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Yet despite the good intentions, the crisis is only getting worse, reflecting Beijing's loss of control over the country's growth-hungry provinces. Leading environmental lawyer Wang Canfa estimates that "only 10 percent of environmental laws are enforced." Unable to count on its own bureaucracy, Beijing has warily embraced the media and grassroots activists to help pressure local industry. But pity the ecological crusader who speaks out too much. He could end up like Wu Lihong, an activist who was jailed and allegedly tortured last year for publicizing the toxic algal blooms in central China's Tai Lake.

Back in the Green Camel Bell office, Jiang stresses the group's cordial relations with local authorities. "The government has been working hard to stop factories from dumping," she says. Nevertheless, along her office wall stand plastic bottles filled with water discharged by factories and ranging in color from yellow to magenta—all unanalyzed for lack of funds. Even with its modest resources, Green Camel Bell has mobilized volunteers to help survey the ecology of the 24-mile section of the Yellow River that flows through Lanzhou. Their most important, and stealthiest, work is publicly exposing the most egregious polluters. It's enough to give a laid-off worker a sense of power and purpose. "I feel like a detective," says Jiang, laughing about her narrow escape at the paper mill. "But ordinary people like me have to get involved. Pollution is a problem that affects us all."

Two hundred miles northeast of Lanzhou, the Yellow River carves a path through the desolate expanse of Ningxia, revealing a problem with even more devastating long-term consequences than pollution: water scarcity. China starts at a disadvantage, supporting 20 percent of the world's population with just 7 percent of its fresh water. But it is far worse here in Ningxia, a bone-dry region enduring its worst drought in recorded history. For millennia the Yellow River was Ningxia's salvation; today the waterway is wasting away. Near the city of Yinchuan, the river's once mighty current is reduced to a narrow channel. Locals blame the river's depletion on the lack of rain. But the biggest culprit is the extravagant misuse of water by rapidly expanding farms, factories, and cities.

Perhaps every revolution, even a capitalist one, eats its children. But the pace at which China is squandering its most precious resource is staggering. Judicious releases of reservoir water have averted the embarrassment of recent years, when the Yellow River ran completely dry. But the river's outflow remains just 10 percent of the level 40 years ago. Where has all the water gone? Agriculture siphons off more than 65 percent, half of which is lost in leaky pipes and ditches. Heavy industry and burgeoning cities swallow the rest. Water in China, free until 1985, is still so heavily subsidized that conservation and efficiency are largely alien concepts. And the siege of the Yellow River isn't about to stop: In 2007 the government approved 52 billion dollars in coal mining and chemical industries to be installed along a 500-mile stretch of the river north of Yinchuan.

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