1.         Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas (China) (N 1083bis)

Year of inscription on the World Heritage List  2003

Criteria  (vii)(viii)(ix)(x)

Year(s) of inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger  N/A

Previous Committee Decisions  see page http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1083/documents/

International Assistance

Requests approved: 0
Total amount approved: USD 0
For details, see page http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1083/assistance/

UNESCO Extra-budgetary Funds


Previous monitoring missions

April 2006 UNESCO/IUCN joint reactive monitoring mission; April 2013 IUCN reactive monitoring mission

Factors affecting the property identified in previous reports

Illustrative material  see page http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1083/

Conservation issues presented to the World Heritage Committee in 2013

On 17 January 2013, a report on the state of conservation of the property was submitted by the State Party, as requested by the World Heritage Committee at its 36th session (Saint-Petersburg, 2012). The State Party report provides information on hydropower dam construction and mining in the vicinity of the property, and the overall management of the property. An IUCN reactive monitoring mission visited the property from 15 to 25 April 2013 to assess these same issues. The mission report is available at https://whc.unesco.org/en/sessions/37COM/.

a)  Hydropower development

The State Party notes that 13 large hydropower dams are proposed along the major rivers which give the property its name. The status of planning is detailed in a table, which had been submitted to the World Heritage Centre in almost identical form with a letter dated 27 November 2012. According to this table, overall hydropower planning in the three watersheds dates back to at least the year of inscription.

A series of planned hydropower dams along the Nujiang River has been the focus of considerable controversy for several years. After the highest level of government had temporarily suspended the project pending further study, planning has since resumed with four dams under discussion in Northwest Yunnan. While the individual Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been concluded for the proposed Liuku site, the EIAs for the other dams are either pending or awaiting finalization and none has been approved. According to the State Party no dam construction on the Nujiang River is taking place, which the mission was able to confirm.

The situation is, however, less clear as regards the six planned dam projects on the Lancang River in Northwest Yunnan. In particular, the mission noted and documented major construction activities at the two dam sites visited, Lidi and Wulongnong. Areas of apparent inconsistency with the State Party report were evident when representatives of the governmental Hydro Lancang Company stated to the mission that preparatory construction on the Lidi dam site started as early as 2009. Final approval for construction was reportedly granted in February 2013, i.e. just after submission of the State Party report. In the case of the proposed Wulongnong site, major construction has very obviously been taking place for some time. This is described as "preparatory construction" in the State Party report. The EIA status for this dam proposal was reported by the State Party as not formulated in November 2012. The corresponding section is left blank in the updated table provided in the report dated January 2013. Company representatives explained that approval for preparatory construction was granted by provincial authorities, while final approval for construction from the central government remains pending.

The excerpts of the EIAs refer to a large number of dams along the Jinsha River and describe the basin as the largest energy base of China, leaving no doubts about the scale of the planned hydropower development being contemplated. According to the State Party report, no EIA has been formally approved for any of the 3 hydropower projects on the Jinsha River near the property. Nevertheless, preparatory construction is reported to have started at the Liyuan dam site east of the Haba Snow Mountain component. The situation appears to be consistent with the Wulongnong site, i.e. provincial level approval appears to have enabled preparatory construction despite pending EIA completion and subsequent approval. None of the proposed dam sites on the Jinsha River could be visited by the mission due to time constraints.

The key position of the State Party in its report and during the reactive monitoring mission is that none of the components of the serial property or buffer zones are directly affected by the proposed dam construction. The location of dams, reservoirs, road access and future transmission corridors is reported to be physically located outside of the property and its buffer zones. The lack of connection between the property and the hydropower plans is a function of the boundary design of the property, which covers almost exclusively high altitude terrain of the Heng Duan Mountains. The only river to flow through the property’s core zone is the Lancang, crossing one of the 15 components, whereas the Nujiang River crosses its buffer zone, and the Jinsha River runs along part of the boundary of the property’s buffer zone.

In the view of the World Heritage Centre and IUCN, this position of the State Party is formally accurate. Based on a review of the written information provided by the State Party and from selected site visits there are no indications that construction of dams and/or associated infrastructure is planned or occurring within any components or buffer zones of the property. They note, however, that physical location and altitudinal distance alone are insufficient criteria to assess ecological impacts, given the complex and well-documented ecological linkages in the landscape. Examples of the complexity that need to be considered include the linkages between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and habitats and the impacts of physical barriers and disturbance on wildlife corridors along rivers and consequently on landscape connectivity. Such matters need to be considered as part of the assessment of impacts on Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) in a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), and the individual EIAs of such schemes.

Two further aspects deserve to be highlighted. Firstly, the scenic beauty of the deep river gorges recognized under criterion (vii) could be significantly impacted, through changes outside the property boundaries. Second, the ongoing preparatory construction occurring at three dam sites prior to EIA approval is of significant concern given that the World Heritage Committee had explicitly urged the State Party to avoid such situations (Decision 36 COM 7B.9).

b)  Mining

In its report, the State Party reaffirms its unambiguous commitment to refrain from granting any further permits for mining operations within the property and its buffer zones. The State Party does not state whether its reaffirmed commitment includes exploration licenses. Other statements referring to legal mining require further clarification, including a statement that "a certain area outside the property will be delineated as no-mining zone where mining rights will not be approved". The methods underpinning such delineation are not specified and there is likewise a need to clarify that this commitment extends to all mining rights, including exploration licenses. The relationship of the planned delineation with existing buffer zones also requires clarification.

