Areas System

In  the 1950s  and 1960s, protected areas in China still followed the Nature Reserve Model of the Soviet Union. There are more than 8,000 protected area units in the CNPAS, accounting for 18% of China’s total area (Li et al. 2016). Governance of protected areas, however, are divided across different departments based on the natural elements they protect, such as water, forest, or land, leading to a confusing assembly of protected areas (for example, a wetland may be administered as a nature reserve, forest park, wetland park, or water park) (Table 1). Administrative authority over different aspects of the same natural elements may belong to various departments, for example, the administrative authority of water quality belongs to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), while the quantity of water is the responsibility of the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR).

Some sections of rivers are protected within the CNPAS, but the river as a protected category does not exist. Four categories of partial river protection or water protection within CNPAS include the aquatic ecosystem of national nature reserves (e.g., Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan), the rivers within national parks (e.g., Li River in Guangxi), the urban rivers (e.g., Jiangsu Qinhuai River), and natural rivers (e.g., Jialingyuan River in Shanxi) of national water parks, and wetland parks, most of which are lakes or static rivers (e.g., Wuqiangxi Wetland Park in Hunan).

Table 1 – Main types of Chinese existing national protected areas system

Differences Between Categories of CNPAS and US WSRS

Ideology for river protection based on the relationship between humans and rivers are different in the United States and China. The US WSRA follows the American wilderness ideology (see Tin and Yang 2016) in that it considers humans a part of the watershed ecosystem and that wild or scenic aspects of a river can be protected while still having compatible human uses. Protected areas in China are based on an ideology of maintaining a harmonious relationship between humans and rivers, but humans can harness and even transform rivers, changing relationships. Human uses are at the center of the values of rivers, wetlands, forests, and other resources within the existing CNPAS.

The US WSRA aims to protect watershed ecosystem function, habitat, cultural values, and river recreation usage (Goodell 1978), especially free-flow and headwater conditions. Protecting free-flowing and pristine conditions of rivers in China are usually ignored and are commonly trammeled. Nature reserves, national parks, water parks, and wetland parks protect values embodied by the river only in accordance with other protection purposes. The nature reserves focus on biological diversity and put emphasis on the protection of rare and endangered animal and plant species. National parks protect outstanding natural values and cultural landscapes that were created by the interaction between humans and nature, with- out paying attention to larger basin ecosystems and cross-boundary flow. Wetland parks emphasize the protection of wetland ecosystems, especially the wetlands in static condition, not valuing rivers’ natural values and free- flowing condition. Water parks regard water bodies, landscape, culture, and hydraulic engineering as objects of protection, undervaluing the natural condition and free-flowing condition of rivers.

Protected areas also have different legal bases in China and the United States. Nature reserves and National parks in China are based on federal regulations, while wetland parks and water parks are based on departmental rules. The US WSRS management, however, is based on one specific law with a clearly stated intent and methods of protection. Management methods are very different in China and the United States. The US WSRS has been implemented in an open management way reflected in three unique aspects – valuing diversity and coordination of management, community participation and input, and self-management, sometimes by nonfederal authorities, which is very different from the closed management model of most of CNPAS.

Feasibility of a National Protected River System

Conditions of China’s river resources are threatened with continuous deterioration; however, there is an awakening on environmental protection awareness occurring, financial support for protecting rivers is now feasible, and the efficiency of the government to protect resources could contribute to the feasibility of establishing a national protected river system.

Abundant River Resources

According to the River Survey in 2011, in China there are 22,909 rivers with basin areas totaling more than 100 km2 each (39 miles2) (Ministry of Water Resources 2013). The neotectonic movement since the Quaternary glacial period has created three natural geographical regions in China, higher in the west and lower in the east like a three-step ladder: Qinghai-Tibet Plateau on the first step, large basins and plateaus on the second step, and broad plains dotted with the foothills and lower mountains on the third step. When rivers flow through these different natural geographical regions, a variety of river environments and cultural meanings are shaped. The multiplex aspect of river succession characteristics and ecological function breeds rich and colorful river cultural values. The Yangtze River, for example, flows through the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Southwest Mountainous Region, Sichuan Basin, central hills, and middle-downriver plain, forming three types of civilization – nomadic, agricultural, and ocean – with diversity of local culture –Tibetan culture, Bashu culture, Chu culture, and Wu Yue culture.

