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© Justin Jin / WWF-US

The "Red Water River" that flows into the Yangtze.

Winding through the steep cliffs and pristine forests, the famously reddish colored Chishui River reflects the unique beauty of this region of China.  

An important tributary of the Yangtze, the Chishui remains the only tributary without a mainstream dam. Surrounded by virgin forests in a sub-tropic area, the Chishui is a refuge for endemic fish. It’s natural beauty and clean waters are critical to people and nature in the three provinces it crosses, among the poorest in the country.

The Chishui River Basin stretches over 400km, providing cultural and ecological importance with each turn. Over 10 million people rely on the Chishui, benefitting from its health and unrestricted flows.

© Justin Jin / WWF-US

The remarkable waterfalls, historical culture of the Red Army, and pristine, mountain scenery draw tourists from throughout the world to experience all that the Chishui has to offer—including the Danxia World Heritage Center.

© Justin Jin / WWF-US

Ecotourism Emerges

“We want to make our town and our clean river a tourist attraction,” says Feng Jinwei, the young vice governor of Wuma, a 32,600-inhabitant mountain-river town that is embracing ecotourism.

Here, vegetable plots have transformed into eco-farms. Noodle stalls are now eco-restaurants. Swaths of hilly, formerly terraced agricultural land are being reforested. Paper mills have shut down. In this hilly rural backwater, there are 10 water treatment plants, with another six expected this year. The river water that used to be polluted is now clean enough to drink.

This is a transformation slowly taking hold throughout the river. So while there is a fishing ban in place on the Chishui River for several months a year, and countless signs warn people against illegal fishing, there are also newly constructed bike trails hugging the curves of the river, and new restaurants are opening at a rapid pace—many owned by former fishers and farmers with government-supported loans.

Mid-stream down the Chishui, the town of Moutai supports the economical development of Guizhou province. Over 1000 liquor companies reside along the riverbank, looking to its pristine waters to produce beverages.

© Justin Jin / WWF-US

From Water to Moutai

Kweichow Moutai, the company that makes Moutai (also sometimes called Maotai), China’s most famous grain liquor brand, is a key player in protecting the Chishui. The fiercely strong drink, used to toast Richard Nixon during his famous 1972 visit, is storied in China. The air enveloping Maotai Town is smoky sweet—the smell of fermentation—and a massive visitors center in the town takes tourists on a journey through China’s—and the company’s—history.

With a market value of $71.5 billion, Moutai is the world’s most valuable alcohol company. Having staked its reputation on the Chishui River’s legendary water and the surrounding mountains’ clean air, Moutai needs the river to be clean as badly as the river needs the company to clean up after itself. Today, the company treats its own wastewater, processing 15,000 gallons of water an hour through a treatment plant on-site.

In addition to helping companies like Moutai improve their water stewardship, WWF is working with the company—and with others throughout the Upper Yangtze—to protect key areas by asking downstream water users to pay for upstream water protection. To that end, in 2014 Moutai pledged to invest about $73 million over 10 years toward ecological restoration upstream. According to the company, that pledge has been paid to date.

© Justin Jin / WWF-US

As with many bodies of water, the Chishui is threatened. Water pollution, over-fishing, mining, deforestation, agriculture and unsustainable infrastructure development, compounded by the impacts of climate change, put the river at risk. Local communities have worked toward environmental protection, but the extensive degradation continues to impact water quality and dry season flows. The deteriorating water flows are negatively impacting middle and downstream liquor-manufacturers.

© Justin Jin / WWF-US

As with many bodies of water, the Chishui is threatened. Some of these threats include water pollution, over-fishing, mining, deforestation, agriculture and unsustainable infrastructure development, particularly in its upstream tributaries. Additional threatening factors include the impacts of climate change and the lack of proper sewage treatment in surrounding communities. Local communities have worked toward environmental protection, but the extensive degradation continues to impact water quality and dry season flows. The deteriorating water flows are negatively impacting middle and downstream liquor-manufacturers, which are a major contributor to the local economy. 

In order to protect the free-flowing river, WWF-China is promoting integrated river basin management (IRBM) and piloted a Payment for Watershed Services program to help address water quality.

© Justin Jin / WWF-US

If implemented, these more sustainable practices could improve the livelihood and lasting protections of the Chishui. Additionally, the poverty levels could be improved with a long-term business agreement between upstream communities and downstream corporations, with support of Chishui Water Fund.

© Justin Jin / WWF

For more stories about this river, see the World Wildlife story "Rebirth Along China's Yangtze River".