China’s yellow river, now a trickle, poses new threat

Fellows Fall 1998

By Rena Singer

June 07, 2009

BEIJING, Fall 1998-- A decade-long drought, compounded by reckless industrialization and uncoordinated management, has devastated northern China and reduced one of the world's great rivers to a dwindling stream.

The fearsome Yellow River -- whose long history of cataclysmic floods made it known as "China's Sorrow" -- is no more. Today, it is so anemic that most of the year, it does not even reach the sea, trickling down instead to bare riverbed hundreds of miles inland.

Northern China's other great rivers, the Fen and the Hai, also have all but petered out. So have dozens of smaller rivers. And thousands of lakes have disappeared.

Because the Yellow River basin includes vital farmland and industrial centers, the growing water scarcity threatens China's economic growth and its people's health.

"The lack of water is a vital issue for the survival of the Chinese nation," Li Ruihuan, chairman of the Chinese National Political Conference, said in an October speech.

Most of northern China's largest cities -- including the capital, Beijing -- are chronically short of water.

Residents of some densely populated urban areas have running water only a few hours each day.

The situation has set off a Darwinian competition for the region's limited resources: Big cities usurp smaller cities' reservoirs, smaller cities divert water allocated to powerless rural farmers, and upstream provinces tap water meant for downstream areas.

"The strong steal water from the weak," said Huo Mingyuan, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The source of the Yellow River is high in the Tibetan Plateau, a region once dotted with 4,000 pristine lakes and grasslands. There, it winds around 20,000-foot-high, snow-capped mountains and flows past Tibetan nomads camped in yak-hair tents.

Even in this idyllic setting, there are signs of trouble. Low rainfall and overgrazing have contributed to environmental degradation that has reduced the number of lakes to 2,000. As a result, the grasslands are turning into a vast desert and the Yellow River's flow at the source is half what it was only a decade ago.

The situation deteriorates downstream as the Chinese jockey to tap its waters. The river's route is lined with 4,500 diversion projects and 29,000 pumping stations, each of which siphons anywhere from a few thousand to more than one billion cubic meters of water every year to thirsty industries, residents and cropland.

Under such demands, the Yellow is fading fast. In the 1972 dry season, it failed to reach the sea for the first time in recorded history. Almost every year since, the Yellow has run dry for a longer period of time and the barren stretch has extended farther inland.

In all of 1997, the Yellow made it to the sea only 35 days, a record low. Last year, even as the south of China battled the Yangtze's floodwaters, the last 400-plus miles of the Yellow's empty streambed baked in the sun. Some experts fear that it may never reach the sea again.

That has not stopped communities along the the river from planning more water diversions. In fact, a half-dozen large diversions and four massive dams are in the works.

The first two diversions come only a few hundred miles downstream from the river's source, in the vast desert that envelops most of Gansu and Ningxia Provinces. These projects will flood barren land and desert to create productive farmland.

Already, thousands of farmers have "harnessed the Yellow River to make the desert bloom," in the words of the official propaganda. They grow sunflowers, tomatoes and corn in small plots clustered around concrete aqueducts -- surrounded for hundreds of miles by sand dunes.

As desolate as this may sound, it is a veritable Eden for these farmers, many of whom were relocated from mountainous southern Ningxia, where they lived in caves and survived on millet and potatoes. Despite the dwindling river resources, Ningxia officials still plan to move a total of 1 million cave dwellers to new, artificially irrigated desert plots.

"If we don't use the water, it will just flow downstream to the rich coastal provinces," said Liu Guoqing, a spokesman for the province. "Why shouldn't we use the water to develop ourselves?"

Further downstream, the river curves through the barren plains of Inner Mongolia and Shanxi Provinces, where the annual erosion of the soft, straw-colored earth gave the Yellow its name centuries ago.

Shanxi, too, plans to tap the river, in this case to halt the environmental disaster slowly overtaking its capital. The city of Taiyuan, a coal- and steel-producing hub 280 miles from the Yellow, used to get water from its own Fen River, but upstream factories drained that long ago.

Taiyuan is turning the dry riverbed into a park and digging replacement wells. Those wells, however, have sucked so much water out of the ground that the earth has shriveled like a dried-out sponge.

As a result, buildings are sinking. The city's twin landmarks -- a pair of Ming Dynasty pagodas that symbolize Taiyuan as the Eiffel Tower symbolizes Paris -- lean like the Tower of Pisa. The ancient temple near the city's famous Eternal Spring is sinking, too, and the spring itself is dry, robbed of its flow by a nearby factory.

And the city is still short of water, said Du Paiyuan, manager of the Taiyuan Copper Factory. His company has laid off 500 of its 3,600 workers, because it cannot get the water it needs to run at full capacity.

The water pressure is so feeble throughout this city of 2.8 million people -- almost twice the population of Philadelphia -- that no building has running water above the second floor. Du's own apartment only has water five hours each day.

"At least I have water," Du said with disgust. "Some of our employees have no water for days. They can't clean their homes. They can't flush their toilets. They can only take showers once a week."

Now, 1,300 laborers work round the clock six days a week to dig the tunnels needed for the Taiyuan diversion. A three-story digital clock in the city square counts down the days and seconds until the first stage of the diversion is complete. Yellow River water could flow into the city as early as 2001.