Awakening Environmental Awareness

Since the beginning of the 21st century, environmental awareness has been increasing in China. In response, the central government has formed some unique initiatives with accompanying slogans, such as “Scenery of green mountains and green water is like mountains of gold and mountains of silver,” “To protect the environment is to protect productivity, and to improve the environment is to boost productivity.” To protect the rivers and lakes, the central government proposed “Let eroding rivers rehabilitate” in 2009. In March 2015, the MEP stopped the Xiaonanhai hydropower project on the Yangtze River in Chongqing. In January 2016, President Xi Jinping put forward the idea of “No for great development, Yes for great protection of Yangtze River” during a conference about the development of the Yangtze River’s Economic Zone (Zhou 2016). In 2016, the United Nations Environment Program issued a report on China’s strategy and action promoting an ecological civilization. According to the document, ecological civilization in China is considered a beneficial endeavor and practice for sustainable development, which sets a good example for other countries facing similar economic, environ- mental, and social challenges (United Nations Environment Program 2016). The ecological civilization initiative is having an important influence on local conservation. Sichuan province has put forward plans for ecological defense of the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. Yunnan province has proposed to become the “vanguard of ecological civilization.” Guizhou province has proposed more protection for the ecological defense of the Yangtze and Pearl Rivers. Qinghai, Fujian, and other provinces have already begun to put a stop to small hydropower station projects. Hubei province, which is famous for thou- sands of lakes, began to implement the “retreat and return farmland to lake” project. These provinces are put- ting production space and living space back into ecological space.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have also become important forces for protecting the environment. Since the establishment of the Chinese Society for Environmental Science in 1978, the number of environmental NGOs in China has grown. The Nature Conservancy, which entered China in 1998, established freshwater protection projects to find effective solutions for maintaining the balance between human development and water resources protection. A typical NGO river protection example is the “Nu River hydropower contention” activity. Resistance by NGOs success- fully delayed a hydropower project on the Nu River (upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River), which is one of two ecologically pristine rivers in China (the other one is the Yarlung Zangbo River, Brahmaputra) (Hong 2007). From 2003 to 2014, there were thousands of public hot spots over environment protection in China, and the People’s Court handed down more than 10,000 judgments related to environmental protection. MEP has handled 275 major environmental incidents during 2014 and 2015 alone.

Strong Potential Financial Support

Since 1978, China’s GDP annual growth rate averaged 9.7%; the GDP in 2015 was 67.67 trillion RMB (about 10.15 trillion USD). The Chinese government’s environmental investment is also increasing year by year. In 1999, the environmental investment was 82 billion RMB, and it was the first time it reached 1% of the GDP. In 2006, environmental investment was formally brought into the central budget. The expenditure for environmental protection was 99.56 billion RMB in 2007, which has been increased annually (Figure 1).

China invested 50 billion RMB to protect 30 lakes during “12th Five-Year” period, and plans to invest 100 billion RMB to protect high- quality ecological lakes that have areas of more than 50 km2 (19 miles2) (Ministry of Environmental Protection 2014). In addition, the Chinese government plans to invest more than 2 trillion RMB for water pollution control (State Council of PRC 2014).

Efficiency of Government

China has formulated a series of positive ecological policies in recent years with the intent of efficient policing of implementation. In 2012, the ecological civilization initiative was incorporated into China’s overall development plan. In November 2013, the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee clearly indicated commitment to the ecological civilization objective; the CPC Central Committee and State Council issued the “Opinion of Accelerating the Construction of Ecological Civilization,” “Ecological Civilization Reform Over Planning,” “The Action Plan for Prevention and Treatment of Water Pollution,” “The Action Plan for Prevention and Treatment of Air Pollution,” and other special planning initiatives aimed at efficiency in promoting ecological progress.

