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Yellow River is running dry
AFAR
5/24/2003



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According to a report from the Yellow River Water Conservation Committee, due to much-reduced flow from incoming streams, the Yellow River is experiencing a record low in its water level. As of now, the five main water reservoirs, Longyang Isthmus, Liujia Isthmus, Wanjiazhai, Sanmen Isthmus and Xiaolangdi, have a total water reserve of 12.4 billion cubic meters. Subtracting the minimum reserve of each reservoir, the total amount of water available is only about 3.5 billion cubic meters. This is 7.3 billion less than last year at the same time of year, and itís a record low level. According to the Meteorology Department, the Yellow River basinís forecasted rainfall this spring is very little. The drought is severe. According to experts, the Yellow River could fall to its lowest water level since 1950, and the region might experience a serious drought before the end of June.

The course of the Yellow River in the Lanzhou area is experiencing some extraordinary conditions: the bottom of the river is exposed. One can no longer see the full might of water rushing by as in former days on the Yellow River. On the weekends many people go down to the riverbed to walk around, fly kites and have fun. The rare drought in the Yellow River region has brought serious challenges to agricultural development and the people in the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. Right now, only three out of six electricity generators in the Liujia Isthmus Water Reservoir are working properly. The whole province of Gansu is experiencing a blackout so severe it has to buy electricity from nearby electric providers. Every day the city of Lanzhou is short about 1 million kilowatts of electricity. Since February 14, Lanzhou has had to ration its electricity consumption.

Inner Mongolia, which lies around the upper-middle reaches of the Yellow River will experience the worst drought in its history by the end of this year. The Hetao Irrigation Area in Inner Mongolia is one of the most important irrigation areas in China. Several million acres of farmland will be lacking water. This is because the water reserves of Longyang Isthmus and Liujia Isthmus reservoirs from the upper reaches of Yellow River have decreased significantly. It has been estimated that before the irrigation period of April and May, the water storage from the two reservoirs will be 500 million cubic meters. This is less 1/10 of the previous yearsí storage. The daily water flow in Hetao Irrigation Area, Inner Mongolia, will be limited to 100 to 150 cubic meters per second, as opposed to the 300 to 450 cubic meters per second in the past. Itís estimated that 300 thousand farmersí lands [in Inner Mongolia] wonít be able to get water from the Yellow River.

The Yellow River is drying up throughout its course. Since last August, the rainfall in Shandong Province was the lowest in the past 50 years. Shandong is short 8.1 billion cubic meters of water. The whole provinceís water reserve is only 3.4 billion cubic meters. This is a huge gap to fill. Experts estimate that, beginning in April, the water shortage in the Yellow River will affect farmers and their water usage will have to be strictly restricted. This means that some wheat fields in Ningxia and Inner Mongolia wonít be getting any water at all. Shandong and Henanís wheat fields will only be able to get a small amount of irrigation.

The Yellow River dried up once in 1977. About 500 kilometers of its course dried up, from the mouth of the river to Henanís Huayuankou. Experts estimate that this yearís drought will be more severe than 1977ís, and the river will only yield about 5.5 billion cubic meters of water.

Parts of the Yellow River have dried up before in history. But what worries the experts is the fact it is getting more severe, with more and longer sections of the river drying up, and the duration of the drought period getting longer.

On the surface it seems that the weather is the main factor accounting for the drought. Since 1980, droughts have come often. Especially since 1997, the recharge zone of the river experienced a four-year-long drought, and the northern areas were also seriously lacking water. Another factor is the excessive usage of Yellow Riverís water. China has built hundreds of water dams on the Yellow River in the last 50 years, especially in the upper ranges. Billions of tons of water are distributed to various dry lands for irrigation. In the last 10 to 20 years of economic growth water demand has increased significantly. Various kinds of river-related construction have put a lot of pressure on the Yellow River. Itís reported by foreign media that the Yellow River is going to make humans pay for what they have done, and millions of residents around the river are going to pay for what they did to the river.

Experts said that if we donít work to protect the Yellow River, the ďmother riverĒ of the Chinese people might one day dry up. This will be critically dangerous to the residents and ecosystems surrounding the river. The ancient Yellow Riverís existence has had enormous significance and many meanings in Chinese history and culture. But what will it mean if it dries up?

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