The Yellow River basin in northern China, home to nearly a third of the country’s population but a much lower share of its output, is being targeted for an economic and ecological revamp under plans submitted to the Communist Party’s top leadership.
Despite being the cradle of Chinese civilisation and the nation’s second-longest river after the Yangtze, the Yellow River’s potential has been stunted, because of unsustainable use of water, soil erosion, sediment and pollution.
The government has submitted a plan to the Politburo covering its ecological protection and development, making its extremely scarce water resources the top priority.
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“It is a long-term project concerning the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” read a Politburo statement carried by state news agency Xinhua late on Monday.
The river’s annual water flow is less than 7 per cent of that of the Yangtze, in the centre and east of the country, and 18 per cent of that of the Pearl River, the most major river system in the south.
The Yellow River basin accounted for 30 per cent of the population but barely a quarter of economic output and about 14 per cent of external trade in China’s latest official data.
President Xi Jinping has described it as a key strategic region as important as the Yangtze delta, the Pearl delta’s Greater Bay Area and the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei megalopolis. However, the Yellow River basin has presented significant ecological and economic challenges.
Xi has visited the river four times in the past year, stopping in six of the basin’s nine provinces, and most recently made stops at tributaries of the river in May and June.
The sixth-longest river system in the world, the river’s yellow tinge comes from the build-up of sediment. It has been referred to as “China’s sorrow” because of its devastating floods.
Producing a third of China’s crops and meat, the basin holds more than half of the country’s coal reserve – but its agriculture, energy and petrochemical sectors cause huge water consumption and pollution.
Monday’s statement said central and local governments should coordinate measures to manage the basin’s mountains, rivers, forests, farmlands, lakes, grasslands and deserts. They should make water resources the overriding consideration in deciding the scale of developments, it said, to “improve the ecological environment of the Yellow River basin and vigorously promote the economical use of its water resources”.
In a conference last September with leading officials involved in the basin strategy, Xi said water resources per capita in the region was only 27 per cent of the national average, while the utilisation rate had reached 80 per cent – double the warning level for ordinary river basins.
The Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission, headed by Xi, said early this year that water resources would determine the development strategies and scales of cities and industries in the basin.
Wang Yongchen, founder of the Green Earth Volunteers, an environmental NGO in Beijing, said the problems in the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River were more severe than in the Yangtze but had been compounded by a lack of attention.
“Compared with the source of the Yangtze, more people live near the source of the Yellow River, so it’s more affected by human activities and climate change,” she said.
Wang, whose team has visited the Yellow River every year for the past decade, said it had been neglected because it flowed through poverty-stricken provinces where people did not pay as much attention to ecology as in the developed Yangtze basin.
Fan Xiao, a geologist and chief engineer of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau, said sedimentation was a major issue and would not be helped by building dams – which, along with water use in the region, had helped produce a lower water discharge than in the Yangtze and Pearl rivers.
“Dam building has affected the river in multiple ways, including deteriorating water quality and prompting the river to dry up,” he said.
The financial affairs commission had said developing city clusters in the northwest and central plain around the river loop would be part of the basin plan.
The Yellow River starts in Qinghai in the far west and run through Sichuan, Gansu, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Shanxi and Henan to the coastal Shandong province.
Local governments should follow the new guideline in implementing plans to deliver “significant progress” in the upcoming five-year plan period starting next year, the Politburo said.
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This article China plans to clean up Yellow River and give its ‘sorrow’ a brighter future first appeared on South China Morning Post