Quenching China's Water Thirst

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The Yellow River is having an unusually good day. So good, in fact, that Yu Songlin, who has spent most of the past five years monitoring the water from the headquarters of the Yellow River Conservancy Commission in Zhengzhou, looks perplexed. Scanning two wall-sized electronic maps showing hydrology stations and reservoirs along the 5,464-kilometre waterway, he reads off real-time data on quality and quantity. It's far more positive than he expects, given the river's deserved reputation as an ecological disaster area. From the source high on the Tibetan Plateau, through Qin­ghai, Gansu and most of Ningxia, the red LED figures show pollution is at the second lowest level, which means it is-shockingly–fit to drink with only minimal treatment.

In the industrial blacklands of Inner Mongolia, where the river makes a dirty great northern U-turn, the reading is a more typical five–hazardous to touch. But above average volume and flow-speed flush the middle reaches along the Shaanxi-Shanxi border down to a moderate three on the scale of five. The water quality then returns to a healthy two at Lijin near the estuary in Shandong. 'I almost never see that. It's usually four,' says the young hydro-engineer, who cautions against over-optimism. 'The downpour yesterday helped a lot.'

Rain is not the only reason why this workhorse waterway is looking slightly less filthy, weak and sickly than the outside world has come to expect. Since the shock of 1997, when the Yellow River failed to reach the sea for 226 days, the government has pumped hundreds of billions of renminbi into China's 'Mother River.' It has attempted to streamline its administration, tightened legislative controls, and initiated one of the biggest hydro-engineering projects in history to share the burden of supporting 140 million people. That this still isn't enough shows the immensity of China's water problems and the limited powers of the government to implement policies that curtail demand rather than increase supply.

Grain for Green

The Yellow River delta faces four main threats: sediment, flood, drought and pollution. The mixed success of the government's response to these challenges is apparent on a three-day, 400-kilometre drive along the middle and lower reaches in Henan, where the river has historically inflicted its greatest devastation.

The drive starts at the eastern edge of the Loess Plateau, the source of 90 percent of the annual 1.6 billion tons of sediment that gives the Yellow River its notoriously truculent and fickle character. Centuries of over-cultivation and soil erosion have turned vast swathes of Gansu, Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi into dust bowls. Beijingers feel the consequences every spring when the city is buffeted by sandstorms. The riparian communities along the Yellow River are more likely to suffer in the summer, when the combination of sediment build-up and flood water used to make the river writhe destructively up and down the delta.

In this regard, the government's response has been extremely successful. One of the most expensive but environmentally effective campaigns of the past few decades has been 'grain for green.' Under this policy, millions of upper- and mid-stream farmers are paid to stop cultivation so the topsoil can recover. It's a major reason why there has been no major flood on the Yellow River for two decades, though this is more commonly attributed to the construction of the huge Xiaolangdi dam in Jiyuan, western Henan. This 1.3-kilometre wide, $3.5 billion hydroelectric generator has helped to regulate the flow of silt and water.

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