Mar. 23, 2023

2010 Yellow River Decade: summary

Public Welfare and Ecological Investigation Started in Beijing


At 10 am on Aug. 11, the opening ceremony of the Yellow River Decade Project was held in Beijing, at the head offices of the Sina website. The research team then started off for their first stop, Dongying City in Shandong province, to begin a 20-day ecological investigation through the Yellow River Basin. The goal of the project was to travel from the mouth of the river in Shandong Province to the river’s headwaters in Yushu Province.

Wang Yongchen, the founder of Green Earth Volunteers, introduced the aim of investigation, “the Yellow River Decade Project plans to record changes in the Yellow River Basin’s natural ecology and cultural activity under the effects of economic development and global climate change. The study will take place over the next ten years and will document real attitudes through written articles, photography and video. We will publicize our first-hand data through news outlets, projects, forums, lectures and reports.

“The investigation will involve many disciplines including river geomorphology, water resources, agriculture and famine history, anthropology, biodiversity and river channel management.”

You Lianyuan, a teacher who is participating on behalf of environmental protection specialists, showed great enthusiasm for this study, “as the Mother River which bred the Chinese ethnic peoples, the Yellow River has always had problems with flow, pollution, and flooding. These problems require us to think and pay attention during our research in order to find and record changes in the hydrology and the environmental situation in the Yellow River Basin.”

Through the Yellow River Decade Project, we hope to record the changing circumstances of the areas around the Yellow River by following the lives of local inhabitants and observing how the changes affect their lives.  

Day 1: The Wetlands in the Yellow River Delta

At 7am on Aug. 12, the Yellow River Decade Project research team took off for their first stop, the Dongying Yellow River Delta.

Zhao Lianshi from the China Association for Scientific Expedition said that the Yellow River is China’s second largest river and the symbol of China. The four tribes of ancient China gathered around here and gradually integrated with each other, and the international community now calls them collectively the Huaxia nations. All of these four ancient civilizations depended on the river for farming, but how did the Chinese people survive and multiply for five thousand years? It is because of the Yellow River. So it is called the mother river.

How can minorities sustain their relatively native natural environment? How can they show their awe and love of nature? How does the irrigation system in the midstream of Yellow River cause water shortages downstream? Why does Shandong Province, a large agricultural province downstream, have over 200 days of draught every year? What kind of threats do the nature reserves in the estuary wetland of the Yellow River face? What is the fate of the Yellow River?

The team rested for a while in Xianhe Town after we arrived at Dongying. Ever since the beginning of human society, it has been a common feature of agricultural and industrial civilizations that nature retreats in the face of human development. This is now also happening in the nature reserves near Xianhe Town.

A large chemical industrial park is located in the region, which used to be the ancient watercourse of Yellow River between 1963 and 1975. Now, it collects domestic wastewater and rainwater, but the sewage is directly discharged into the sea. One of our water resource experts was concerned about how such a small sewage treatment plant could handle the wastewater from 70 factories. Therefore, it is likely that some untreated sewage from the chemical factories is discharged into the wetland, or even into the sea.

Continuing draught along the Yellow River has caused silt to build up downstream, so controlling floods has become more difficult. It has also exacerbated a series of ecological problems such as soil salinization, desertification, water table reduction and reduction of surface evaporation. These changes in the environment have degraded the wetland meadow ecosystem, threatening the many plants and animals that live in freshwater.

After 12 hours on the first day of the Yellow River Decade, we welcomed the setting sun where the sea meets the sky. The natural landscape of the estuary was magnificent and extraordinarily awesome. We could see the water rolling with the rays of sunshine and a wooden fishing boat nearby. After one day’s hard work, the first day ended in a very quiet place.

Day 2: From Delta to Dongbatou

On the morning of Aug. 13, we focused on finding a family to interview, who we would continue to interview for the next ten years of the project. We hope to have ten permanent families who we follow for the duration of the project. We select these families because they live in areas of interest and can observe the changes to the Yellow River.

We learned that although this village is only twenty years old, most of the villagers will be relocated after chemical factories in the area are finished. A villager told us that there is often a strong, sharp odor in the village. When we asked them where they would be relocated, they said, “We have no idea, probably somewhere with less pollution.”

