Features | Environment | East Asia

Quenching China’s Water Thirst

Too hazardous to touch in some places, China’s Yellow River has been choked by pollution and sediment. Joe Lamar reports on officials’ struggles to clean up the ‘Mother River’ and stem demand from the country’s ever thirstier provinces.

By Joe Lamar for

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.

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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.

For 10-12 days every year, the sluice gates are opened so sediment can be blasted down to the estuary. Since this 'flushing operation' started in 2002, the height of the river bed has started to fall for the first time in decades, easing the threat of flooding. But it's only a temporary fix: sediment continues to build up at Xiaolangdi. Ahead of the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), the Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC) said it is asking for a new hydroelectric dam a short distance upstream to share the burden of silt control.

‘Yellow River Civilisation Has Been Destroyed’

Pollution is another problem that is far from solved, although there are increasing glimmers of hope. The Yellow River is abused and overused. Last year, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that 4 billion tons of industrial waste and sewage are discharged annually into the river system, leaving 83% of the water too contaminated to drink without treatment. In 2007, the authorities revealed that a third of the 150 fish species that once swam the murky waters are now extinct and fishermen’s catches are down by 60 percent because of pollution, falling water levels and over-exploitation of the river’s resources. Tang Xiyang, one of the founders of the green movement in China, puts the trend in apocalyptic terms: ‘The Yellow River civilization has been destroyed. People cannot survive on that river anymore.’

Yet there are indications that China may have passed the peak of the Kuznets curve of dirty-to-clean growth seen during the development of Europe, the United States, Japan and South Korea. In its most recent report on China, the World Bank saw signs that the country may be turning the corner on pollution. Several activists in Henan expressed similar views that the problem, although still bad, may be past its worst. That is certainly the line of officials at the Yellow River Conservancy Commission, which oversees the waterway. ‘We’ve changed a bad situation into a better situation. But we can’t say it is good yet. We have a long way to go,’ said Sun Feng, Director of the YRCC Department of International Cooperation.

The big outstanding problem is one of quantity rather than quality. The Yellow’s volume is falling as demand rises. The river accounts for just 2% of the run-off in China, yet irrigates 15% of the country’s crops and sup plies water to 12% of the population. At the control centre in Zhengzhou, the allocation of water among the nine provinces it passes through are marked on another wall-sized screen. The proportion has been fixed since 1987 based on a long-term estimate of 58 billion cubic meters of run-off every year. That has proved a massive overestimate. This year, the run-off is forecast to be less than 50 billion cubic meters. In 2003, it fell below 45 billion. The provinces are supposed to share the impact of the shortfall equally. Yet Ningxia, Inner Mongolia and Shandong take more than 1 billion cubic meters of water above their allocation every year without permission.

The loser is the ecosystem. Twenty-one billion cubic meters of water each year are set aside for sediment flushing and maintenance of non-human life on the river. This is the area of the water budget that is cut whenever provinces go over their limit. The Yellow River Conservancy Commission has recently conducted research that shows the value of keeping water for wildlife and nature, but they need more power to put this into action. ‘Some provinces and reservoirs don’t obey our instructions. They ignore us to generate electricity,’ says Yu. ‘The problem is we lack punitive measures.’

Dispersal of authority across agencies and provinces has not helped. To tighten administration, the central government is drafting a Yellow River Law that would give more power to the river’s administrating body. There are also plans for a ‘digital Yellow River’ that would allow bureaucrats in Zhengzhou to control and monitor sluice gates and irrigation channels remotely along the entire length of the river. Currently this is only possible in the lower reaches.

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Fine to Lend a Little Water?

This demand-side solution faces fierce opposition. No province wants to accept a cut in water supplies at a time when they all want to boost industry and agriculture. The latter is by far the biggest drain on the river, accounting for 90 percent of the diverted water, some of which is taken hundreds of kilometres into the desert. Yu and his colleagues are dispatched to sluice gates during times of drought when the Yellow River Conservancy Commission has to impose a potentially life-determining judgment on water supplies. ‘It can be very dangerous,’ says Yu. ‘In the past, our engineers have been thrown into the river by angry residents. In the early days after 1999, nobody wanted to accept us. Upstream residents didn’t care about downstream demands. They said that, historically, they could always take what they wanted.’ Better regulation of demand is the best option, but upstream provincial governors are also reluctant to accept tough controls on a resource that they have always taken for granted.