Statements regarding mining rights that have existed in the adjacent areas and buffer zones before inscription indicate the existence of such rights but fail to specify their scale and/or location. According to the State Party report, international standards regarding the environment and human health are to be applied; however specific information on this aspect is required. It is important to remember the highly particular history of the property in terms of mining, where prospecting and mining licenses predating the establishment of protected areas and the World Heritage inscription had not been noted in the evaluation and inscription processes and were excluded from the property through the approval of a minor boundary modification in 2010.

The mission visited the tailings disposal site of a former mine, and a large copper mining operation in the excised area located between the Hongshan and the Haba Snow Mountain components of the property and met with private and governmental company representatives. Two other mining projects nearby could not be visited due to snow conditions. The State Party confirmed a total of four current mining and prospecting projects between the two above components. On location, a map was provided by the property’s management authorities suggesting that some 20 prospecting licenses jointly cover most of the land between the Hong Shan and the Haba Snow Mountain components. While the State Party and company representatives insisted that prospecting is unlikely to take place across the entire area licensed for exploration, the scale and location of possible operations raise serious questions in terms of possible future impacts on the connectivity between the two components. IUCN notes that environmental monitoring of prospecting and mining, as described to the mission, appears to focus on technical aspects of air and water pollution, whereas impacts on wildlife do not appear to be monitored at present.

Another concern expressed by the non-governmental observers is illegal mining. Governmental representatives and consulted scientists acknowledged the past occurrence of illegal mining but suggested that it has been brought under better control over the last years. At the same time, it was acknowledged that small-scale mining operations may locally continue within the property in violation of clear guidance from the central government. Independent reports on alleged illegal gold mining near Mount Kawagebo, where the Baimang-Meili component of the property borders the Tibet Autonomous Region, were not able to be reviewed by the mission. While the State Party reported that it was not aware of any current mining there, further clarification on this is necessary.

c)  Overall management and management effectiveness

The Three Parallel Rivers is a large serial property inevitably posing significant management challenges. Over the decade since inscription, the State Party has made substantial investments in improving management. According to documentation and briefings provided to the mission, the management structure is reasonably well established and is being progressively refined. Room for improvement is acknowledged by the State Party and appears ever more important given the increasing development pressures around the property.

Designing and implementing a comprehensive and rigorous Management Effectiveness Assessment (MEA) was beyond the scope of the reactive monitoring mission. It was, however, feasible to obtain and document informed impressions. There was widespread agreement on the usefulness of an in-depth MEA. Entry points and options for cooperation between the State Party and IUCN were openly discussed during the mission drawing on existing IUCN guidance and the experience gained though the Enhancing our Heritage initiative (EoH). As detailed in the mission report, a full MEA would amount to a medium size project and would require corresponding funding. The beneficiaries of a possible MEA include governmental officials at all levels and the civil society.

Specific areas which would benefit from a comprehensive MEA include (i) lines of decision-making and leadership given the institutional complexity and overlap; (ii) effectiveness of conservation measures for the attributes of the OUV, (iii) site design, including connectivity and the feasibility of including additional areas of high conservation value in the vicinity of the property, (iv) tourism and recreation in light of ambitious development plans; and (v) linkages with and management implications of major development schemes in the broader region. More specific topics, which have received little previous attention, include the development of practical approaches to wildlife monitoring and management responses to reportedly increasing human-wildlife conflicts, in particular crop damage.

In that regard, the mission noted reports that wildlife populations appear to have been depleted in parts of the property, and considers this, and the causes requires further consideration.

Analysis and Conclusions of the World Heritage Centre and IUCN

The World Heritage Centre and IUCN draw the Committee’s attention to the vast scale of the planned hydropower development, which will no doubt lead to significant ecological and other changes in and beyond Northwest Yunnan, where the property is located. The 13 dams planned in the vicinity of the property are part of China's West-East Electricity Transfer Project. Many more than the reported 13 dams are planned along the mainstreams and tributaries of all three rivers, in particular in neighbouring Tibet Autonomous Region and Sichuan Province. In addition, there are hydropower plans in downstream countries along the Nujiang and the Lancang Rivers and elsewhere along the Jinsha River. The possible indirect and cumulative impacts of this scale of development on the OUV of the property require careful evaluation.