In the town of Xianhe, we interviewed a man named Fan Jianyu. He told us that after he resigned from the army he started working for the Shenli Oilfield Transport Group and was relocated to an island here in Xianhe. When we asked him what he thought was the biggest change between then and now, he answered that the water is not as clean as before. He told us that this was mainly due to pollution in the upper streams of the river: “when the wind blows from the north, the odor is overwhelming.”

There is a saying that says the Yellow River “floods twice every three years and changes course once every century.” People have started to build dams for flood protection. The Yellow River usually overflows during the flooding season, which often creates new waterways in low-lying areas, changing the course of the Yellow River. Overall, the Yellow River’s floodplain covers a vast area, spanning more than 250,000 square kilometers.

The magnificent roar of the Yellow River left us in awe. Today, there aren’t very many sights that are as majestic as the Yellow River.

Day 3:  Tour of the Yellow River Wetlands

Our next destination was the Yellow River Wetland Nature Reserve Management Center in the Taohua Valley of Mengjin County. Protection efforts in the Zhengzhou Yellow River Wetland have received great support from the local government; however, wetland protection still faces many challenges. The dense population here creates more and more pressure to utilize the wetlands for farming. Animal and bird hunting are also an important source of income for many local people; so illegal hunting is still prevalent in the nature reserve.  

Huayuan County, the location of the largest Yellow River hydrological station, was our next stop. A member of the Henan Province “Friends of Nature”, Cui Sheng, said that since the Xiaolangdi Reservoir was built, the upstream flooding has changed and the width of the river and decreased dramatically. He believes it is better to let the water make its own path and that dams should not be constructed along the Yellow River. Qi Pu, the senior engineer of the Yellow River Water Resources Research Institute, on the other hand, thinks that the controlled flooding of the river can recreate the natural transport of sediment.

This debate sparked a discussion about the relationship between man and nature. The problems facing the Yellow River today are the direct consequences of both our ancestor’s actions and our lack of knowledge about rivers and lakes. Many people do not believe that nature will lash back at humans because of her mercy. Qi Pu believes that science will be able to tame the Yellow River while Cui Sheng believes that nature has its laws and man should abide by them.

Faced with this great river, which seems calm but is indeed turbulent, I think about how we can take control of it. We can temporarily control the river with all kinds of advanced technologies, but this does not mean we can control it forever. The natural ecosystem is too delicate, dwarfing the technology of humans. The predicament faced by many hydropower stations is the best proof of this. To every one of us, this trip is an opportunity not only for research but also for thinking. 

At dusk, we interviewed a local villager on the river bank. The villager, whose name is Lu Jingzhuo, told us that his family has lived there for many generations. Their income mainly comes from growing crops. They usually plant corn but since the soil salinization has become serious, they have had to grow rice. The village here has a large population and limited farmland (about 333 square meters of farmland per capita). Therefore, most young people leave the village to seek jobs. When asked whether the Yellow River is beneficial or not, Lu answered that it is certainly beneficial to them. The river can irrigate the farmlands and grow rice more delicious than rice watered by any other river. Lu said the river floods much less than ever before. When asked about the differences between the Yellow River during his childhood and the river at present, he told us that thanks to the Xiaolangdi Project, the river course has become stable. According to him, the only disadvantage is that he can no longer scoop coal from it. In the past, the Yellow River carried coal and scooping just one day would bring him enough coal for a whole year.

Day 4: The Case of the Xiaolangdi Water Control Project

Mr. Lu Jingzhuo, a villager interviewed by Yellow River Decade team members in the riverside town of Huimeng, told us that the floods have become less frequent since the completion of the dam. The Xiaolangdi project’s capacity to regulate water and sediment, however, has failed to live up to expectations.  It has also brought with it some negative effects, such as the loss of natural lakes and rivers, a large migration problem due to the relocation of people, and a loss of biodiversity. Flood control, sediment reduction, electricity generation, and irrigation are the most important functions of the Xiaolangdi dam and reservoir.

The sight of the Yellow River spewing forth from the dam elicited different thoughts and feelings amongst the members of the team. Some were excited by its magnificence; some were distressed because the Yellow River seemed like a restrained beast.

