Published: May 2008 Yellow River
Bitter Waters
Can China save the Yellow—its Mother River?
By Brook Larmer

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?"

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.

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.

"What are you doing?" the security guard demands. "Nothing," replies the stocky woman lurking outside the gates of the paper mill, tucking her secret weapon—a handheld global positioning device—under her sweater. The guard eyes her for a minute, and the woman, a 51-year-old laid-off factory worker named Jiang Lin, holds her breath. When he turns away, she pulls out the GPS and quickly locks in the paper mill's coordinates.

As an employee of Green Camel Bell, an environmental group in the western city of Lanzhou, Jiang is following up on a tip that the mill is dumping untreated chemical waste into a tributary of the Yellow River. There are hundreds of such factories around Lanzhou, a former Silk Road trading post that has morphed into a petrochemical hub. In 2006 three industrial spills here made the Yellow River run red. Another turned it white. This one is tainting the tributary a toxic shade of maroon. When Jiang gets back to the office, the GPS data will be emailed to Beijing and uploaded onto a Web-based "pollution map" for the whole world to see.

For all of Lanzhou's pride in being the first and biggest city along the Yellow River, it is better known for its massive discharge of industrial and human waste. But even here there is a glimmer of hope: the first seedlings of environmental activism, which may be the only chance for the river's salvation. In the mid-1990s a mere handful of environmental groups existed in China. Today there are several thousand, including Green Camel Bell. Jiang Lin's 25-year-old son, Zhao Zhong, founded the group in 2004 to help clean up the city and protect the Yellow River. With only five paid staff, Green Camel Bell is a shoestring operation kept afloat by grants from an American NGO, Pacific Environment. The name they chose, after the reassuring bells worn by camels in Silk Road caravans, is meant to be "a sign of life," says Jiang. "The bell is supposed to give hope to everyone who hears it."

At long last Beijing appears willing to listen. After three decades blindly pursuing growth, the government is starting to grapple with the environmental costs. The impact is not simply monetary, though the World Bank calculates that environmental damage robs China of 5.8 percent of its GDP each year. It is also social: Irate citizens last year flooded the government with hundreds of thousands of official environmental complaints. Whether to save the environment or stave off social unrest, Beijing has adopted ambitious goals, aiming for a 30 percent reduction in water consumption and a 10 percent decrease in pollution discharges by 2010.

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.

Such frenzied growth may soon fall victim to the very water crisis it has helped create. Of the some 660 cities in China, more than 400 lack sufficient water, with more than a hundred of these suffering severe shortages. (Beijing is chronically short of water too, but it will be spared during the Olympics, thanks to engineering feats that divert water from the Yellow River.) In a society increasingly divided between urban and rural, rich and poor, it is China's vast countryside—and its 738 million peasants—that bears the brunt of the water shortage.

The lack of water is already hindering China's grain production, fueling concerns about future shocks to global grain markets, where even modest price hikes can have a disastrous effect on the poor. Wang Shucheng, China's former minister of water resources, put the situation dramatically: "To fight for every drop of water or die, that is the challenge facing China."

For Sun Baocheng, a sunbaked 37-year-old farmer from the central Ningxia village of Yanghe, this challenge is not merely rhetorical excess. Two years ago, after their wells and rain buckets went dry from drought, all 36 families in Yanghe abandoned their village to the encroaching desert. They came to a valley called Hongsipu, where more than 400,000 environmental refugees have settled for one reason: It has water, delivered by a Kuwaiti-funded aqueduct that snakes across the scrub desert from the Yellow River, 20 miles to the north. The Yanghe villagers have settled in a row of single-room brick houses near the concrete aqueduct, tending plots of land given by the Chinese government (along with about $25 a person) as part of a program to alleviate poverty and desertification.

Even though Sun is barely able to coax a few stalks of corn out of the sandy soil, he is inspired by the flourishing crops—and growing wealth—of more established refugees. "If we hadn't left our old village and come here," he says, "we wouldn't have survived." The Mother River, once again, is giving life. But with all the pressures on its dwindling water, one wonders: What will creating another oasis in the desert do to the river's own chances of survival?

