New law aims to save nation’s waterways from disappearing

By Outlook Weekly – Global Times Source:Outlook Weekly – Global Times Published: 2015-3-2 20:53:01

Hundreds of freight boats sit in a traffic jam on the Suzhou River in Shanghai on March 21, 2009. Photo: CFP

The development of China's waterways has been made a priority following the introduction of the "One Belt and One Road" initiative that aims to strengthen cooperation with neighboring countries, and the national strategy of developing the economic belt along the Yangtze River.

But China's waterways have shrunk from being 170,000 kilometers long 60 years ago to just 130,000 kilometers as of today, according to Wei Dong, deputy chief of the legal department of the Ministry of Transport.

Wei attributed the shrinkage to the lax protection of existing waterways and the poor coordination of the construction of buildings built on or near waterways, including bridges and hydroelectric facilities.

Waterways, also known as navigation channels, are a strategic resource in short supply. "They are not like highways and railways that can be built as long as you have enough money, the construction of navigation channels requires enough water," said Xie Manying, deputy director of the waterways transportation bureau with the Ministry of Transport.

"So navigation channels are a nonrenewable resource. It costs a lot to repair them once damaged," Xie said.

To ensure the efficient transportation of goods, the security of shipping lanes, as well as boosting the economy along the costal regions, a new law regulating China's navigation channels came into effect on March 1.

Experts believe that the law will help solve problems related to constructing and protecting China's navigation channels.

Disappearing channels 

Many of the disappeared 40,000 kilometers of waterways were destroyed by buildings that affected the flow of water through them, Wei said. 

The construction of waterway-blocking buildings has exceeded the current limits set upon such projects. "This is the biggest and most direct factor affecting China's navigation channel resources," Wei said.

The Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, built in the early 1960s, set a height limit of 24 meters for ships traveling down the river. Other bridges crossing the Yangtze River built later set the same limit which prevented lots of large ships from sailing along the river, according to Wei.

Seventy percent of the 40,972 bridges in China fail to meet set shipping standards, and only 621 out of the total 4,186 waterway-blocking buildings allow ships to pass through them, Minister of Transport Yang Chuantang said during the first review session of the law on navigation channels last April.

China now has about 130,000 kilometers of inland waterways and over 8,000 kilometers of coastal waterways, through which about 11 percent of the country's freight is shipped, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

The Xiluodu hydropower station, located in the Jinsha River, a major headstream of the Yangtze River in southwestern Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, is expected to be completed in 2015. It cuts off access to 700 kilometers of waterways in the upper reaches of Jinsha River, Xie said.

The construction of the Goupitan dam, located in Guizhou Province, failed to take into consideration nearby waterways and resulted in the closing of the Wujiang navigation channel.

Some water diversion projects lack a forward-looking strategy. The Danjiangkou Reservoir that crosses Hubei and Henan provinces is designed for a maximum of 100-ton vessels but cannot meet current demands. 

Even the well-known Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River only allows two ships to pass through its navigation locks at the same time, which means lots of ships have to wait to pass through the dam, although the project slows rapids and allows heavy vessels to sail down the river, according to Xie.

The new law on navigation channels lays down requirements for the planning, construction and maintenance of channels, and for the construction of waterway-blocking, -crossing and -adjacent buildings.

According to the law, construction of waterway-related projects can only be approved after they have passed impact assessments conducted by the authorities.

Meanwhile, the punishment for destroying waterways will be made harsher, as those responsible for illegal construction in or near waterways will face a fine of up to 1 million yuan ($160,000). 

Increasing shipping demands

Chinese waterways handled 5.4 billion tons of cargo from January to November in 2014, up by 6.8 percent compared with the same period in the previous year.

As it is the world's busiest waterway and the planet's third longest river, major ports along the Yangtze River handled a total of 1.9 billion tons of cargo in 2013.

The total amount of cargo that passed through the Three Gorges Dam increased from 20 million tons in 2003 to hundreds of millions of tons in 2011.

"According to previous predictions, the cargo volume of Three Gorges Dam was expected to reach hundreds of millions of tons in 2030, but we achieved this target 19 years in advance. The cargo volume reached 119 million tons in 2014," Xie said.

Though the Yangtze River's transport volume ranks first among global inland rivers, it still has remarkable potential, Premier Li Keqiang said during a meeting held to promote building an economic belt along the Yangtze River last April. He urged more efforts to be made to improve the river's transport capacity, Xinhua reported. Li said that he expected that the construction of the economic belt would help deepen reforms and opening-up, break administrative division barriers and build a modern market system along the river.

The Yangtze River traverses eastern, central and western regions, linking the coast with inland regions, and has unique strengths and huge potential, and will be a key pole in China's economic growth, Li said.

The construction and maintenance of navigation channels is also of great importance because shipping has lots of advantages compared with other means of transportation, such as lower energy consumption, less pollution and larger transport capacity, Wei said. 

China allocated 18 billion yuan from 2011 to 2015 to improve the Yangtze River's navigation channels.

The State Council has set raising the country's inland river freight capacity to 3 billion tons per year by 2020 as a key goal.

Newspaper headline: Rivers of gold

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