At one of the dam’s scenic overlooks the team came across an elderly woman collecting bottles and was able to carry out a brief interview with her. According to the woman, she and her family had once lived at the site of Xiaolangdi, but once the construction of the dam began her village was relocated to a distant mountain. She finally chose to settle down on a mountain nearby, as there was no source of income in the original relocation site. In the nearby area where she and her family live, the woman makes a living by collecting bottles at the dam’s tourist sites, while her husband drives a cab for tourists. Each month, the government issues her a subsidy of 50 RMB for water and electricity bills.

A villager told us that as many as 108 houses had been built on the hill within four months in 1992. Constructed in a hurry and in an area often hit by mudslides, these houses are full of potential danger, and indeed new houses have started to crack and cave-in.

Young villagers, who originally made a living through agriculture, can find jobs in the city, but this is not possible for elderly people who have lost their land. We interviewed another couple that sells mineral water during the day to make a living day by day. They said tomorrow can be dealt with when it arrives.

We have ten years to continue our discussion, but it is crucial that we figure out a way in which humans can live naturally and safely with the Yellow River and at the same time allow the river to support non-human life. It must be a river of culture and ecological diversity for our future generations. 

Day 5: Examining Silt at the Sanmenxia Hydropower Station

Our next destination was the Sanmenxia Hydropower Station. A poem by He Jingzhi called The Sanmenxia Dressing Table said that before the dam was built, “the waters of the Yellow River flow from heaven” and after the dam was built, “the waters of the Yellow River flow from the hands of men.”

Once the Sanmenxia Hydropower Station started generating power, it not only failed to contain the silt, but also created problems on the upper reaches of the Wei River, the Yellow River’s largest tributary. All of us could not help but be struck by the sight of the battle occurring before our eyes once we saw the site up close. In one sense, you could say that the river had been ‘sculpted’ by manual labor, into a form that laid bare the inherent beauty of its raw power.

The recent and past construction of reservoirs on the Yellow River and soil and water conservation practices have caused big changes in the underlying riverbed. In recent years, we have adopted a new view of the Yellow River’s natural narrow, deep channel and the cyclical floodwaters that transport silt downstream. We are beginning to understand that the downstream waters of the Yellow River now have a strong capacity to transport sediment and discharge floodwater.

We visited Shaanxi National Park in Sanmenxia City and were finally able to witness a section of Yellow River in all its natural glory.  Perhaps it is because we had spent the last two days examining the tremendous energy of the artificially-constructed Xiaolangdi Reservoir and Sanmenxia Dam that we felt how natural and untouched the Yellow River appeared here.  Moreover, it is rare to see rivers in their natural state these days; such a precious experience that revives the hope of maintaining a harmonious relationship between people and rivers should be treasured.

Day 6: 800 Li Qinchuan

Today we went to the mouth of the Wei River in Tongguan, Shaanxi province. Whether it’s the first time you see the Wei River, or you’ve been there a thousand times, the power of the union between the Wei and Yellow Rivers is mesmerizing. The Wei River is the largest tributary of the Yellow River.

Before the Sanmenxia Reservoir was built, silt and sand flowed freely through the Wei River. After the reservoir was constructed, the silt deposits caused the river to rise, setting off floods along the river. In response, embankments and levees were built to stop the flooding and eventually the flooding was controlled.

Qi Pu, the senior engineer of the Yellow River Water Resources Research Institute, stated that the key to controlling the Yellow River is to control the Wei River; the downstream problems of the Yellow River are related to the problems in the upstream Wei River.

An old woman named Liu Jinhui, who lives near the Wei River, agreed to tell her story about the river. She said that the environment used to be very good there but once the road was built last year, the pots and water tanks in her house were immediately covered in dust. Her only option is to live next to the river, but she is concerned that the embankment will not hold. She said even so, the air and water are still good and she does not want to leave. She just wants the levees and embankment repaired.

At the end of the interview, she sang an opera for us. This moment will stay in our minds forever: the river was flowing quietly beside us while a workingwoman performed Shaanxi Opera.

