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Challenges Facing The Yellow River: Not Water Under the Bridge

NPR has a wonderful five-part series on the environmental crisis facing China’s Yellow River, which snakes through northern China for more than 3,000 miles and has long been known as the country’s mother river — the cradle of Chinese civilization. Unfortunately, it is no longer clean nor in strong supply. Three-quarters of the 4,000 small lakes that used to line the route are dry, and pollution has reached horrific levels in the water which still flows. In fact, for three years in the 1990s, the Yellow River — which 140 million people depend on for water — actually dried up before it reached the sea, due to overuse.

As the article notes:

“…The river begins its journey across the country high on the Tibetan plateau in western China’s Qinghai Province.

…[But] rising temperatures associated with climate change are melting the glaciers and also thawing the permafrost, so water is being absorbed into the soil and not reaching the river, scientists say.

…And Tibetan nomads who have roamed these parts for centuries have overgrazed the grasslands with their animals, according to the scientists, leading to severe soil erosion that also diminishes the flow of water to the river.

Focusing on this last issue, the government has started to force the Tibetans to give up herding and their nomadic way of life — and to settle in one place…

…By the time the Yellow River reaches the city of Lanzhou in northwest Gansu Province, it’s a muddy brown color, having picked up soil, silt and industrial waste. Lanzhou is commonly cited as one of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world, the cost of decades of extraordinary economic growth…

…One of the biggest surprises in setting off along the Yellow River is that you can’t actually travel along much of the river itself. In the middle and lower reaches in particular, the river is so shallow that it is almost completely unnavigable, and there are hardly any boats on it. The low water levels mean that while farming communities along the river can irrigate their fields with river water, supplies are limited…

…But the gasping fields are going to need more than water wheels. The eternal water shortage here is evident in the names of area landmarks: Shout for Water Village and Welcome Water Bridge.

And a short distance inland from the river, rural areas of northern China such as Tiezhuquan Village in China’s Ningxia Hui autonomous region are developing a full-blown water emergency…

…The massive South to North Water Diversion Project will bring billions of gallons of water from the Yangtze River in the south northward to Beijing and other parts of water-starved northern China. …Zhang Tongli, head of the Henan province section of the project, says it’s the largest water engineering project in the world, with a price tag of many billions of dollars. It’s not expected to be fully completed for another 30 years.

…The channels will not feed into the Yellow River, but will pass under the river in specially built underground channels. The thinking is that by shipping water north, the strain of overuse on the Yellow River will be relieved. Like the Great Wall — or, more recently, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River — it’s a classic imperial project, still possible under China’s one-party system….”

This entry was posted on Sunday, January 20th, 2008 at 8:09 am and is filed under China, Yellow River.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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