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Saving the Yellow River
River China's "Mother River," the Yellow River, is experiencing one of its worst water crises in history, forcing the central government to undertake major projects to relieve prolonged and increasingly serious shortages in its drainage areas.

The measures involve channeling water to the upper reaches of the Yellow River, expanding farmland 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 essential for the survival of both. We must abide by this law of nature, particularly in the harnessing of the Yellow River," said Professor Li Rongsheng from the Research Institute of Geology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Over time people have abused the river's resources and it is now time for mankind to act, and urgently, to restore the "Mother," even if it costs the inhabitants along its banks their traditional lifestyles and livelihoods, said the professor.

The second longest river in China, the 5,464-metre-long Yellow River originates in the mountains of the west. From there it wends its way through eight provinces and autonomous regions before flowing down into the Bohai Sea in the east of the country.

The birthplace of some of the earliest Chinese civilizations, the river was long ago accorded the titles, "Mother River" and "cradle of the Chinese nation," indicative of the respect in which it was held. It provides water for 12 percent of China's population and irrigates 12 percent of all its arable lands.

Over the past 4,000 years, the Yellow River has also claimed the lives of many living along its valley, with some of its deluges killing tens of thousands of people. Ways of taming it have been the major concern of the foremost dynasties throughout Chinese history.

Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the government has done much to harness the power and resource of the Yellow River through various water conservation projects, including the dams of Sanmenxia, Liujiaxia, Longyangxia and Xiaolangdi.

In spite of these measures, since the early 1970s, the Yellow River has continued, from time to time, to run dry downstream in Shandong Province.

Water flow into the river's mainstream during 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 scale of the problem becomes ever clearer when those figures are compared to the predicted water use of 16.6 billion cubic meters, said the experts.

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, they added.

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

The diminishing water flow and dry runs in the lower reaches of the river are mainly due to a huge increase in water consumption by the industrial and agricultural sectors in the river's drainage areas and prolonged lack of rain, explained Professor Hong Shangchi, a member of the committee.

In 1950, the Yellow River irrigated a mere 800,400 hectares of farmland, today that figure has risen to 7.337 million, said Hong.

The committee predicts that by 2010, even given normal rainfall, there will be a water shortfall of 4 billion cubic meters in the Yellow River valley annually.

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

Under the scheme, a water-efficient society will be created along the river valley. This will be achieved by a massive agricultural upgrading program based on the efficient use of water. By 2010, the program will bring the proportion of water-efficient, irrigated farmland to 60 percent of the total area of irrigated land in the valley, up 20 percent.

The planned construction of the west route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project is integral to achieving this. This west route water diversion project will cost over 300 billion yuan (US$36 billion) and is expected to transfer 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 enhance water and soil conservancy in the source area of the river.

Creation of a water-efficient society, a priority among the three major measures according to water resource experts, will be based on upgrading irrigated areas and developing a compatible ecologically-friendly economy, as well as on heightening awareness of the importance of respect for nature.

Building a water-conserving society will also mean a change to the traditional ways of life for those people living on the grasslands along the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River.

These changes, possibly painful, could eventually translate into a wonderful opportunity for economic resurgence, but at the expense of local lifestyles that have endured for more than a thousand years, said Professor Li.

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 barn-yard with a bank loan of 12,000 yuan (US$1,445) to house his livestock instead of grazing them. This is one of a number of measures adopted by local people to promote plant conservation on the upper reaches of the Yellow River.

The county is poised to implement a grazing-for-grass project which entails the building of a number of permanent residential areas for former herdsmen. The aim is to encourage them to abandon grazing and instead adopt alternative methods of raising livestock, said Wu Haiqing, a local official.

If these various efforts succeed, the devastated grasslands of the county may be rejuvenated within a decade, weather permitting, said Wu.

Down in the middle reaches of the Yellow River valley, water saving efforts have been intensified.

In order to use water more efficiently, farmers in the irrigation area on the Hetao Plain, located on the big bend of the river, have reduced areas sown with wheat by 20,010 hectares and plan to cut those sown with rice by 26,680 hectares this summer.

For its part Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region on the plain is ready to bring to an end a rice growing system dating back 1,000 years and instead turn to developing animal husbandry.

(Xinhua News Agency April 22, 2003)

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