"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
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
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 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
“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
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
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
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,