Day 8: Fairy tale of Kangbashi

On the way to Ordos, we saw lots of rolling sand dunes. Desertification has become a serious issue due to overgrazing, economic development, climate change and other reasons.

Wang Jian, a specialist in water resources, said that where there is water, there is life. The construction of the city needs a strong support of water resources, even if we build such a huge city in an arid and semi-arid place. It is a question to consider thoroughly, especially regarding the city of Kangbashi. More than 100 million people need lots of water, but live in a region with a serious lack of available water resources.

The Ulan Moron River, which flows next to the city, has been drying up and only has a small amount of its water left. The local government of Ordos wants to control sediment problems by reducing the amount of water used for sediment transport, so that the water can be transferred to Kangbashi.

Yellow River management has been a major headache for China. So some local governments have offered to undertake these tasks, and our country encourages this action. However, considering the real capacity of Kangbashi’s local government and the ecological and social problems that Yellow River brings, their request has not been approved. If our country agreed to this request, what would happen in the future?

Environmentalism is never against development, but unreasonable development. The growth of GDP at a rate of 34 percent is not glory but a danger signal. Wang Jian, a specialist in water resources, said, “Can a city that develops too fast guarantee that its development is sustainable?” Kangbashi is rich in mineral resources, and it’s impossible to avoid developing, but development should have limits. The city depends on ground water, and so they should try their best to lessen the unnecessary consumption of water.

In Baotou, we went along the Yellow River. The river there is clearer than in its lower and middle reaches, and it is narrower. At nightfall, we stood beside the Yellow River, thinking that when we saw the setting sun in Dongying on the first day of the Yellow River Decade, the sun was the same. It’s a beautiful picture, but we can’t appreciate it totally comfortably, because two cooling towers belonging to a thermal power plant stand on the opposite bank of Yellow River.

Day 9: The Destiny of a Village on the Yellow River

The team set out for Wuhai, an area with serious pollution problems. Located in the western part of Inner Mongolia, Ulansuhai Lake borders the Yellow River to the south and the Yinshan Mountains to the north. The group was enchanted with the magnificent scenery, but a nearby construction site marred the picturesque landscape.

Across the Yellow River Bridge, Wang Jian, a specialist in water resources, pointed out the desert on the distant bank of the river and explained that the Yellow River helps combat desertification. Upon arrival in Wuhai, the scenery again changed dramatically.  Factories sprawled on both sides of the road and concrete homes filled in the gaps. Currently, the major industries produce tar, coal and chemical products, which all contribute to the pollution here.

A young man grazing sheep by the river agreed to let the group observe his family. The house belongs to 52-year-old Kang Yintang; three families live in the house. Kang said that the youth were all working in other places and no one stayed at home to do the farm work. When asked what his parents would do when they were not able to do farm work, it seemed Kang had never thought about this. He finally answered that when the time came the work would just be left undone.

We then asked them about pollution issues, and they replied, “if we tell the truth and the factory fails we will lose our jobs,” said Kang.  After a while he began to speak more openly about the subject. “A few years ago many villagers had cancer, the water became unsafe to drink and the harvest was poor. The conditions this year were even worse.”

Agriculture is the foundation of the nation, and land is the foundation of the people. Exploitation and destruction of the environment may bring people some short-term economic return, but when they are old and unable to work in the factories, they will lose their jobs and their source of income. When they reconsider life in the factories and try to farm and graze sheep to make a living, they are no longer able because farmland and grassland is disappearing.

Day 10: Transition of the Yellow River

After Yinchuan, we travelled through Qingtongxia and Zhongwei and finally arrived at Shapotou.

In order to understand the present irrigation situation, we stopped a farmer on a motorcycle. He told us the most serious problem now was not people wasting water, but water pollution. We decided to track the local source of the pollution. Guided by the farmer, we found a polluted ditch and a sewage outlet. Since few residents lived there, we determined that the wastewater must have flowed from the nearby pharmaceutical factory. Another woman told us the pharmaceutical factory emitted a pungent smell at six or seven o'clock every evening. The most unbearable part was that the factory drilled wells and poured wastewater underground. Most of the sewage water is discharged through the ditch networks to the Yellow River.