Mao Zedong's mantra—"Sacrifice one family, save 10,000 families"—is still seared into Wang Yangxi's memory. Like the Chinese emperors before him, Chairman Mao was obsessed with taming the Yellow River, the life-giving force whose changes of course also unleashed devastating floods, earning it the enduring sobriquet "China's Sorrow." When, in 1957, construction began on the massive dam at Sanmenxia, on the river's middle section, 400,000 people—including Wang—lost their homes. Mao's slogan convinced them it was a noble sacrifice. "We were proud to help the national cause," says Wang, now 83. "We've had nothing but misery ever since."

The idea of conquest has driven China's approach to nature ever since Yu the Great, first ruler of the Xia dynasty, allegedly declared some 4,000 years ago: "Whoever controls the Yellow River controls China." Mao took this, like much else, to extremes. His biggest monument to man's power over nature—the 350-foot-tall Sanmenxia Dam—is a case study in the danger of unintended consequences. The dam has tamed the lower third of the Yellow River by turning it into what one commentator has called "the country's biggest irrigation ditch." But the impact upriver has been disastrous, due to a stunning lack of foresight. Engineers failed to account for the colossal amount of yellowish silt (more than three times the sediment discharge of the Mississippi) that gives the river its name. By mismanaging the silt, Sanmenxia has caused as many floods as it has prevented, ruined as many lives as it has saved, and compelled the construction of another huge dam simply to correct its mistakes. One of Sanmenxia's original engineers even recommends blowing up the whole thing.

Wang would be the first to volunteer for such a mission. Husking cotton on his doorstep in Taolingzhai village, about 30 miles west of Sanmenxia, the bristle-haired former schoolteacher recalls a life whose every tragic twist has been shaped by the dam. After Wang and his family were evicted from this fertile land during the dam's construction, they were banished to a desert region 500 miles away. Nearly a third of the refugees died of starvation during Mao's Great Leap Forward, he says. Eventually, half of the survivors straggled home. Wang now farms land near the junction of the Wei and Yellow Rivers. But even here, he is not safe. When heavy rains fall, the Sanmenxia reservoir backs up, pushing polluted water over the banks. Three floods in five years have destroyed his cotton crops and poisoned the village's drinking supply. "All of our young people have left," says Wang. "There's no future here."

Unlike Mao's little red book, the Sanmenxia Dam is hardly a relic of the past. China now boasts nearly half of the world's 50,000 large dams—three times more than the United States—and construction continues. A cascade of 20 major dams already interrupt the Yellow River, and another 18 are scheduled to be built by 2030. Grassroots resistance to dams has emerged, most famously over the forced resettlement of more than a million people by the Yangtze River's Three Gorges Dam, but to little effect. Ma Jun, a prominent environmentalist, says dams on the Yellow River are especially harmful, since they exacerbate the twin threats of pollution and scarcity. The reduced water flow destroys the river's ability to flush out heavy pollutants, even as standing reservoirs allow a badly overused river to be drained even further. "Why cannot human beings give up their ruthless ambition of harnessing and controlling nature," Ma asks, "and choose instead to live in harmony with it?"

The simple answer: Beijing is still addicted to growth. The economic boom has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, and the Communist Party's legitimacy, perhaps even its survival, depends on continued expansion. China's leaders pay lip service to conservation and efficiency as a solution to the north's chronic water shortage. But rather than raise the price of water to true market levels—a move that would surely alienate both the masses and big industry—they have opted instead for another pharaonic feat of engineering: the South-to-North Water Transfer Project. The 62-billion-dollar canal system, which is designed to relieve pressure on the Yellow River, will siphon some 12 trillion gallons of water a year from the Yangtze Basin and send it 700 miles north, passing beneath the Yellow in two places. It's no surprise, given the Olympian scale of the project, that it—like Sanmenxia—originated as one of Mao's pipe dreams.