Figure 1 – The national fiscal expenditure on environment protection during 2007–2014 (unit: ¥Billion) (

The “River Chief System” is another new initiative, aimed at efficiency in protecting water resources, preventing water pollution, improv- ing water quality, and restoring water ecological systems, initiated by the Chinese government in December 2016. China will set up a sound nationwide river chief system by the end of 2018. According to the pol- icy, China will establish provincial, municipal, county-, and township- level river chief systems, and appoint heads of local government at various levels as river chiefs. It is going to build a mechanism where responsibility is clear, coordination is orderly, regulation is strict, and protection is effective. The aim of this policy is to manage and protect rivers and lakes, maintain their ecological health, and achieve their sustainable utilization.

The Path to a National Protected Rivers System

Based on realities in China, a NPRS must be built on a new ideology for river protection, respond to the need for innovative management, and implement research to inventory resources and define priorities in protection and threats to combat.

A New River Protection Ideology

For sustainable development and recognition of rivers’ multidimensional values, a NPRS should regard rivers as an important element of China’s heritage and landscape and emphasize “Protection should be first, and then appropriate usage comes.”

1. Important rivers should be free- flowing (Figure 2). This is an important concept of the “wild river” aspect of the US WSRS. A free-flowing condition allows self-restoration and rehabilitation of river ecosystems and is the basis for protection of rivers’ other values. Keeping the river free- flowing is showing respect for a river’s right to be healthy. A NPRS in China should be based on this philosophy, highlighting the importance of rivers’ free-flowing attributes, strictly limiting projects that would impact the free flow of protected rivers.

Dams are one of the most essential factors of river ecosystem degradation, which have blocked both the free flow of many rivers and the natural circulation of ecological systems, and reduced heterogeneity and biodiversity. According to statistics of the International Commission on Large Dams in 2015, the number of dams in China that are 15 meters (49 feet) high or greater accounts for 41%of the world’s inventory. The number of dams in China ranks first in the world and is 2.6 times the number in the United States (which is second). The Yangtze River is the largest river in China, and contains 19,426 hydropower stations (by 2011).

2. Identify and protect outstanding values of rivers. The history and culture of China are closely related to its rivers and lakes. Rivers and lakes have fostered development of many watery towns in the southern Yangtze River Basin, and in both urban and rural areas in the middle and west regions.

The NPRS could be classified into three categories: natural, cultural, and mixed. The rivers with outstanding natural values and intact ecosystems can be the potential natural rivers; some rivers with less outstanding natural values but with rich historical and cultural meanings can potentially be cultural rivers; and rivers of both natural and cultural importance can be potential mixed rivers.

Figure 2 – Important rivers should be free-flowing. Qinzhu River, Sichuan Province. Photo by Peng Li.

3. Adhere to the principle of appropriate utilization of rivers. The tension between humans and land in China is intense and historical. A NPRS cannot deprive surrounding residents of living space, but it should contribute to a harmonious relationship between humans and the environment. Even for protection, NPRS can’t deprive residents of their right to survive and develop and force them to leave their home where they  have lived for  generations. The residents should be included in protection planning and be primary beneficiaries of environ- mental education and ecological compensation measures.

To control flood disaster, but make full use of river function, such as for irrigation and navigation, channelization has been applied to many rivers. For example, the Yellow River, Jinsha River, Minjiang River, Dadu River, Yalong River, and Lancang River have all been channelized. This channelization eliminates natural curving, narrowing riverbeds, and solidifying the riverbanks, and is indeed beneficial to controlling the river, but it also brings a series of adverse effects. The beautiful natural landscape of many rivers has been destroyed; riverbed erosion is aggravated, influencing the stability of riverbanks; and finally, destroy- ing natural circulation occurs along three-dimensions (underground, surface, and overhead) (Dudley 2013), causing further damage to river ecosystems.

NRPS should adhere to the principle of protect first, and then appropriate usage comes. All development projects that could impact protected rivers should require an environmental impact assessment before approval. Any projects that would damage the outstanding values and free-flowing condition of a protected river should be prohibited. Next, agricultural and industrial activities within the critical parts of National Protected Rivers should be reduced or even prohibited. Eco- tourism can be supported to achieve optimization of benefits for protection and utilization.

