15 October 1998

Yellow River reduced to a trickle

By David Rennie in Beijing

The Yellow River, long revered as the "cradle of Chinese civilisation", is drying up to such an extent that it may become nothing more than a "seasonal river".

A report on the river, China's second longest after the Yangtze, also warns that long sections of the silted-up bed are higher than the surrounding land, so that in full spate, the Yellow River threatens some 78 million people living on its flood plains.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences has submitted its report to the country's governing State Council. It comes after a summer of catastrophic floods on the Yangtze and two smaller rivers, which left at least 3,000 people dead and a million homeless.

Massive floods have swept across China throughout history and waterways such as the Yellow River have regularly shifted their courses. The Yellow River has wreaked such violent destruction over the centuries that it is also known as "China's Sorrow".

The river is thought to have killed a million people when it broke through flood defences in 1877. Hundreds of thousands more died in 1938, when Chiang Kai-Shek blew up its embankments to delay the invading Japanese.

But many scientists are now concerned that de-forestation and ill-planned water extraction for industry, agriculture and housing threaten the survival of the river. Research stations in the lower stretches of the Yellow River report a growing number of days when no water flows at all.

The China Daily newspaper yesterday quoted scientists as saying "there is a possibility the Yellow River will become nothing more than a 'seasonal river' ".

The Chinese authorities recently banned logging in large areas of the country, saying that lumberjacks would be put to work planting trees instead. They are also determined to continue work on the Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze, a gigantic dam that will inundate one of China's most beautiful landscapes.

Opponents say smaller dams would be safer and more effective. But the project's senior backer, Li Peng, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, said the scheme was based on thorough investigations.