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River Ecology to Be Altered by Dam

But Chinese officials say that demands must be placed on nature to serve the needs of society

By James L. TysonStaff writer of the Christian Science Monitor / July 23, 1991


FROM deep inside a darkened tank streaked black with mildew, a sound floats upward like a soft whisper.Inside, "Qiqi," (pronounced chi-chi), the only Yangtze River dolphin in captivity, exhales through his blowhole and waves his long beak, pacing his shallow home with sonar as he has done for 11 years. To the few Chinese scientists trying to save the species from extinction, Qiqi's breath sounds more like a sigh every day. China's leadership next month will consider building a dam on the Yangtze that would hasten the steady drift of the river dolphin toward extinction. The Yangtze dolphin population has shrunk by a third since the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources declared it one of the world's 12 most endangered animals in 1986. Only about 200 of the silver cetaceans remain. "If we don't take further steps, the dolphin will completely die out," says Cao Wenxuan, an ichthyologist at the Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan. The threat to the dolphin is one example of how the world's largest dam would damage the environment in the world's most densely populated river basin. Beijing will base its decision on building the dam on two studies claiming that gains in flood control, hydropower, and shipping would far outweigh the injuries to man and the environment caused by the dam, Chinese and foreign scientists say. The studies, one conducted by China and the other by a consortium of Canadian companies in the mid-1980s, are flawed, the scientists say. According to them, the studies are too superficial to enable Beijing to make a valid environmental assessment. Critics charge that the dam would harm the environment for man, the river dolphin, and other species in several ways.

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