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China's 'Mother River' Thirsty for Revitalization
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China's "Mother River," the Yellow River, is experiencing one of its worst water crises in history, forcing the Chinese government to undertake major projects to relieve sustained and aggravated shortages in its drainage area.   

The measures are channeling water to the upper reaches of the Yellow River, expanding farm lands under the water-efficient irrigation program, and restoring vegetation and the ecological environment in the source area of the river.

"The harmonious co-existence of man and nature is the everlasting motif of the development of the human society. We must abide by this law of nature, particularly in the harnessing of the Yellow River," said Professor Li Rongsheng with the Research Institute of Geology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

People had taken too much from the river, and it was time to repay and nurse the "Mother," even if it may cost inhabitants along the river their traditional lifestyles and livelihoods, according to Professor Li.

The second longest river in China, the 5,464-meter-long Yellow River originates in the mountains of western China and winds its way through eight provinces and autonomous regions, before reaching the Bohai Sea in east China.

The birthplace of some earlier Chinese civilizations, the river has long been respectfully called the "Mother River" and the "cradle of the Chinese nation." It provides water to 12 percent of China's population and irrigates 12 percent of all its arable land.

Over the past 4,000 years, the Yellow River has also claimed many lives of the people living along its valley, with some of its deluges killing tens of thousands each. Taming the river remained was one of the top concerns of major dynasties in Chinese history.   

Since the New China was founded in 1949, the government has spared no efforts in harnessing the Yellow River with water conservancy projects, including Sanmenxia, Liujiaxia, Longyangxia and Xiaolangdi dams.

However, since the early 1970s, the Yellow River has continued to dry up occasionally in the downstream Shandong Province.

Water flow into the river's mainstream in the first seven months of 2003 is predicted to be 8.2 billion cubic meters, 5.5 billion cubic meters less than during its worst previous dry season in 1997, and probably the lowest in five decades, according to experts with the Yellow River Water Resources Committee.

The predicted water flow compared to a forecast water use of 16.6 billion cubic meters, the experts said.

The committee, which is responsible for the distribution of water in the Yellow River valley, may face its toughest job in 2003, after successfully balancing demand and supply by allocating the limited water resources last year, the experts added.

Now seven of the eight provinces and autonomous regions -- Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi and Henan-- along the valley are suffering the most serious water shortages since 1949. They are expecting a reduction in output of traditional farm produce this year.

The shrinking water flow and dry runs in the lower reaches of the Yellow River were mainly due to a huge increase in water consumption by the industrial and agricultural sectors in its drainage area and dry weather, according to Professor Hong Shangchi with the Committee.

In 1950, the Yellow River irrigated 800,400 hectares of farm land, but the figure had since risen to 7.337 million, Hong said.

The committee predicts that by 2010, a normal year will see a water shortfall of four billion cubic meters in the Yellow River valley.

To alleviate the acute water shortages and revitalize China's "Mother River", the Chinese government endorsed a short-term water control plan for the Yellow River last year.

Under the plan, a water-efficient society will be created along the river valley, as a massive agricultural upgrading program based on the efficient use of water will be implemented. By 2010, the program will bring the proportion of water-efficient, irrigated farm land to 60 percent of the total area of irrigated land in the valley, up from the current 20 percent.

The plan also demands construction of the west route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project to start in 2010, which will cost over 300 billion yuan (US$36 billion) and is expected to divert 17 billion cubic meters of water from rivers on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to the Yellow River valley.

Plans are also underway to restore vegetation that has been degraded by overgrazing and to enhance water and soil conservancy in the source area of the river.

The water-efficient society, which is regarded by water resources experts as the priority among the three major measures, will be based on upgrading irrigated areas and a compatible ecologically-friendly economy, as well as on awareness of the importance of respecting the natural law.

Building the water-saving society also means a change of the traditional way of life for the people residing on the grasslands along the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River.

The change, possibly painful, could eventually translate into a wonderful opportunity for an economic resurgence, but at the expense of local lifestyles that had lasted for more than a thousand years, according to Professor Li Rongsheng.

Grazing on a wetland rich in water and grass is now only a beautiful childhood memory for Dopu, a 48-year-old farmer, in Gonghe County, Qinghai Province.

He has lived for more than 10 years in a permanent home. With the help of the local government, Dopu has just built a sheltered barnyard with a bank loan of 12,000 yuan (US$1,445) to house his livestock instead of grazing them, as part of the local people's efforts to promote plant conservation on the upper reaches of the Yellow River.

The county is poised to implement a grazing-for-grass project and build a group of permanent residential centers for former herdsmen, so as to help them abandon grazing and take on animal breeding in barnyards, according to Wu Haiqing, a local official.

Based on these efforts, the devastated grassland in the county may be rejuvenated within 10 years if weather conditions permit, said Wu.

Efforts to save water have been intensified in the middle reaches of the Yellow River valley.

To use water from the river in a more efficient way, farmers in the irrigation area on the Hetao Plain, which is by the river's Big Bend, have reduced areas sown with wheat by 20,010 hectares and plan to cut those sown with rice by 26,680 hectares this summer.

Meanwhile, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region on the plain is ready to terminate a rice growing system with a history of 1,000 years and turn to developing animal husbandry to save water resources.

(Xinhua News Agency April 17, 2003)

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