China's Largest Freshwater Lake Dries Up: Is the Massive Three Gorges Dam to Blame?

Poyang lake in 2010

China's massive Three Gorges Dam, which has already displaced more than 1 million people, may have claimed a new victim: Environmental researchers say it has helped turn the country's largest freshwater lake into a dried-out plain.

Typically, Poyang lake covers 3,500 square kilometers in eastern China, but "last month only 200 square kilometers were underwater," leaving fishermen bereft and freighters unable to cross, according to a Le Monde story The Guardian ran this week:

A 'Pitiful Trickle Of Water'
A dried-out plain stretches as far as the eye can see, leaving a pagoda perched on top of a hillock that is usually a little island. Wrapped in the mist characteristic of the lower reaches of the Yangtze river, the barges are moored close to the quayside beside a pitiful trickle of water.

The drought affecting Poyang is the worst in 60 years. The government blames low rainfall levels, which are certainly a factor, but researcher Ye Xuchun told the paper that the dam 500 kilometers upstream has dramatically reduced flow levels on the Yangtze River, which is linked to the lake. According to a report he co-authored, an increase in the depth of the Three Gorges' reservoir in 2006 led to a significant drop in Poyang's water level -- a dynamic they say is being repeated today.

Harm To Fish, Migratory Birds
China admitted last year for the first time that the dam was having a "negative impact" on downstream water supplies, but appears not to have taken any measures to address the problem.

The region's environmental balance has been "seriously affected" this year, an official at the Lake Poyang Research Center told Le Monde, explaining that the loss of fish in the lake has also kept migratory birds from being able to rest and refuel there.

"The soil of China is dry, so the Yangtze is vital," another researcher, Xu Bin, told the paper. "Poyang is one of the key elements and its current predicament is a warning for the future."

China's Largest Freshwater Lake Dries Up: Is the Massive Three Gorges Dam to Blame?
Environmental researchers say the dramatic drying up of Poyang lake -- from 3,500 square kilometers to just 200 -- is due in part to the colossal, controversial reservoir.

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