In the view of the World Heritage Centre and IUCN, and in line with the findings of the World Commission on Dams, a project of this scale requires a profound assessment and understanding of benefits versus impacts, costs and risks and this is well beyond the scope of assessment possible through reactive monitoring within the framework of the World Heritage Convention. IUCN was provided with excerpts from some of the EIA, and noted that these make no reference to assessment standards or methodologies. The conclusions provided on a number of topics appear somewhat general, simplistic and an adequate evidence base for some conclusions is not apparent. In the absence of reliable wildlife data, the reference and basis for the various statements on wildlife populations seem unclear at best. Some conclusions are drawn based on vague and unsubstantiated causal links, or simply not justified at all. There is also no indication that World Heritage status has received any specific consideration. References to mitigation in the EIA reviewed are not sufficiently specific or justified. IUCN considers that the quality and depth of the EIAs as presented to the mission appear fundamentally incompatible with the scale of the individual projects and significant doubts remain on whether the available information base allows for responsible decision-making at this stage.

At present, EIAs for 10 out of the 13 listed dam projects are either not concluded or not approved. Furthermore, the State Party reports that relevant state departments continue to be engaged in in-depth research. The mission observed with concern that preparatory construction appears to start in many cases prior to EIA approval. It appears that major investments are being made in the absence of a concluded EIA, indicating high confidence in positive EIA outcomes, even before these have started. Moreover, the approval and construction of transmission infrastructure appears disconnected from the actual dams and however no plans for the exact location of the transmission lines could be obtained during the mission. There appears to be no overall consideration of the impacts of the multiple dams (cumulative impacts), let alone in combination with other development projects in the region, including but not limited to mass tourism.

The World Heritage Centre and IUCN recommend that the Committee urge the State Party to commit to a much more in-depth and strategic understanding of the consequences, costs and risks of the "West-East Electricity Transfer Project" through a SEA, including a specific focus on the OUV of the property, as well as wider environmental and social impacts prior to making final decisions. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN are willing to assist the State Party with the identification of any technical expertise required to support the preparation of such a SEA.

In terms of mining, it is recommended that the Committee request that the State Party extend its commitment to the property, and ideally, to the buffer zones to explicitly include exploration licenses. They also recommend that the Committee request the State Party to ensure monitoring and full consideration of connectivity concerns in possible future prospecting and mining near the property, and to provide a map depicting all exploration licenses between the Hongshan and the Haba Snow Mountain components, as well as a map illustrating any existing mining and/or exploration licenses near the property predating its inscription, to ensure that none overlap with the property.

As regards management effectiveness, the elaboration of an in-depth MEA was beyond the scope of the mission, but is a recommended action following the EoH methodology. Despite noteworthy investments and progress, the State Party acknowledges the usefulness of further analysis as a basis for increased management effectiveness in the future. The mission report provides specific guidance in this regard, and including a range of key issues aside from the impacts of infrastructure that require further consideration.

The World Heritage Centre and IUCN note with concern the apparent decline in wildlife populations noted by the mission, and they recommend that the Committee request the State Party to develop and implement a systematic wildlife monitoring programme, to inform about the status and trends of populations of key species, as well as poaching activities. Such a monitoring programme should provide a firm basis for the identification and implementation of measures to allow for the recovery of wildlife populations in the property.

Decision Adopted: 37 COM 7B.12

The World Heritage Committee,

1.  Having examined Document WHC-13/37.COM/7B.Add,

2.  Recalling Decision 36 COM 7B. 9 adopted at its 36th session (Saint-Petersburg, 2012),

3.  Notes with concern that the depth and quality of the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) appear to be incompatible with the scale and complexity of the planned hydropower development that may affect the property;

4.  Also notes with concern that preparatory construction has advanced in the absence of approved EIAs in several locations, and reiterates its request to the State Party not to proceed with project implementation prior to appropriate EIAs being completed;

5.  Requests the State Party to conduct a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of the West-East Electricity Transfer Project, including a thorough assessment of its direct, indirect and cumulative impacts on the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property, and encourages the State Party to seek the assistance of the World Heritage Centre and IUCN for the identification of technical expertise to support the preparation of such a SEA;

6.  Also requests the State Party to submit maps of all licenses related to mining in the region surrounding the property, and including the area between the Hongshan and Haba Snow Mountain components of the property, to ensure that none overlap with the property;

7.  Further requests the State Party to ensure and monitor ecological and landscape connectivity in the area between the Hongshan and Haba Snow Mountain components of the property, including areas included in prospecting licenses;

8.  Urges the State Party to ensure no mining activities, including prospecting and illegal mining, take place within the property or in adjacent areas if this would impact the OUV of the property;

9.  Requests furthermore the State Party to undertake by 1 December 2014 a Management Effectiveness Assessment of the property, possibly using the “Enhancing Our Heritage” methodology, and considering the recommendations noted in the April 2013 IUCN reactive monitoring mission report;

10.  Also urges the State Party to develop and implement a systematic wildlife monitoring programme, to inform about the current status and trends of the populations of key species, as well as poaching activities, and to serve as a basis for the formulation and implementation of measures that would facilitate the recovery of wildlife populations;

11.  Requests moreover the State Party to implement the other recommendations of the April 2013 IUCN reactive monitoring mission report;

12.  Finally requests the State Party to submit to the World Heritage Centre, by 1 February 2015 , a detailed report on the state of conservation of the property, including progress achieved in the implementation of the above, for examination by the World Heritage Committee at its 39th session in 2015.