Saturday, Nov 1, 2014, 6:38 AM CST – China

Environment

Yellow River

RIVER OF CONSTANT SORROW

Having suffered chronic flooding and high silt levels for decades, the increasingly calm Yellow River now faces new, manmade problems

Heavy rainfall washes garbage into the section of the Yellow River that runs through the city of Lanzhou, Gansu Province, June 2007 Photo by CFP

Tourists watch muddy water gushing out of the Xiaolangdi Reservoir on the Yellow River during a siltwashing operation in Luoyang, Henan Province, July 6, 2013 Photo by IC

The riverbed of the Lanzhou section of the Yellow River suffers from drought, February 2012 Photo by CFP

Fifty-year-old Kang Yintang, a villager in Wuhai, Inner Mongolia, spends his whole life beside the Yellow River, the second longest waterway in China. To Kang, the gorgeous yet unpredictable river has been noticeably tamer in recent decades than it was during his childhood. Meanwhile, the living environment and farming life for his family and neighbors have been in constant decline.

“The mushrooming chemical and mining industries have consumed excessive water and increased pollution, causing constant crop death,” Kang told NewsChina in early September. “The corn in our field has become withered and blackened in the last two years. This year, we were forced to completely stop farming.” Now, to make ends meet, both Kang and his wife work at a local factory.

Historically, the Yellow River has been known as China’s “mother river,” as its basin was the birthplace of ancient Chinese civilizations and the most prosperous region in early Chinese history. However, frequent devastating floods and course changes caused by the continual elevation of the river bed have made it notoriously wild and problematic, often putting human lives under threat. The river has the highest silt content of any waterway in the world.

Since 1960s, thanks to considerable efforts including the strengthening of levees and the construction of dozens of large hydropower projects along the river, flooding has come under control. However, due to rapid, unrestrained economic development, the river’s unprecedentedly calm surface belies the new and worrying problems brought on by overexploitation.

Old Data

At 5,464 kilometers in length, the Yellow River contains only two percent of China’s water resources, yet provides water for 12 percent of China’s 1.3 billion population, irrigates 15 percent of its farmland and generates about 14 percent of its GDP.

“The Yellow River lacks water resources, and the water supply currently drawn from the river is beyond its capacity,” said Chen Xiaojiang, director of the Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC) of the Ministry of Water Resources in March this year.

The river runs through nine provinces and autonomous regions and empties into the Bohai Bay off the coast of east China’s Shandong Province. For a period in 1972, it failed for the first time to reach the sea, and flow interruptions have regularly been observed since 1987. The annual frequency of “dry days” reached a peak at 226 days for a 704-kilometer section of river in Shandong in 1997.

In 1998, the National Development and Reform Commission (formerly the State Development Planning Commission) and the Ministry of Water Resources issued annual water-use quotas and a distribution scheme for the river. These management policies determined total water withdrawals on the basis of hydrology, the need for sediment transport and other ecological factors, and established annual provincial water withdrawals including a seasonal distribution plan for greater withdrawal in the rainy season than in the dry season.

With the authorization of the State Council, YRCC acts as the sole administrator for the allocation of the Yellow River water supply to the nine provinces and autonomous regions through which it flows. In March 1999, the Commission issued the first water withdrawal quota directive and started the water withdrawal control plan for the whole basin. This policy was extended from the main Yellow River to its tributaries in 2006.

According to planning information provided to NewsChina by YRCC, the river's annual water resources that can be tapped is 58 billion cubic meters, and 37 billion cubic meters are allocated to the nine provinces and autonomous regions, with the remaining 21 billion earmarked to wash away silt in the river. The quota for each province and autonomous region is based on their population, economic structure and water demand. A trade in water use rights between various sectors has sprung up in some provinces.

Implementation of these policies has ensured uninterrupted flow of the river to the sea for 14 consecutive years since 2000 and improved the water resource and ecological health of the whole basin. Ecosystem integrity and biological diversity have improved greatly.

Shortage and Conflict

Despite the apparent achievements of the water allocation policies, overexploitation of water resources has made the Yellow River lose its momentum and a significant proportion of its water capacity. 

China's initiative to develop its western regions propelled the exploration of the untouched abundant energy and mineral resources along the upper and middle sections of the river, and demand for water to sustain these industries has kept increasing. According to YRCC, “most of the nine provinces have reached the ceilings of their respective water allocation quotas, thus water shortages are the major bottleneck for social sustainable development for the whole river basin.”

Different stakeholders all want more water to ensure daily production – hydropower dams want water to generate electricity, the energy and mining industries want water to maximize production, farmers want water for irrigation and cities need water for daily living.