A politically easier solution is to increase supply, even if it means huge expense, waste and environmental stress. The centrepiece of the government’s efforts to solve China’s water problems is the Rmb400-billion South-North Water Diversion Project. First proposed in 1962 by Mao Zedong, who said it was ‘fine to lend a little water,’ the giant plumbing operation aims to divert water along three routes from the historically moist Yangtze basin in the south up to Beijing, Tianjin and other thirsty cities and industrial belts north of the Yellow River. Like the Three Gorges Dam to which it will be connected, the diversion is an engineering marvel that has been pushed through despite concerns by environmentalists and many residents of the affected areas. About 300,000 people will have to be relocated and swathes of farmland will be dug up for trenches.

At Jiaozuo, a 40-minute drive north of Zhengzhou, engineers from the 16th Bureau of the China Railway Construction Group are working on the most complex section of the central route: a 4-kilometre tunnel that will take 9.5 billion cubic meters of diverted water under the Yellow River. Giant drills have already completed half the work. At the foot of the construction shaft, the nine-metre wide concrete pipe stretches into the dark far below the farm fields beside the bank of the river. ‘This is a first in the history of the Yellow River. Nothing compares with it,’ one of the engineers, Han Jiping, says proudly.

Outdated Plans

Further inland, a 40-metre-wide channel is being cut through the red earth, part of a course that will eventually stretch from the Han River in the Yangtze basin up to Beijing. Construction has been delayed because of environmental concerns. Du Yun, a geologist with the Institute of Geodesy and Geophysics at the China Academy of Sciences, has warned that the diversion of a third of the water in the Danjiangkou reservoir will raise the risk of pollution, sedimentation and flooding on the Han, a Yangtze tributary. To offset these fears, the government has earmarked an extra Rmb8 billion for four projects to bolster the Han, including a diversion of water from the Three Gorges reservoir on the Yangtze and along the Xinglong Hinge. These measures–essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul–will require digging at least 650 kilometres of new channels through farmland. Many people in Hubei feel they are losing out.

‘We’re appealing for the government to increase the compensation fund for Han River projects and to build more sewage plants,’ says Shen Xiaoli, of the Research Academy of Environmental Science in Hubei. ‘Once a construction project starts upstream, it requires water compensation downstream. This, in turn, necessitates other projects to deal with the negative impacts. It’s a circle in which you need ever more solutions and ever more funds.’ The biggest problem, he predicted, would be a decline in water quality as the flow of the Han decreases while industry continues to develop. The economic downturn makes matters worse. ‘In this financial crisis, it’s hard to shut down a company simply for environmental reasons. Hubei is determined to catch up with the coastal provinces. As our economy grows, more and more environmental problems will emerge,’ says Shen.

The biggest grumbles are coming from the middle reaches of the Han, which are expected to be worst affected by the diversion scheme. ‘Local people are very worried about the impact on our ecology because we will lose a fifth of our water,’ said a resident of Xiangfan City, who asked to remain anonymous. ‘Although we’re concerned, everyone must express support. We dare not oppose the central government.’

Senior officials do not need to be told the project is troubled. All three legs have problems. The eastern route, along the Grand Canal, was supposed to be the easiest to finish, but pollution levels in this heavily industrial ized area are so high that water treatment is proving expensive. Tianjin prefers to build desalination plants. The most costly and complex western leg has been suspended over concerns about the political and economic cost of diverting water from the Yangtze to the Yellow River high on the Tibet-Qinghai plateau. One former senior policymaker has advised the government to wait and see the results of the first phase of the other two lines before deciding whether to proceed. ‘The original plans were made 20 years ago. Since then our society has developed and the natural environment has changed,’ she says. ‘My view is that we must make a new assessment of the plan for the middle and eastern legs, and then decide whether to proceed.’

The Yellow River Conservancy Commission insists that the western route, which would divert more water than the other two combined, must go ahead. ‘This is the only way to solve the water shortage problem,’ says Sun. ‘The western leg is the only one that transfers water directly into the Yellow River so the whole basin will benefit.’

Far downstream in Kaifeng, the Yellow appears vast and placid. It’s a misleading sight. So much sediment has built up here over the centuries that the river bed is several meters higher than the land. A huge double barrier protects the nearby farm fields and homes. Locals once lived in terror of the annual floods. But since the Xiaolangdi dam was built, the threat has receded. The challenge now, say locals, is to secure enough water.

‘I used to swim in the ponds around our village, but they have all dried up,’ says Song Huiran, who cycles around the region on a one-man conservation campaign. ‘The water level in the well has fallen by three metres in the past 10 years. During the drought earlier this year, many villages in this area had to ask for a special diversion of water from the Yellow River. Every year we need to take more water to irrigate our crops.’ The 71-year-old former teacher believes diversions are not the solution. He wants people to take more responsibility. ‘We all need to save and recycle water. Some villagers think we have plenty of water, enough to last 200 years. I tell them there are shortages across the world. We must do more to save water for future generations.’