Need for Innovative Management

According to the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) principle of “good governance of a protected area,” the deficiencies of the management system of China’s existing protected areas exist in four aspects: legality, decentralization, fairness, and responsibility. The current protected area legal system does not represent the national will, the responsibility of the management agency is usually not clearly determined, and the relationships between protected areas and local residents are not clearly defined or respected. These are key issues to be addressed to perfect China’s protected area system. In recent years, China has gradually accepted a more restrictive, nature- based model for a National Park System, and is exploring its possible expansion. The National Park System will remain a centralized management model. The management system of WSRS, however, needs to be more flexible, primarily due to flow across multiple jurisdictions. Innovations achieved in establishing a National Protected Rivers System should avoid deficiencies of the existing protected areas system.

The US WSRS’ ownership, management agencies, and sources of funding are diverse. While most protected rivers are managed by the federal, state, and local governments, some are in private hands. Shared management is a novel system worth study and application in China. In the United States, WSRS respects original ownership and tries not to change ownership, management rights, and usage rights. An NPRS in China can both represent China’s people’s needs and coordinate multiagency projects, abandoning the method of dividing responsibilities according to natural resource elements, redefining the scope of management based on land management purpose, and improving management efficiency.

An NPRS can be combined with the river chief system. It is a comprehensive watershed governance model with Chinese characteristics, and the heads of government at various levels are appointed as river chiefs. At present, the river chief system is mainly implemented in densely populated areas, such as the Tai Lake Basin in Jiangsu province and Hai River Basin in Tianjin province. It is also used most when protecting water and pre- venting water pollution. However, it has rarely been applied to rivers with little human interference. Based on the participation of community and protected area governance agencies, separated governance could be integrated through the river chief system, thus improving the efficiency and effectiveness of river protection.

Scientific Research and Inventory

Scientific research is the foundation of a protected areas system. Research to support designation of protected areas commonly start with the questions, “What should be protected?,” “Where should it be protected?,” and “What are the threats?” (Primack 2010). Research is a key element in these decisions.

1. During the early exploration period, studies are needed to define outstanding values and suggest how to protect them. The connection between rivers and regional and local populations, as well as larger basin ecosystems, needs to be determined to under- stand exactly what the outstanding values are that will decide whether a specific river will be protected and how to protect it. Whether it is protected for cultural values, biophysical attributes, or a mix must be determined and speci- fied. Once protection priorities are understood, additional study is necessary to determine the primary threats, under management control, that should be priorities for an innovative management system.

2. Protected areas related to water involve hydrographic features, vertical and horizontal connection with other watersheds, and so forth, so the boundaries and management tend to be complicated. In some cases, important characteristics to be protected could range a considerable distance from the river’s banks (for instance, if wildlife corridors or endangered species protection are among the outstanding values justifying protection). In other cases, with adjacent development, very narrow corridors may be acceptable. Economic dependencies, potential recreation uses, and industrial dependencies should be considered along with aesthetic and hydrologic attributes before proposal for protection and specifying innovative management direction.


The ecological civilization initiative provides some guidance for NPRS establishment in China, but the NPRS necessarily involves a blending of politics, economics, ecology, and sociology. Therefore, this is a process with numerous shareholders competing and collaborating with each other, and it will be a long and difficult way. However, if all forces from society recognize the future benefits of protected rivers, are willing to give up some short-term benefits for long-term quality of the environment and life, and forfeit some local interest for national progress, a coordinated river protection system will become a reality to the benefit of today’s China and our future.


Gratitude is expressed to the Scenic Office of the Ministry of Water Resources of China, the US Forest Service Office of International Programs, the Sichuan Provincial Water Resources Department, the Qingchuan county government, and Yunnan University.

DR. PENG LI is an associate professor at Yunnan University in Kunming, Yunnan province, China, in the Department of Business and Tourism Management. His recent sabbatical to study wild and scenic river management in the United States and Canada was sponsored by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 41361107); email:


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