Our next stop was Shapotou, the first nature reserve to successfully implement a desertification prevention program in China. There we interviewed Zhang Xike, a 47-year-old man who runs a bed and breakfast near Shapotou. He told us that he is looking forward to the Daliushu Water Conservancy Project, a project near Shapotou that focuses on irrigation and water conservation. It not only gives him a chance to make money, but also will improve water access upon completion. Because of the development of Shapotou’s tourism industry, villagers there have a strong sense of the importance of their reputation and a strong desire to protect the local environment. If the government could make good use of the farmers' enthusiasm, it would be extremely helpful for the protection of the local environment.

In the twilight, the sun, the Yellow River, the oasis and the desert together looked like a beautiful watercolor painting. Nature’s paintings change their color and shadow every second, and even the best painter cannot compare to the endless creativity of Mother Nature.


Day 11: Agriculture in Jingtai

Before going to the first pumping station that extracts water from the Yellow River, we went to watch the sunrise over the Yellow River. The sky was turning red as we made our way there. Then, the sun slowly emerged above the distant horizon at the other end of the Yellow River.

At the pumping station, we gained a better understanding of how much the fertility of Ningxia autonomous region depends on water from the Yellow River. Firstly, the low rainfall urges people to depend on the river rather than the weather as their water resource. Secondly, ground water resources here, though relatively large in reserves, cannot be extracted because it would deplete the water table and further aggravate the regions’ desertification.

We found several oases in the desert, most likely formed by the Yellow River and currently being used for channel water irrigation. It appeared that crops and fruits flourished in these oases. However, given the large amount of water required for their production, should this way of cultivating land be continued? Are we not destroying the earth? Is there really no better way?

If such bleak, sandy earth can become a fertile field and produce healthy melons, what other possibilities are we dismissing? Do we really have no other choice but to continue destructive exploitation?

On the way to Baiyin City, we began talking with two farmers on the side of the road. One complained that the Environmental Protection Bureau had denied them access to the channels that were formerly used to divert river water for irrigation, the reason being that the water they used was untreated domestic sewage. They also mentioned that they had suffered heavy economic losses as the green onion cash crop grown in the village was polluted by exhaust gas. The gas discharged by surrounding smelters had even turned the blades of the green onions yellow.

Han Dongsheng, a 55-year old man, agreed to let us interview him. Pointing at the apple trees in the yard, Mrs. Hao said, “They just don’t flourish.” What’s worse, they have often found themselves unable to breath due to the fumes in the morning or evening time. In the past, the factories discharged industrial sewage directly into the Yellow River, the only source of their drinking water. Some villagers have found that their sheep lose all their teeth after grazing near the draining ditches of the factories. Many people’s teeth have turned yellow; some seniors are suffering from bone lesions and tender knees and have had to relieve pain by massaging with a small hammer all day long.

Most environmental cases covered in newspapers today are of disasters. Nowadays the press seldom spends time reporting potential risks of pollution and instead vies for dramatic news found in catastrophe.

Day 12:  A Visit to Liujiaxia

On Aug. 23, 2010, we went to Liujiaxia, one of the five key chemical industry cities in China. Liujiaxiu is located right next to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province.  As Lanzhou’s geography limits development towards the north and south, the city is currently developing east and west along the Yellow River. At this point water pollution had also turned the Yellow River black. Walking along the Yellow River, we saw plants densely distributed on both banks and thermal power plants under construction in the Xigu District.

Today’s investigation focused on the Liujiaxia Dam. Located in a plateau valley; this area is called the “plateau pearl” for its majestic scenery. Very little attention was paid to the issues of water and soil erosion during the dam’s construction, which resulted in a large surplus of sediment in the reservoir in the 1990s.

In the 1960s, reservoir construction mandated the relocation of a village that had been located near the Yellow River for generations. Some residents who refused to be relocated moved to a nearby mountain instead. After the implementation of a policy of returning farmland to forests and pastures, local farmers lost their farmland and were forced to build terraces on sloped land.

We interviewed Wang Fuya, a taxi driver who lost his farmland to the reservoir and has still not received compensation. His family’s main source of income comes from driving taxis. Wang said that building a reservoir was a national decision in which common people had no say; the reservoir made it easier for them to irrigate crops, but when floods occurred, crops would be lost. Should poor farmers always remain so vulnerable to development projects?

