River health and environmental flow in China

The River Health and Environmental Flow project aimed to establish methods for assessing and improving river health and environmental flows in Chinese rivers.



Project location:



Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – Australian Government

Project category:

Applied research, consulting and training

Key areas of work:

River health

Research partners:

Griffith University, The University of Queensland, Monash University, University of Western Australia, Queensland Government

River Health and Environmental Flow Project

The project was part of the Australia-China Environment Development Partnership, a five-year program of the Australian and Chinese Governments, funded by AusAID. The project was undertaken in conjunction with the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources and Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Pilot studies were completed in three river basins in China: The Yellow River, The Gui River (in the Pearl River basin), and The Taizi River (in the Liao River basin).

Yellow River pilot study

The pilot study was undertaken with the Yellow River Conservancy Commission and focused on the lower reaches of the basin, an 840km stretch from Xiaolangdi Reservoir (the last major reservoir on the trunk stream) to the estuary.

A holistic environmental flows assessment was completed, focusing on the flow needs of a series of important wetlands and the river delta. Based on the study, two alternate flow regimes were proposed – one represents a low risk to ecological health, and the other a medium risk.

A river health assessment was undertaken, using existing management targets to select appropriate indicators. The indicators related to:

  • in-stream ecology: data on fish, macroinvertebrates and riparian plants were assessed against reach-specific reference values
  • delta vegetation: An index for riparian vegetation in the delta was developed, using satellite images to assess the composition of the vegetation in key wetlands and any loss of wetlands to agriculture
  • water quality: based on the degree of achievement of a target grade
  • physical form: based on channel capacity and the movement of sediment
  • hydrology: based on the recommendations of the environmental flows study, as well as using the Flow Health tool
  • socio-economic factors: including indicators related to water supply, hydropower production, navigation, and flood risk

report card was completed describing the results of the river health assessment. A companion report shows different management initiatives across the river basin aimed at improving ecological health.

Pearl River pilot study

The pilot study was conducted on the Gui River, a northern tributary of the Pearl River and a famous tourist destination with a unique karst landscape. The study was undertaken with the Pearl River Water Resources Commission.

Twenty-four sites were sampled across the catchment and assessments were made of water quality, benthic macro-invertebrates, fish, algae, aquatic and riparian vegetation, and physical form. In addition, catchment disturbance and hydrological alteration was assessed using existing data.

Different indicators were tested against levels of catchment disturbance to identify those that responded predictably. Based on this and other factors, suitable river health indicators were selected. The results of the assessment were used to develop a river health report card.

A detailed environmental flows study was completed for the Li River, an important reach of the Gui River. The study identified the flow regime needed to support fish and vegetation, to maintain water quality and the river’s physical form, and to allow the passage of tourist boats.

Taizi River pilot study

The pilot study was conducted on the Taizi River, one of the main tributaries of the Liao River, which is a major industrial region in northeast China. The study was undertaken with the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Science, the key research arm of the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Seventy sites were sampled across the catchment and assessments were made of water quality, benthic macro-invertebrates, fish, algae, aquatic and riparian vegetation, and physical form. In addition, catchment disturbance and hydrological alteration was assessed using existing data.

Different indicators were tested against levels of catchment disturbance to identify those that responded predictably. Based on this and other factors, suitable river health indicators were selected. The results of the assessment were used to develop a river health report card for the Taizi River.

The same method was subsequently applied to a further 175 sites across the Liao River basin. The results were used to complete a river health assessment and report card for the Liao River.

Detailed river flow assessments

Detailed river health and environmental flow assessments were completed in the three pilot rivers. Based on this work, a recommended environmental flow regime was identified for each river and a river health report card was prepared. The results were used to make national recommendations, including draft guidelines for river health assessment and a national environmental flows framework.

The project developed a method for assessing river health based on changes to hydrology. A software tool – Flow Health – can be downloaded and used to automatically undertake the assessment.

Significant training activities were also carried out to improve the capacity of Chinese water managers in the fields of river health and environmental flow assessment.