Almost 3,000 miles from the river's inauspicious beginnings, hundreds of miles below the Taiyuan diversion, is the last province before the Yellow River meets the sea -- unlucky Shandong Province.

All over Shandong there are bridges that cross dry arroyos instead of babbling brooks. Barges stand moored in sandy mud flats. Some cities have no running water at all. Others experience strange dust storms. Many factories have closed. Many more have cut production.

At 40, farmer Cun Ganjian is old enough to remember a Yellow River too wild for boat traffic, too dangerous for swimming. He remembers a river so powerful that it could rise up to flood the mile of rich farmland between its banks and his hilltop village and sweep away his family's few possessions.

"The river was something quite fearful," said Cun, who lives in the Shandong village of Cuige. "It had a swift current and churned its way downstream."

Now, Cun's two children can roll up their pants knee high and stroll from bank to bank.

Like one in every three farmers in Shandong, Cun irrigated his fields with Yellow River water. Like half the province's 80 million residents, he drank it. Now, he mourns a parched river and expects things only to become worse. At least now, the Yellow River reaches Shandong a few months each year. Once all the upstream projects are completed, Cun understands, the Yellow may never again flow here.

Shandong Province, China's breadbasket, provides one-fifth of the corn and one-seventh of the wheat on the nation's dinner table. The river's retreat from this part of China already has stunted Shandong's agricultural growth by an estimated 10 percent.

To quiet discontented farmers and help minimize crop loss, the province's agriculture department is digging a half-million wells. It is investing in modern spray-and-drip irrigation systems that conserve water.

It also has launched an ambitious cloud seeding campaign to coax water from unsympathetic skies (despite warnings from environmentalists that causing rain in one area merely robs a neighboring area).

And it has complained bitterly to the national government, to no avail.

There is one place in Shandong Province, however, that has enough water -- the Shengli oil fields, at the end of the river. There, the central government has stepped in to save a key industry.

When the oil fields' reservoir is dry, the national government orders upstream provinces to open their dams and close their diversions. So important is the field's access to water that, this year, Shandong Province installed security cameras at the major gates along the Yellow River to ensure that poor and parched farmers do not steal the oil fields' water as it rushes downstream.

"This is how we survive," said Zhang Mingde, chief engineer of Shandong's Yellow River Management Bureau. "We vie against each other to steal water. The powerful win."

In a country known for its iron grip on residents, its centralized government, and its planned economy, this chaos is curious. How could China not be capable of controlling its water resources?

Sitting around a pink table below an incongruous disco ball in the dingy, unheated conference room of their Beijing offices, Yellow River Conservation Commission members blush at the question.

It is their job, after all, to ensure that river water is shared equitably. Obviously, they have not been very successful.

Qiao Xixian, the commission's chain-smoking deputy director, explains that each province is allocated a certain amount of Yellow River water each year. If each province uses only its share, Qiao says, the river does not peter out miles from the ocean, but Inner Mongolia, Ningxia and Shandong Provinces boldly grab more.

"Every province is looking out for itself now," said Qiao, inhaling deeply on a cigarette, "and we don't have the power to take any action."

The commission cannot assess fines, order the release of water from dams, or close diversion gates. Other government agencies control the dams and diversions. Still others control the hydropower stations. To complicate matters further, each province is responsible for addressing its pollution, irrigation and water use.

The Chinese call this the "many-dragon management system." An American might call it chaos.

Chinese experts are wary of publicly assessing blame but, when pressed, do not dispute the theory that the government is allowing the poor interior provinces to use more than their share of the water at the expense of rich coastal Shandong Province in an effort to jump-start the inland economy.

These experts also point out that while China's water wars seem chaotic, the government is always sure to protect key industries, such as coal, steel and oil.

Some limited steps toward water conservation are being taken: The government is investing in water-saving technology for farmers and industry, is beginning to charge urban residents higher water fees, and, at least in theory, has established a rationing system along the Yellow River.

Foreign experts, however, say more dramatic and systemic changes are needed if China is to make itself work on its water-scarce budget. It must switch to less water-intensive crops and industry, they say, and must stop subsidizing water prices, to force industry to conserve water.

Now, for example, China's inefficient factories use 20 times the amount of water a that Western factory uses to produce a ton of steel.

"There are ways to cope with water scarcity," said Lee Travers, a water economist with the World Bank, "but instead of coping by saving water, many Chinese towns and provinces are diverting water. There's a lot of talk about diverting rivers, and the only rights that seem to exist seem to be the rights of those who have the power to divert water.

"This is typical political behavior. China now is going for the cheap, short-run solution: damming water, diverting water, and not saving it. When they grow more and run out, then they'll start economizing."

That may not happen for a while. The Chinese government is seriously considering its most ambitious water-diversion project yet -- a plan to pump water from the swollen Yangtze River in the south into the failing Yellow River.

That would require pumping Yangtze water up to 800 miles north, over mountains as high as 14,000 feet, a project roughly equivalent to funneling Mississippi River water across the United States to rejuvenate the Colorado River.

The project would cost tens of billions of dollars, take decades to complete, and alter the very nature of northern and southern China. Yet Chinese experts and leaders are debating not whether the government should do it but how.

Chinese environmentalist, and dissident, Dai Qing winces when she hears such talk.

"This has always been China's problem -- manipulating nature, conquering nature," said Dai, now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "We have destroyed the mother river by thinking this way."