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A blessing for the Yangtze River: optimization of Chinese regional policy planning for water yield and purification in the Three Gorges Reservoir Area

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Land use/land cover (LULC) changes impact the structure and functioning of ecosystems, which consequently influences the provisioning of a range of ecosystem services (ES). There is a growing consensus regarding the merit of integrating the evaluation of ES into regional policy planning. The Yangtze River is the world’s third longest and supports more than 6% of its population. However, assessing the potential impacts of different resource management policies upon ES is complicated in the Yangtze basin. To remedy this, here we designed a scenario analysis-based approach that used remotely sensed data and GIS (geographic information system) to analyze the relationships between ES (i.e., water flow regulation, water purification) and policies envisioned to improve human welfare in the Chongqing municipality, in the upper reaches of the Three Gorges Reservoir Area (TGRA) in the Yangtze basin. This watershed area has high population density and suffers from severe flood hazard and critical pollution issues. The GEOMOD modeling technique was used to predict LULC changes according to policy planning alternatives, producing scenarios by 2050 for the TGRA watershed. The GIS-based ES model (InVEST model) was developed as a tool to inform the decision-making process with the intention of aligning conservation measures with economic development. We examine policy effectiveness by comparing three scenarios for 2050: scenario-1 maintains the current policy, with no considerations of ES; scenario-2 integrates ES into policy planning; and scenario-3 integrates ES into policy planning considering the needs of local people. Our scenario-based LULC change analysis showed that the land with large increases in water flow regulation (i.e., values ≤–3000 × 103 m3 km-2) were scattered over the entire study area, while phosphorus reduction (i.e., values ≤ –30 kg km-2) were located mainly along rivers in all scenarios. Scenario-2 and scenario-3 are based on policies aiming at enhancing ES provisioning; for these, the projected ecological risks of water pollution are significantly reduced (39.97% and 37.58%, respectively). Total net changes of the investigated ES under scenario-2 or scenario-3 were almost double that occurring under scenario-1. Although scenario-2 and scenario-3 showed a near-equal total net change, water purification under scenario-2 was the greatest relative to forest expansion. However, scenario-3 offered the best future environmental development scenario, as it accounted for the demand and supply characteristics of water yield and purification in different regions. The water purification service made the greatest contribution to positive and negative effects (26%–47% and -7%, respectively) on ES provisioning. Linking water purification service to policy planning would effectively improve the overall ES. These scenario forecasting results will help the Three Gorges Dam to gain more ecological benefits via improvements to water flow regulation and the effective alleviation of degraded water quality in heavily populated regions in the Yangtze basin.

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We thank Prof. Chenggang Liu for his help during the preparation of the manuscript. The authors would like to express their sincere gratitude for the relevant members of the government departments in Chongqing for their support during the data collection. The authors are grateful to editors and anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments and constructive feedback.

Data availability statement

All data generated or analyzed during this study are included in this published article and its supplementary information files.


The present study received funding from the National Key Research and Development Program (Grant No. 2016YFC0502101), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 31700544), and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Light of West China Program (Grant No. 2016XBZG_XBQNXZ_B_005), the CAS Key Laboratory of Mountain Ecological Restoration and Bioresource Utilization & Ecological Restoration Biodiversity Conservation Key Laboratory of Sichuan Province Program (Grant No. kxysws1901), and the Ministry of Education (China) Key Research Center Projects (Grant No. 16JJD630009, 16JJD630011).

Author information

All authors worked together to design this study. Qinli Xiong and Yang Xiao contributed to initiating and conceiving the topic of this paper. Qinli Xiong and Yang Xiao collected the data and did the analysis. Pinghan Liang, Qinli Xiong, and Yang Xiao wrote the draft of this paper. All authors contributed substantially to modifying and revising this paper.

Correspondence to Yang Xiao or Pinghan Liang.

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Xiong, Q., Xiao, Y., Halmy, M.W.A. et al. A blessing for the Yangtze River: optimization of Chinese regional policy planning for water yield and purification in the Three Gorges Reservoir Area. Environ Sci Pollut Res (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-019-07178-4

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  • Ecological policy
  • Ecosystem service models
  • Human welfare
  • Scenario analysis
  • Water purification