The Three Parallel Rivers Region of southwest
China's Yunnan Province was inscribed on the World
Heritage List as a natural property at the 27th session of the
World Heritage Committee (WHC) of the United Nations Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) held on July 2,
However, at the 30th session held in Vilnius, Lithuania from
July 8 to 16 this year, the region was listed one of the key
projects under WHC's monitoring due to its worsening environment,
China Youth Daily reported on July 18. A report, submitted
by experts from the WHC and the World Conservation Union (IUCN),
pointed out that the main threats the region is facing include
planned hydroelectric development, mining exploration, dam
construction and tourism development.
Located in the mountains of Yunnan Province, the Sanjiang -- the
Jinsha, Nujiang and Lancang rivers -- originate from the
Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and run almost parallel to one another north
to south for some 170 kilometers, shouldering a total land area of
approximately 1.7 million hectares.
There are 15 protected areas in the region: five nature reserves
and 10 scenic areas. The in-land areas include Gaoligong Mountain
Area (514,022 hectares), Baima-Meili Snow Mountain (349,019
hectares), Laowo Mountain Area (49,161 hectares), Laojun Mountain
Area (131,427 hectares), Yunling Mountain Area (89,787 hectares),
Red Mountain Area (364,687 hectares) and Haba Mountain Area
Experts say that the ecology in this region is so fragile that
it would be extremely difficult to repair any damage.
Since its inclusion on the World Heritage List in 2003, the
region has been placed under WHC monitoring no less than three
times. This year's conference demanded that additional materials be
submitted by the Chinese government for further examination and
approval at next year's conference to ascertain if the Sanjiang
region should be listed as an endangered world heritage site.
From April 5 to 14, the WCH and IUCN sent a group of experts to
Yunnan Province to evaluate the impact of planned development on
the local environment. Their report was based on findings during
this trip. One of the conclusions the experts drew was that the
re-demarcation of boundaries would reduce land area by 20 percent,
thereby affecting the region's natural properties.
Responding to the resolutions of the 29th WHC Conference, the
Chinese government submitted a report on the site's dam
construction plans on January 25. According to the report, China
only planned to develop hydroelectricity in neighboring areas and
not within the region's protected zones. It planned to build nine
dams in the lower reaches of the Jinsha River (the original figure
was 11, two of which were cancelled considering its impact on local
environment); six on the Lancang River (11 originally); and three
on the Nujiang River. None of the projects has been put into
operation yet since they must go through environmental impact
evaluations before they are approved by the central government.
WHC experts pointed out that hydroelectric exploration
activities would certainly have a huge impact on the Nujiang River.
Once dam construction is started, it would alter the river's
aesthetic value since the naturally flowing river would become a
series of reservoirs.
Experts have taken note of the fact that local governments have
adopted a series of measures to protect the heritage site such as
shutting down a mine in Bingzhongluo area. However, they still
can't confirm the possible threats or indirect impact on the
environment until the final evaluation report is released. Items
under review include migration activities of people in flood-prone
areas; road reconstruction and rerouting; habitat and ecological
changes following the migration of fish and other species;
ecological changes brought about by hydraulic changes; and the
possible impact of local earthquakes.
Re-demarcation of boundaries
The visiting experts were shown a comparison map of the current
heritage site before and after planned re-demarcation. According to
the map, seven of the eight areas in the site would be adjusted.
"The adjustment is still being discussed and has yet to be
approved," local officials said.
According to the WHC report, when the region was first made a
World Heritage site, IUCN had noticed it included important core
areas of high ecological value and their boundaries were clearly
The experts pointed out that cutting through the Gaoligong
Mountain National Nature Reserve was the most serious. The
Gaoligong Mountain stretches along the China-Myanmar border and is
an important ecological corridor with consistent natural
landscapes. The adjustments would make the nature reserve shrink
back along the border, separate the north Gaoligong Mountain from
the south nature reserve and the west nature reserve inside the
Myanmar territory, and break up the habitats of wild animals.
The other planned change proposes to shrink the Red Mountain
Area and revise boundaries in the Yunling Mountain Area, both
Further, the expert panel questioned the new inclusion of two
mountain areas into the heritage site, namely, the Gaoligong
Mountain Area at Nantengchong and the Cangshan Mountain in Dali
City, as the two have already been inhabited and exploited by man.
More investigations were called for to determine if the two areas
were Category I or II protected areas under the rules of the World
Conservation Union (WCU).
The reason for the boundary revision was to locate the mine and
dam outside of the current protected area. Large-scale copper and
zinc mining will be launched soon and the related planning and
environmental impact assessments are underway.
Despite local officials' assurances that mining would be carried
out in accordance with world heritage protection and state laws,
the expert panel held that this would not be possible in
The WHC therefore demanded that the Chinese government submit
another report before January 1, 2007 for examination at the next
WHC session. The report should clarify the boundary revision,
include a geological map to illustrate local mining information,
and justify that the final dam to be constructed conforms to world
heritage protection criteria. Moreover, the report should explain
its impact on the Sanjiang region's eco-integrity.
China's assurances and Sanjiang's future
Because there is still much to be clarified, including the
result of environmental impact assessments and final plans for the
dam to be built on Nujiang River, it is difficult to determine the
impact that hydropower facility development will have on the
The Three Parallel Rivers have captured the world's attention
because of its incomparable value, said Wang Fengwu, vice director
of urban construction under the Ministry of Construction and panel
member to the 30th WHC Session.
He added that any large project near or on the rivers would
possibly have a huge impact on the region's ecology, whether
directly or indirectly.
Wang said that China has very strict procedures for large
projects. Further, in a statement from the Chinese delegation
submitted to the WHC at the last session, China affirmed that it
would not approve large projects on the site or nearby regions, and
that local governments would have to abide by that decision.
(China.org.cn by Guo Xiaohong and Li Jingrong, July 26,