According to hydropower records, water levels in 2008 of the Yellow River were only 60 percent of normal. Even at such a critical juncture, in that year alone, 600 million cubic meters of water was diverted to Beijing, Hebei and Shandong Provinces to help with a drought and further to ensure adequate water supplies for the 2008 Olympics. An extra 70 million cubic meters was diverted to the city of Qingdao, where the sailing events were held.

Furthermore, the Yellow River’s water shortage problems indeed exist at its very source on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau – the decline of water caused by global warming and the melting of Tibetan glaciers could make the situation worse. Wang Yongchen, founder of environmental NGO Green Earth Volunteer, has personally visited the source of the Yellow River in Qinghai. According to Wang, the river’s source has been constantly receding since 2009. “This year the source has receded to over 3.5 meters away from its original geographical landmark,” Wang, recently having returned from her fourth visit to the region in late August, told NewsChina.

Cui Sheng, an environmentalist from Henan Province told NewsChina that desertification caused by permafrost destruction on the Qinghai Plateau is spreading, a significant threat to the existence of a number of great rivers, including the Yellow River.

More importantly, the outdated allocation plan, which was originally based on the provincial water consumption requirements of the late 1980s, is no longer applicable to contemporary economic conditions. For example, the status of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region as agriculture-focused regions meant that the plan set forth in 1999 focused on irrigation water consumption for these two regions. Nowadays, aside from agriculture, the two regions, which contain 800 kilometers of the Yellow River, are currently the two fastest developing regions in the high water-consuming coal-to-chemicals industry. Thus, for the past few years, the two provinces have had to resort to trading water use rights between the mining industry and agriculture in order to meet their needs.

“The plan is outdated,” said Qi Pu, senior engineer from YRCC told NewsChina during a recent phone interview. “The conflicts of interests among different provinces are getting more severe, and it is difficult to resolve them at the moment.”

Pollution

Over the past two decades, numerous fast-developing cities have emerged along the Yellow River, like Wuhai, a resourceful industrial city that developed fast in the middle section of the river. And like most rivers in China, the Yellow River suffers from the scourge of water pollution.

In 2007, YRCC released a water quality survey that graded 33.8 percent of the river system at “level 5” (according to China’s “Environmental Quality Standards for Surface Water”, levels 4 and 5 are classified as having medium or heavy pollution), deeming it unfit for drinking, aquaculture, agriculture or industrial use.

Zhang Qing from Water Resource Protection Bureau of YRCC told NewsChina that in 2006, the central authorities had begun to place more emphasis on pollution control, and that this, together with the water allocation project, had helped to improve the situation. Since 2009, the total length of the river with water quality level 4 and 5 has reduced to 29.4 percent.

Despite the effects of pollution control measures, Zhang also admitted that it was difficult for YRCC to monitor individual enterprises and prevent them from releasing pollution into the river.

“At present, for the whole drainage area, the two most polluted river sections are from Ningxia to Inner Mongolia where mining is concentrated, and the intersection of Shaanxi, Shanxi and Henan provinces, which is also an area rich in coal and energy resources,” said Zhang Qing.

The most recently reported industrial water pollution issue along the Yellow River concerns a large petrochemical complex in Baotou, Inner Mongolia. The plant, owned by the State-owned Shenhua Group and initially scheduled to begin commercial production in late 2011, is part of a high-profile project to produce polyethylene and polypropylene from coal. Without obtaining the requisite permits to release waste water into the Yellow River from YRCC, the plant has been doing so for the past two years, causing sizeable financial losses for many local fishermen. Following an inspection in June, YRCC issued a notice to the company requiring it to stop operation and make arrangements for the treatment of its waste water.

“We only have the right to manage enterprises that release waste water directly into the mainstream of the Yellow River,” said Zhang Qing, adding that even this limited power, granted by China’s Water Law, is rarely respected by enterprises. “People regard the monitoring of and punishment for river pollution as the responsibility of the environmental department.”

Indeed, YRCC only acts as a water quality monitor, once individual pollution is spotted, it is authorized only to raise suggestions to local government or environment departments but has no executive right.

The responsibility of monitoring individual waste water release lies with the department of water resources, while the environmental department deals with management of water pollution – a complicated bureaucratic situation that appears to have posed obstacles for water pollution control along the entire length of the river.

On September 2, the Shenhua Baotou plant announced that the second phase of its project had launched. So far, there has been no feedback from any sources on the results of the management of water polluted by the plant. According to China Business Journal, the plant might have diverted the release of its polluted water to a local water treatment plant in Baotou.

“Similar cases have been identified, and our responsibility is to stop the enterprise from releasing pollution into the Yellow River ‘directly,’” said Zhang. “We are not responsible for its internal management of polluted water treatment.”

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