World Resource Institute

Controlling Yangtze River Floods: A New Approach

By Dr. Jamie Pittock and Dr. Ming Xu

After nearly a millennium of efforts to control floods in the Yangtze River basin with dikes, polders and other hard engineering measures, the Chinese government adopted a radically different approach after the disastrous 1998 floods. A soft path approach was used that saw several thousand square kilometers of floodplains restored to safely hold and slowly release peak floodwaters.

Restoring the floodplains was a ‘no regrets’ adaptation that is robust in managing climatic variability and change, and has extensive environmental and socio-economic co-benefits. In this case larger floods can be more safely managed. The environment has benefitted through improved water quality, recovery of flora and fauna, conservation of threatened species and designation of nature reserves. While 2.4 million people were relocated from the most flood-prone lands to adjacent, higher ground, in general their livelihoods and resilience have improved.

The policy is a proactive strategy that utilizes China’s scientific capacity and cross-sectoral planning mechanisms, and is implemented with substantial government investment. A particular strength of the Chinese approach is the iterative development and implementation of targeted policies that favors adaptive management.

Barriers remain, however, including: the challenge of coordinating between overlapping institutions; ongoing advocacy by public officials for hard, engineering solutions; and the lack of ability to hold local officials accountable for implementing national policies.

The inclusion of floodplain restoration measures in the 2007 National Climate Change Programme illustrates how China is taking forward sound adaptive management and incremental implementation of ‘no regrets’ climate change adaptation measures.

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