Such unfair treatment of migrants is very common. Some officials abuse their power because they know that public oversight is very limited and information is not accessible. In big cities, people are more aware of issues through information openness and public oversight. However, China’s vast rural areas have a long way to go in the process of building such a highly developed civil society.

After leaving Liujiaxia, we drove through the surrounding mountains, where the development of a power station has resulted in a clear but unnaturally calm stretch of the Yellow River. We noticed the sparsely forested condition of the surrounding mountains. From the bare landscape, we could tell that re-growing the forests here would be difficult due to limited rainfall. We wonder what changes these mountains and farmers living here will undergo over the ten-year project timeline of the Yellow River Decade project.

Day 13: Sutra Streamers Guarding the Green Yellow River

On Aug. 24 2010, the Yellow River Decade group headed for Guide in Qinghai Province, a place that is famous for the proverb “of the entire Yellow River, Guide has the clearest water.” If we hadn’t been told in advance, we would have never believed that what we saw was the Yellow River: the water was extremely green and clear.

As the Yellow River Decade went on, we also saw people blast mountains for stones to construct roads and dams. We were not sure whether these actions would cause natural disasters, but the landslides and debris flows we saw through the coach windows were signs that warned people to stop before it was too late.

Qi Pu, the senior engineer advocating engineering methods for managing the Yellow River, said that starting from ancient times, the Yellow River, with its large sediment charge, has constantly dried up, changed its course, and flooded.  This brought countless disasters to people living downstream and caused losses of life and property. It is a river of danger. Building reservoirs on the Yellow River effectively reduces the number of floods so that people downstream are able to live and work in peace.

Wang Yongchen, Wang Jian and Zhao Lianshi represented those in favor of obeying laws of nature, stating that as the mother river of Chinese people, the Yellow River has cultivated Chinese civilization for thousands of years. The reservoirs cut this mother river, which used to flow freely, into segments, and due to the heavy sediment loads, many of the reservoirs fail to prevent floods and instead increase the threat of flooding. Apart from that, reservoir constructions might completely destroy the river ecosystem. We hope that this group can develop some better solutions in addition to calling for river protection.

You Lianyuan, with a neutral point of view, believes that the Yellow River has both beneficial and harmful sides. It is not right to let the river run freely and inundate those living in the flooded area; nor is it reasonable to develop hydropower in a disordered way. The right thing to do is to learn the laws of nature and harness the Yellow River in a scientific way.

People could not wait to take advantage of the last rays of sun before sunset and capture this moment with their cameras. The Yellow River flowing underneath the bridge looked like a piece of warm and beautiful jade. Flags with prayers written in Tibetan hung densely from one end of the bridge to the other. There was no way for us to understand what was written on the flags and what the Tibetans wanted to say, but we knew that those flags reflect their respect for the heavens, the earth and nature.

Day 15: Vast and Bountiful Grasslands

On Aug. 26th, our original plan to go to Maduo County then to the Niutou Stele was postponed because of ongoing roadwork. In an effort to protect the environment, the government has proposed a plan to establish a nature reserve, which would be surrounded by barbed wire fence. In the view of some ecologists, the existence of fences also has a negative impact on grassland ecosystems. Surrounded by barbed wire, wildlife becomes segregated into small population pockets and this results in inbreeding.

During our interviews, we also learned that these programs deeply impact the lives of the herdsmen. Because the costs of the fencing are so high, the government has decided that one-third of the project will be financed by the central government, local government will finance one-third, and the herdsmen themselves must pay for the remainder. They have therefore had to begin relying on loans. They have fallen into debt and have had to sell off a large proportion of their livestock. Even where herding has been forbidden and herdsmen have settled in villages, they must deduct from annual subsidies the costs of the fencing plan.

Day 16: In Search of Xingxiu Sea

A group of seventeen volunteers moved on to our next destination of Niutou Stele and Yueguzongliequ, the headwaters of the Yellow River. Niutou Mountain was named the source of the Yellow River for tourists, and the words “The Yellow River Headwater” are carved on the stele in Tibetan and Chinese. This is controversial among academics as there are three main tributaries to the Yellow River and it is hard to say which is the biggest contributor.

