Sitting on a ridge nearly three miles above sea level, a rosy-cheeked Tibetan herder with two gold teeth looks out over the highlands her family has roamed for generations. It is a scene of stark beauty: rolling hills blanketed by sprouts of summer grass; herds of yaks and sheep grazing on distant slopes; and in the foreground a clear, shallow stream that is the beginning of the Yellow River. "This is sacred land," says the woman, a 39-year-old mother of four named Erla Zhuoma, recalling how her family of nomads would rotate through here to graze their 600 sheep and 150 yaks. No longer, she says, shaking her head in dismay. "The drought has changed everything."
The first signs of trouble emerged several years ago, when the region's lakes and rivers began drying up and grasslands started withering away, turning the search for her animals' food and water into marathon expeditions. Chinese scientists say the drought is a symptom of global warming and overgrazing. But Zhuoma blames the misfortune on outsiders—members of the ethnic Han Chinese majority—who angered the gods by mining for gold in a holy mountain nearby and fishing in the sacred lakes at the Yellow River's source. How else could she comprehend the death by starvation of more than half of her animals? Fearing further losses, Zhuoma and her husband accepted a government offer to sell off the rest in exchange for a thousand-dollar annual stipend and a concrete-block house in a resettlement camp near the town of Madoi. The herders are now the herded, nomads with nowhere to go.
China's water crisis begins on the roof of the world, where the country's three renowned rivers (the Yellow, the Yangtze, and the Mekong) originate. The glaciers and vast underground springs of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau—known as China's "water tower"—supply nearly 50 percent of the Yellow River's volume. But a hotter, drier climate is sending the delicate ecosystem into shock. Average temperatures in the region are increasing, according to the Chinese weather bureau, and could rise as much as three to five degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Already, more than 3,000 of the 4,077 lakes in Qinghai Province's Madoi County have disappeared, and the dunes of the high desert lap menacingly at those that remain. The glaciers, meanwhile, are shrinking at a rate of 7 percent a year. Melting ice may add water to the river in the short term, but scientists say the long-term consequences could be fatal to the Yellow.
To save its great rivers, Beijing is performing a sort of technological rain dance, with the most ambitious cloud-seeding program in the world. During summer months, artillery and planes bombard the clouds above the Yellow River's source area with silver iodide crystals, around which moisture can collect and become heavy enough to fall as rain. In Madoi, where the thunderous explosions keep Zhuoma's family awake at night, the meteorologists staffing the weather station say the "big gun" project is increasing rainfall and helping replenish glaciers near the Yellow River's source. Local Tibetans, however, believe the rockets, by angering the gods once more, are perpetuating the drought.
Like thousands of resettled Tibetan refugees across Qinghai, Zhuoma mourns the end of an ancient way of life. The family's wealth, once measured by the size of its herds, has dwindled to the few adornments she wears: three silver rings, a stone necklace, and her two gold teeth. Zhuoma has no job, and her husband, who rents a tractor to make local deliveries, earns three dollars on a good day. Not long ago the family ate meat every day; now they get by on noodles and fried dough. "We have no choice but to adjust," she says. "What else can we do?" From her concrete home, Zhuoma can still see the silvery beginnings of the Yellow River, but her relationship to the water and the land—to her heritage—has been lost forever.