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Solving the Lijiang's Water Crisis
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"The river flows like a blue ribbon, surrounded by jade hairpins," wrote Tang Dynasty poet Han Yu (768–824), of the Lijiang River in southwest China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The river flows through the famous forest of karst peaks of Guilin, scenery understandably referred to by locals and visitors alike as "the most beautiful in the world.”


However, the picturesque river now is confronted by a crisis. Damage to the environment, human encroachment and lack of rainfall have created a long-term water shortage that is causing the river to wither, threatening tourism and leaving residential, commercial and industrial users with few options.


As scores of cruise boats queue and slowly ply the Lijiang, their keels can be heard grating against the riverbed in the now-shallow river. The 83-kilometer boat ride down the Lijiang from Guilin to Yangshuo is now only 63 kilometers long. During the dry season, some of the navigable stretches are shortened to as little as six kilometers.


Many Guilin residents are concerned that the river will dry up entirely.


The Lijiang's primary source of water is rainfall. Under the influence of the monsoon climate, the flood season runs from March into August. Some 76.0 percent of the year's precipitation and 81.9 percent of the annual runoff occur during these months. As the river is located in a mountainous area where the slopes are extremely steep, runoff can be extremely rapid when it rains and the water level is likely to surge and drop suddenly.


But human encroachment is the main cause of the water crisis in the Lijiang.


The Lijiang is part of the Pearl River system, which originates at Mao'er Mountain, the highest peak in south China. If levels are low at the Mao'er headwaters, there is little to flow in the Lijiang.


The forestry department reports that headwater forests on Mao'er Mountain, which covered 40,000 hectares in 1958, shrank to just 17,700 hectares by 1980. Reforestation projects in the following decade brought the figure back up to 30,800 hectares, but the forested area remains reduced by nearly a quarter.


Moreover, the structure and quality of the forested area has degenerated, weakening the mountain's water conservation capacity. Silt buildup in the river has increased, leading to more severe flooding during the rainy season. In the dry season, water levels fall so dramatically that navigation has been halted for as much as three months out of each year since the late 1990s. Even the shortest stoppage has been nearly a month long.


The tourism industry along the river has developed rapidly in recent years, but not rationally. Restaurants and inns of all shapes and sizes and newly developed scenic spots draw fresh water from the river and dump trash and untreated sewage back into it.


“The Lijiang would be nothing without water and the scenery of Guilin would pale into insignificance without a running Lijiang River. It is imperative to build water-control reservoirs on the upper reaches of the river to control flooding and supplement water,” says Mo Tingjin, head of the Guilin Water Conservancy Bureau.


Construction of the reservoirs is scheduled to begin in November and to be completed in three years.


Yang Yousheng, an associate chief engineer from the bureau, says that the project involves the construction of water control projects on Lijiang’s mainstream Ludong River and its tributaries, the Chuanjiang and Xiaorongjiang.


The three reservoirs, with storage capacity of 236 million cubic meters, 96.5 million cubic meters and 155 million cubic meters, respectively, would primarily be used to control flooding. However, they would also be used to supplement water flow in the Lijiang and to generate electricity.


The total cost for all three reservoirs is an estimated 1.8 billion yuan (US$217.5 million). The general flood control capacity of the three projects is estimated at a combined 246 million cubic meters; while supplementary water to the Lijiang in dry seasons is promised to keep the river flowing at a speed of 60 cubic meters per second or better.


“After completion of the projects, Guilin City may see flooding once in 100 years, compared with the current average of once in 20 years," says Mo, adding that the reservoirs would repair the environment and end the water shortage for 1.4 million people for 200 kilometers along the river.


But environment and forestry experts disagree.


“I’m afraid that the reservoirs would not supply water to the Lijiang as expected, and may devastate the local ecology,” said Li Weixin, former chairman of the executive council of Guilin Lijiang River Institute and former advisor to the Environmental Protection Committee of Guangxi.


Several others agree with Li: senior engineer Liang Xiaofeng, former head of the Guilin Forestry Bureau; senior engineer Li Weiqian, formerly of the Science and Technology Committee of Guilin; and Prof. Lu Liren of Guangxi Normal University. They all believe that large-scale construction on the upper reaches of the Lijiang will damage the natural environment and obliterate the famed karst topography.


Liang Xiaofeng suggests that “green reservoirs” are a better solution to the river's problems. He says that one hectare of broadleaf forest can conserve 9,023 cubic meters of water. Just 27,300 hectares of this forest would conserve 246 million cubic meters, equivalent to the designed storage capacity of the three reservoirs.



Liang says that the green reservoirs have spin-off benefits that go beyond the saving of many millions of yuan and immediate protection of the environment. They would also help to reconstruct the natural water resource system, while stimulating increased natural rainfall.


Says Li Weixin: “The Lijiang River is a complete and complex natural ecosystem. To improve its ecological function and alleviate the river water shortage, the only approach is restoring its natural condition in a natural way."


(China.org.cn translated by Zhang Tingting, October 26, 2004)

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