Published: May 2008

Yellow River

Yellow River

Bitter Waters

Can China save the Yellow—its Mother River?

By Brook Larmer
Photograph by Greg Girard

Not a drop of rain has fallen in months, and the only clouds come from sandstorms lashing across the desert. But as the Yellow River bends through the barren landscape of north-central China, a startling vision shimmers on the horizon: emerald green rice fields, acres of yellow sunflowers, lush tracts of corn, wheat, and wolfberry—all flourishing under a merciless sky.

This is no mirage. The vast oasis in northern Ningxia, near the midpoint of the Yellow River's 3,400-mile journey from the Plateau of Tibet to the Bo Hai sea, has survived for more than 2,000 years, ever since the Qin emperor dispatched an army of peasant engineers to build canals and grow crops for soldiers manning the Great Wall. Shen Xuexiang is trying to carry on that tradition today. Lured here three decades ago by the seemingly limitless supply of water, the 55-year-old farmer cultivates cornfields that lie between the ruins of the Great Wall and the silt-laden waters of the Yellow River. From the bank of an irrigation canal, Shen gazes over the green expanse and marvels at the river's power: "I always thought this was the most beautiful place under heaven."

But this earthly paradise is disappearing fast. The proliferation of factories, farms, and cities—all products of China's spectacular economic boomis sucking the Yellow River dry. What water remains is being poisoned. From the canal bank, Shen points to another surreal flash of color: blood-red chemical waste gushing from a drainage pipe, turning the water a garish purple. This canal, which empties into the Yellow River, once teemed with fish and turtles, he says. Now its water is too toxic to use even for irrigation; two of Shen's goats died within hours of drinking from the canal.

The deadly pollution comes from the phalanx of chemical and pharmaceutical factories above Shen's fields, in Shizuishan, now considered one of the most polluted cities in the world. A robust man with a salt-and-pepper crew cut, Shen has repeatedly petitioned the environmental bureau to stop the unregulated dumping. The local official in charge of enforcement responded by deeming Shen's property "uninhabitable." Declaring that nothing else could be done, the official then left for a new job promoting the very industrial park he was supposed to be policing. "We are slowly poisoning ourselves," says Shen, shaking with anger. "How can they let this happen to our Mother River?"

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