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Tracing China’s Yellow River

The Yellow River or Huanghe is both a symbol of China’s greatness and of its many problems. It starts deep in the mountains of western China and winds its way for 5,464 kilometers to the sea.  Fed by glaciers and underground deposits of water in the high reaches of Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau of western China, it nourishes 120 million people through the nation’s heartland.  As the most heavily silt-laden river in the world, the Yellow River got its name from the muddiness of its water, which bears a perennial ochre-yellow color.

The Yellow River as a mountain stream

While traveling through Qinghai Province last July, I first encountered the river as a relatively small mountain stream, no wider than my living room and easily fordable by a clumsy old oaf as myself, but as it cascades down the mountains onto the Tibetan  Plateau, it turns into a mighty roaring river passing through some of the most beautiful mountains and countryside in the world.   Later it descends into China’s heartland where for thousands of years it has supplied water for the nation’s rice paddies and for the thirsty millions who live near its banks. 

As the river crashes down from the heights of Qinghai’s mountains, its strength is used to operate the second largest power plant in Asia.  Sadly, the local people on the plateau fail to reap the benefits of the electricity produced there which is sent thousands of kilometers to the east to brighten Shanghai and Beijing.  One of my most haunting memories was of an old woman trudging up a hill with a wagon full of water bins drawn from the river.  Her face remained glum as she passed the plant enriching Chinese far away while she returns to her home that has no electricity.

Just as the river is one of China’s greatest benefactors, it also symbolizes the country’s greatest problems and sorrows.  The trouble, in fact, starts right at the head of the river in the Qinghai highlands.   Chinese researchers have recently made a disturbing discovery—that the very glaciers that feed the river have shrunk 17 percent since the mid-1970s and that the glaciers are melting at an accelerating rate of seven percent a year due to global warming.  Furthermore, the underground aquifers that also supply water are drying up at an alarming rate. Underground water levels were sinking and chains of smaller feeder lakes were receding or drying up altogether. Air temperatures are slowly rising, up two degrees since the 1980s, while the old pattern of two rainy seasons per year is often down to one.

The Yellow River flowing through Tibet

The fact of the matter is that China is starved for water.  The huge demand for water in China’s growing cities coupled with a two-decade long drought  have made the situation rather desperate, especially in north China in regions traversed by the Yellow River.  Water shortages are at crisis level in many regions. About 400 of China’s 600 cities lack an adequate supply for future growth , and many are now making do by draining underground aquifers to dangerously low levels. Some coastal cities are building very expensive desalination plants to turn seawater into drinking water. Over all, China has one of the lowest per capita water supplies in the world and one of the most uneven distributions of water. Northern China is home to 43 percent of the population but only 14 percent of the country’s water supply.  Oddly, so much water is drained off the river that there are years when the river fails to reach the sea.

The Yellow River later passes through growing cities with ever-expanding numbers of factories as China transforms itself from a rural agricultural nation into an urban industrial monster.  The river provides the factories and cities with the water they need to survive, but Chinese today cannot rely on river water for their sustenance!  About 90 percent of China’s rivers are as polluted as the world’s worst sewers and the Yellow River, a crystal clear mountain stream when I first met it, later becomes so dirty that it is devoid of any life.

Tibetan housewife hauls Yellow River water

The Yellow River, however, faces its greatest crisis further downstream when it passes through growing modern cities like Wuhai.  A reporter noted recently that:

Decades of strip mining had already transformed some parts of coal country into vast tracts of denuded wasteland. Rapid industrialization made Wuhai a pollution nightmare. The Yellow River itself was already one of the most polluted rivers in the world. But suddenly clouds of polluted air were drifting hundreds of miles east to Beijing. When a reporter visited the region in late July, the air was so polluted that raindrops left black spots on car windshields.

Factories and sewage facilities in Wuhai as well as other towns and cities dump their waste into the river with very few real attempts to treat the water, but some of the worst pollution comes not from factories, but from China’s farmers.  The waste from endless doses of fertilizers as well as from pig farms is channeled into the river, turning it into a virtual sewer that can sustain little if any life downstream. 

For several years during the 1990s, the Yellow River ran so low that it failed to reach the sea during parts of the year because so many people were draining it for local uses further upstream.  Since then, engineers have corrected that problem, but the dams and dikes have accentuated a different one: the river is rising into the sky. The huge amount of sediment washing downstream is now pinched by so many dikes and interrupted by so many dams that it is pushing the bed of the river upward, which means as the river goes up, so must the height of dams to prevent floods.

The Yellow River truly represents the current and future problems that have come to haunt China.  Growth has been amazing, but now China must somehow work to save its environment before there is a natural disaster of global dimensions.  China has become the factory for the world, but it is fast becoming the major polluter as well.  Just as its major river is rapidly dying, so is China’s environment, and if little is done to rectify this problem, both the Yellow River and China itself might find itself on the brink of self-inflicted destruction.

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