Project team

The International WaterCentre drew on water experts from four world-class universities – the University of Queensland, Monash University, the University of Western Australia and Griffith University – and from the Queensland Government, as well as various independent experts.
  • Robert Speed: Mr Speed has more than 12 years’ experience in environmental and water policy and management, including in water resources planning and the implementation of environmental flows. He was previously the team leader for the Australia-China Water Entitlements and Trading Project (2006-2008). He has held senior positions with the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Water, and has undertaken consultancies for the World Bank, the OECD, UNESCO, WWF, and AusAID.
  • Professor Stuart Bunn: Professor Bunn is the Director of the Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University, and was appointed as an Australian National Water Commissioner in 2008.  He is an international expert in ecology and river and wetland systems management, with extensive experience working with international and Australian government agencies on water resource management.
  • Fiona Chandler: Former Executive Manager, International WaterCentre. Previously executive Officer and Team Leader for Integrated Water Resource Policy and Strategy for City of Brisbane.  Experience in developing capacity building programs for IWM. Managed more than 100 training and capacity building activities for government and private industry groups.
  • Dr Chris Gippel: Dr Gippel is the director of Fluvial Systems Pty Ltd with 25 years’ experience in natural resources management, specialising in hydrology and geomorphology. He has developed environmental flows methodologies and applied them on numerous rivers in Australia and China. He was Coordinator of the Physical Form Theme and the Hydrology Theme of the Murray Darling Basin’s Sustainable Rivers Audit during the theme development phase, and is currently a member of the Technical Advisory Group for the Physical Form Theme.  Dr Gippel was formerly a Technical Specialist (environmental flows Taizhou Pilot) for the WET project in China, and currently is co-investigator with colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences on an environmental flows project in the Niqu River, Sichuan-Tibet.
  • Dr Nick Bond: Dr Bond has more than 15 years’ experience working on the effects of flow variability, human impacts on aquatic ecosystems and ecological effects of floods in headwater streams.  He is currently working on local and international projects for developing both the theoretical underpinnings and practical aspects of restoring degraded aquatic ecosystems, incorporating flow variability, and catchment health issues.
  • Dr Catherine Leigh: Dr Catherine Leigh is a freshwater ecologist and Research Fellow at the Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University, Australia. She has many years of experience working on river systems in Australia, investigating the drivers of macro-invertebrate community variation and diversity in riverine ecosystems, flow-ecology relationships, river health assessment and land-use drivers of ecological change. She also studies relationships among catchment land use, reservoir shape, water quality and cyanobacteria blooms in artificial lakes throughout southeast Queensland, and has worked with the International WaterCentre developing river health assessment programs in China and Papua New Guinea. Dr Leigh attends and presents her work at national and international conferences, and publishes in peer-reviewed scientific journals for which she is also an active reviewer.
  • Dr Dajun Shen: Mr Shen is a water resources management expert in China and Senior Engineer at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research. He has more than 30 years’ experience with international and Chinese domestic projects in water rights development, water pricing and water resources management.
  • Adjunct Professor Sandy Booth: Adjunct Professor Booth specialises in sustainable natural resource management. He previously worked as a State Director for Catchment Management, where he was responsible for state-wide implementation, evaluation and review of various environmental and social natural resource initiatives. Professor Booth is a leading proponent and practitioner in capacity building, engagement and strategy development, having completed more than 200 projects for government, community and business clients.
  • Dr Shion Yee: Dr Yee hasmore than 10 years practical and policy experience in leading and managing the design and implementation of a range of water and natural resource management projects. He has qualifications in engineering, business administration and resource economics and brings to the project significant experience in applying policy considerations and stakeholder and participatory engagement methods to achieve successful project outcomes. Shion previously held senior economic policy and water resource planning roles with the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management and currently is a policy advisor to the SEQ Water Grid Manager.
  • Dr Paul Close: Dr Close has extensive skills and experience in activities relevant to aquatic ecology, particularly fish ecology.  He possesses all relevant qualifications to undertake fisheries research in freshwater and estuarine systems. His current research includes investigations of environmental influence on both freshwater and estuarine fish assemblages.
  • Dr Greg Kerr: Dr Kerr is a specialist in fauna related elements of environmental water management and behavioural and spatial ecology. He has15 years’ experience in environmental and ecological research and is an expert in terrestrial vertebrate ecology, specifically water-birds, specialist on the ecology of River Murray floodplain ecosystems, and environmental flow investigations for floodplains.
  • Dr Jane Catford: Dr Catford is a plant ecologist with expertise in riverine vegetation and freshwater ecology.  She has worked in urban and rural environments, on regulated and unregulated river systems in Australia and internationally. She brings to the project an extensive experience of understanding the impacts of river regulation on plant community composition and weed invasion in the Murray River wetlands.
  • Peter Hanington: Mr Hanington is a member of the Coastal Systems Lab within the School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, University of Queensland. He has worked as an environmental scientist in state government and for private industry, encompassing both technical-scientific and managerial roles. His experience and expertise covers a board range of disciplines such as: environmental monitoring and assessment, ecosystem health, environmental pollution, integrated water resource management, and environmental impact assessment. Peter’s research interests are focused on biogeochemical processes in estuaries and catchment related impacts on aquatic ecosystem health.
  • Professor Zhongjnig Wang
  • Zheng Hang: Dr Marcus Cooling: Dr Cooling is an ecologist with sixteen years’ experience in research and management in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. He has worked as a consultant since 1997 and gained extensive wetland and stream management experience through ecological investigations in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. He has worked widely in native vegetation management, through mapping projects and detailed surveys, as well as in the development of strategic, catchment-wide management plans.
  • Scott Spencer: Mr Spencer is the former Director-General of the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Water, the state’s primary water management body with both policy and day-to-day management responsibilities for water.  He has in excess of 25 years’ experience in water resource management, including planning and implementation of environmental flow regimes, entitlements, rural and urban water supply and water monitoring. Mr. Spencer was appointed to the board of SunWater on 01 October 2009.
  • Professor Angela Arthington: Member of the Australian Rivers Institute with Griffith University, and Aquatic Ecosystems Advisory Group advising the National Water Commission and Minister on research priorities.  Key areas of expertise include hydro-ecology and the consequences of altered water regimes for aquatic biodiversity, development of environmental flow strategies for water resource planning and integrated river basin management, and ecosystem health monitoring.
  • A/Professor Wang Xiqin: Leader of sub-project on environmental flows in Lake Taihu Basin.  More than 12 years experience with environmental flows in China including with the Australia-China WET project.
  • Dr Brad Pusey: Dr Pusey is a Senior Research Fellow at Griffith University’s Australian Rivers Institute, with a specialty area of biogeography and ecology of freshwater fishes as they relate to flow regimes.  He has experience in many environmental flow assessments in Australia, and is currently working on the environmental flow assessment of the iconic Daly River in the Northern Territory, classification of the flow regimes of continental Australian rivers and bioregionalisation and modelling the diversity of northern Australian freshwater fishes.
  • Kate Hodge: Kate has been working in the field of science communication since 2001. Her Honours degree in Marine Science combined with skills in Communication Design bring a unique perspective to any project. More than just a graphic designer, Kate understands the science and assists in how to communicate complex scientific results to a broad audience. She has expertise in a range of software and web tools to help deliver the best product for any project.