Even as other parts of China careened through droughts and floods in past decades, the village of Xiaojiadian enjoyed a steady supply of fresh water by virtue of its location on a tributary of the Yellow River, less than 200 miles from where it spills into the sea. But the waters, once a source of life, have turned deadly. Nobody here likes to talk about the plague that has struck the village, but the scar running down the chest of a gaunt farmer named Xiao Sizhu has its own eloquence. It shows precisely where doctors tried to remove the cancerous tumor gnawing at his esophagus. In between bites of sodden bread—one of the only foods he can digest—Xiao, 55, whispers about the old days, when his family felt lucky to live in this well-watered corner of the river basin, in eastern Shandong Province. Over the past two decades, however, a parade of tanneries, paper mills, and factories arrived upstream, dumping waste directly into the river. Xiao used to swim and fish in the eddy next to the village well. Now, he says, "I never go close to the water because it smells awful and has foam on top."

Another place he avoids is the grove of poplar trees outside the village, with its burial mounds stretching to the river's edge. In the past five years more than 70 people in this hamlet of 1,300 have died of stomach or esophageal cancer. More than a thousand others in 16 neighboring villages have also succumbed. Yu Baofa, a leading Shandong oncologist who has studied the villages of Dongping County, calls it "the cancer capital of the world." He says the incidence of esophageal cancer in the area is 25 times higher than the national average.

The more than four billion tons of wastewater dumped annually into the Yellow River, accounting for a full 10 percent of the river's volume, has pushed into extinction a third of the river's native fish species and made long stretches unfit even for irrigation. Now comes the human toll. In a 2007 report China's Ministry of Health blamed air and water pollution for an alarming rise in cancer rates across China since 2005—19 percent in urban areas and 23 percent in the countryside. Nearly two-thirds of China's rural population, more than 500 million people, use water contaminated by human or industrial waste. It's little wonder that gastrointestinal cancer is now the number one killer in the countryside.

The ubiquity of pollution-related disease is cold comfort to the villagers in Xiaojiadian, who live in fear and shame. The fear is understandable: 16 more cases of cancer were diagnosed in the village last year. The shame, however, has deeper roots. Even though officials told villagers the epidemic likely stems from the drinking well by the poisoned river, many locals believe cancer comes from an imbalance of chi, or life force, which is said to occur more frequently in those with quick tempers or bad characters.

Like most victims, Xiao suffered in silence in his house for nearly a year, hiding his symptoms even from the local doctor. Medical bills have since wiped out his savings, and the tumor has reduced his voice to a whisper. Even so, Xiao is one of the few willing to speak out. "If we don't talk, nothing gets done," he rasps, spitting up phlegm into a plastic cup. The government recently built a new well 11 miles away and sent in teams of doctors. But Xiao says officials might not have paid attention to Xiaojiadian had a villager not tipped off a reporter at a Chinese television station two years before. Now Xiao only has one regret: that he didn't speak out earlier. "It might have saved me," he says.

A few months pass, and a fresh earthen mound appears in the grove of poplar trees by the river. The grave has no tombstone, just some bamboo sticks and a few aluminum cookie wrappers rustling in the breeze. Xiao has come to the place he long avoided, joining friends and neighbors who were stalked by the same waterborne assassin. Is it a cruel irony or just the natural order that their final resting place overlooks the very river that likely killed them?

It is too late to save Xiao Sizhu, but there remains a flicker of hope that the Yellow River can be rescued. China's leaders, aware of the peril their country faces, now vow "to build an ecological civilization," setting aside almost 200 billion dollars a year for the environment. But the future depends equally on ordinary citizens such as activists Zhao Zhong and his mother, the intrepid Jiang Lin. Remember that Lanzhou paper mill Jiang locked in with her GPS? Not long after the information went up on the Internet, the government shut down the mill, along with 30 other factories dumping poison into tributaries of the Yellow River.

"Maybe the impact of one single person is small," says Zhao. "But when it is combined with others, the power can be huge."