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The death of China's rivers

By Jasper Becker

China at the dawn of history was much warmer and wetter than it is today, with elephants, rhinoceroses and crocodiles living north of the Yangtze River. Five or six thousand years of cutting forests and draining marshes have changed the climate to the point where the landscape has been devastated. China has the highest ratio of actual to potential desertified land in the world, according to the World Bank.

The accelerating speed of that environmental change is most evident in the Yellow River, the heart of Han Chinese civilization. The river has virtually disappeared. Now, in what may be the biggest water-diversion plan in history, China will build a canal north from the Three Gorges Dam that ultimately will tunnel under the Yellow River to bring water to dry northern areas of China. The US$50 billion south-to-north water diversion scheme will require the resettlement of up to 400,000 peasants along the three possible routes. Already 1.8 million have been resettled along the banks of the Yangtze itself.

China today is finding itself in the middle of schizophrenic attempts to do two opposing things at once. On the one hand, it is in the middle of by far the biggest water-diversion plan in history, of which the massive Three Gorges project, which will impound 600 kilometers of water reaching nearly from Wuhan to Chongqing, is only a part. At the same time, officials appear to have finally become aware of the environmental depredation China faces, and the damage that dams cause, and are frantically stopping farming and resettling villagers to plant forest in an effort to halt desertification and flood damage on denuded hills.

The need for the massive projects is the result of centuries of environmental misuse that accelerated when the communists took power. Soil erosion as a result of rapid deforestation on the Loess Plateau started in the 7th century BC. This led to dangerous floods and in turn to a dike-building program that continues to this day. The very name Yellow River (Chinese Huang He) comes from the silt, which, like most of China's rivers, has now raised its bed to dangerous levels far above the surrounding plain.

The first big dam-construction projects of the communist era, such as the Sanmen Xia Dam, concentrated partly on the Yellow River, where a cascade of 46 dams was started. Yet the more engineering took place, the worse the river became. It now exists only in name, except for a couple of months during the rainy season, causing a prolonged and permanent shortage crippling industry and agriculture. It usually runs dry about 1,000km from the sea. What happened to the Yellow River was then repeated in the Huai river basin, home to 150 million people. After disastrous floods in 1950, Mao Zedong ordered "the mountains to bend their tops, and the rivers to give way". Like latter-day pharaohs, the party mobilized enormous resources and manpower into building 36 big dams, 159 smaller dams and 4,000 locks and barrages.

"Man must conquer nature," declared the Party, but the result was that a once-fertile plain was wrecked by droughts alternating with violent flash flooding. The most extended period of drought was as long as 247 days in 1999, forcing cities and towns to build more reservoirs or to rely on wells chasing shrinking underground aquifers deeper and deeper underground.

Although such massive engineering achievements have been trumpeted as among the greatest symbols of communist state power, 3,000 of these dams collapsed, including many along the Huai River. In August 1975, the Shimantan and Banqiao dams gave way, killing 240,000 by some accounts.

The result is that two-thirds of China's cities are now short of water and the very existence of some, such as Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi, is threatened. It is the same story in Manchuria, which was densely settled only in the last century. Another example is Tianjin, the port and industrial city that sits astride the Hai River on the North China Plain. The river has long since ceased to exist in all but name because so much has been diverted. A few years ago, the water running through the center of the city actually had been diverted from the Yellow River, which could ill afford to lose what it had.

After building 30 dams and reservoirs to supply itself with water, China's third-biggest municipality was forced in the late 1970s to divert the waters of the Luan River, 160km to the north. Twenty years later in 1999, a fresh crisis forced the city to divert all its water from the Yellow river, 645km to the south.

All but a handful of the 300 tributaries that feed into the Hai River are now dry, with dire consequences for a population of 120 million people in the Hai river basin. But agricultural runoff from chemical fertilizers, industrial effluent and urban waste have rendered the water in most of its reservoirs undrinkable. In desperation, Tianjin ordered hundreds of officials to patrol the river banks to prevent theft of the precious water.

The city has shut down public baths, saunas and other entertainment centers and rationed water to just eight cubic meters a month per person. More than half of the 9 million people in the Tianjin municipality are peasants who lack sufficient water to plant crops, raise fish or breed livestock.

Across the whole of the North China Plain, where half of China's wheat is grown, 3.6 million wells have been sunk, mostly for irrigation. The aquifer below is being steadily drained and the water table is 90 meters below the surface and dropping by three to six meters a year. Some 60 percent of the land in Tianjin municipality is plagued by subsidence. If there is no solution to the water shortage in northern China, at least 20 million peasants will be forced to stop farming.

Water quality is also a big problem. Most of the 20 billion tonnes of urban sewage that China's expanding cities produce each year is dumped straight into rivers and lakes. China now holds the unenviable record of producing as much organic water pollution as the United States, Japan and India combined. Experts calculate that 700 million Chinese consume drinking water contaminated with levels of animal and human waste that do not meet minimum state drinking-water standards. No one is sure what this means. Any research into the subject has been discouraged by the government but China's high rates of hepatitis A, diarrhea, and liver, stomach and esophageal cancer may be linked to the pollution.

Unable to use the water in the reservoirs or rivers, most industrial cities have been forced to use untreated industrial wastewater to irrigate crops, especially vegetables, grown in the suburbs.

In the city of Kunming, the capital of subtropical Yunnan province, there is no talk of drought, since the city is right next to one of Asia's biggest freshwater lakes. But until the first wastewater plant was built in 1990, 90 percent of Kunming's wastewater was pumped untreated into the lake. The lake water is now undrinkable despite several billion dollars having been spent trying to clean it up. Since the 1980s, the city has relied on water channeled from the Songhua Dam reservoir in the mountains some 80km away. Now, as the city of 1.4 million prepares to expand, it must invest in an even bigger engineering project to divert water from other rivers such as the Golden Sands, 190km to the north.

Most of China's lakes, reservoirs, canals and rivers are covered in a thick film of algae or clogged by water hyacinth. Even the mighty Yangtze's waters are undrinkable. None of the cities along its banks can use its waters but have to tap reservoirs far away or drill deep for water. Shanghai has drilled for so much water that land in the center of the city has sunk 1.7m in the past 40 years.

Some predict that within 20 years even the Yangtze will resemble the Yellow River. When you fly over the middle or lower Yangtze Valley, the sun sometimes reflects the water trapped in the thousands of ponds, lakes and paddy fields, giving a hint of how this was all once an immense swamp. Millennia of drainage work have reduced it to a network of interconnected lakes and waterways protected by dikes. Since 1949, two-thirds of the Yangtze Valley lakes have disappeared as more and more land has been reclaimed. The total surface area of lakes in the middle and lower Yangtze Valley has shrunk from 18,000 square kilometers to 7,000 in just 50 years.

So much topsoil is swept downstream - 700 million tonnes during the 1998 summer floods - that both reservoirs and lakes are silting up so quickly their capacity to contain the floodwaters is declining rapidly. The storage volume of these lakes has fallen by 8 billion cubic meters. Dongting Lake, the second-largest in China, has decreased by about 50 square kilometers to almost half what it was before 1949. And it has silted up too, becoming more and more shallow. The lake bed has been rising by 3.7 centimeters a year and about 100 million cubic meters of silt has been deposited.

The sheer pointlessness of the vast investment in dam building was brought home by the 1998 floods, which killed 4,000 people and cost the economy $36 billion. The dams have done nothing to stop the floods, which have been increasing in frequency and severity. Even the Three Gorges Dam, big though it is, will make no practical difference.

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    Aug 26, 2003

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