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Few waterways capture the soul of a nation more deeply than the Yellow, or the Huang, as it's known in China. It is to China what the Nile is to Egypt: the cradle of civilization, a symbol of enduring glory, a force of nature both feared and revered. From its mystical source in the 14,000-foot Tibetan highlands, the river sweeps across the northern plains where China's original inhabitants first learned to till and irrigate, to make porcelain and gunpowder, to build and bury imperial dynasties. But today, what the Chinese call the Mother River is dying. Stained with pollution, tainted with sewage, crowded with ill-conceived dams, it dwindles at its mouth to a lifeless trickle. There were many days during the 1990s that the river failed to reach the sea at all.

The demise of the legendary river is a tragedy whose consequences extend far beyond the more than 150 million people it sustains. The Yellow's plight also illuminates the dark side of China's economic miracle, an environmental crisis that has led to a shortage of the one resource no nation can live without: water.

Water has always been precious in China, a country with roughly the same amount of water as the United States but nearly five times the population. The shortage is especially acute in the arid north, where nearly half of China's population lives on only 15 percent of its water. These accidents of history and geography made China vulnerable; a series of man-made shocks are now pushing it over the edge. Global warming is accelerating the retreat of the glaciers that feed China's major rivers even as it hastens the advance of deserts that now swallow up a million acres of grassland each year.

Nothing, however, has precipitated the water crisis more than three decades of breakneck industrial growth. China's economic boom has, in a ruthless symmetry, fueled an equal and opposite environmental collapse. In its race to become the world's next superpower, China is not only draining its rivers and aquifers with abandon; it is also polluting what's left so irreversibly that the World Bank warns of "catastrophic consequences for future generations."

If that sounds like hyperbole, consider what is happening already in the Yellow River Basin. The spread of deserts is creating a dust bowl that may dwarf that of the American West in the 1930s, driving down grain production and pushing millions of "environmental refugees" off the land. The poisonous toxins choking the waterways—50 percent of the Yellow River is considered biologically dead—have led to a spike in cases of cancer, birth defects, and waterborne disease along their banks. Pollution-related protests have jumped—there were 51,000 across China in 2005 alone—and could metastasize into social unrest. Any one of these symptoms, if unchecked, could hinder China's growth and reverberate across world markets. Taken together, the long-term impact could be even more devastating. As Premier Wen Jiabao has put it, the shortage of clean water threatens "the survival of the Chinese nation."

The Yellow River's epic journey across northern China is a prism through which to see the country's unfolding water crisis. From the Tibetan nomads leaving their ancestral lands near the river's source to the "cancer villages" languishing in silence near the delta, the Mother River puts a human face on the costs of environmental destruction. But it also shows how this emergency is shocking the government—and a small cadre of environmental activists—into action. The fate of the Yellow River still hangs in the balance.

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