Downstream, the river gives birth to two large lakes, Zhaling Lake and Eling Lake. They are called the ‘sister lakes in the Yellow River headwaters.’ According to ecologists, these lakes will eventually disappear. On top of the mountain with Niutou Stele, we could see Eling Lake to the left and Zhaling Lake to the right.

Some experts say that the upper reaches, as well as the lower reaches, of the Yellow River are drying up. Over the past few years, over-grazing, excessive digging for gold, climate change and other factors have caused grassland degradation, brought about a severe rodent problem and made the area vulnerable to soil erosion. The drying up of the Upper Yellow River could destroy the ecological safety of the entire river.

We continued on our way to look for Xingxiu Sea. As we travelled, the colours of Zhaling Lake and Eling Lake kept changing in the shifting lights. Before the Yellow River Decade, we found pictures of the Xingxiu Sea online. These pictures showed a body of water that had lost its original immensity and brightness, leaving only a dry barren desert lake. Local people told us that in months with abundant rainfall, Xingxiu Sea temporarily recovers its original appearance. Regardless of what has caused this destruction, humans cannot escape their responsibilities and obligations to protect the environment.

Day 17: Bowing to the Yellow River’s source

On Aug. 28, 2010, we started off for Yueguzongliequ. Upstream from the mouth of the Yellow River, tracing it to its source, we fell into an endless reverie about what the source of the river breeding is like. Some said melting glaciers formed the source, or that the source was a wetland. We would wait to see what it was really like.

As we drove, we noticed large amounts of chain link fence and rolls of wire. We happened to meet a team, who was in the middle of constructing the fences, so we interviewed the person in charge. He said they were building this fence to help protect the wetland. They also established nature reserves in case of overgrazing. We asked: “Are there many cattle and sheep stampeding the grass in such a place with few people?” He answered that it was better to enclose fences for protecting the wetland. Then we asked “have you ever thought that the fence prevented not only the entry of the cattle and sheep, but also the migration of wild animals?” He said the fence would leave passages for wildlife. We asked again: “did the animal know the location of the channel?” or “how do you notify the animals?” They were unable to answer these questions. No matter how we questioned the purpose of the fence, they always answered “to preserve the wetlands.”

After crossing mountains and rivers, we eventually got to the headwaters of the Yellow River. There was no torrent, marsh or glacier, only a spring flowing from the earth. If it weren’t for the landmark made by a national scientific expedition team, people who hadn’t come here would never imagine that it was the source of Yellow River – the mother river. Compared to last year’s measurement, we found the headstream was two meters shorter. One of the experts said that there would be more water when the rainfall was heavy and less water when rainfall was scarce. The main trend of these years was that rainfall was decreasing. In only one year, it had changed so much.

Standing at the source of the Yellow River, each of us had a different feeling, different emotions. We seventeen people gave three earnest bows to the mother river.

Day 18: Wish we could remove all the chain link fence

We arrived in Xining around 8pm on Aug. 29, 2010, and immediately met with Wu Yuhu, a researcher from Northwest Institute of Plateau Biology. He told us about the changes in the Yellow River:

“We have seen the drying of the lakes, emerging sand dunes, grass deterioration and deforestation, but these changes are part of the natural cycle of climate change. Nature’s regulation works on a scale of thousands of years, and cannot be observed effectively in one or two decades or even one or two hundred years. Humans have no doubt contributed to these changes in climate but nonetheless no one has the evidence to prove that these trends will last forever. As the old saying goes, ‘time brings great change to the world.’ This is to say that the influence of climate change can be extreme. As for the effects on the grasslands and the whole Yellow River source area, annual changes are very obvious after all.

“In terms of the fence, its original intention was good, but I think the results are not as good. I cannot remember who it was that said, ‘I wish I could remove all the fence in the Three Rivers origin areas within one night.’

“Nature has its own cycle of change that is neither good nor bad. The good and bad that we create is skewed by human perception…Most of the time, nature provides what we need but when we need more, our lack of understanding with respect to nature can cause problems. If all the changes in climate such as rising temperatures, melting glaciers, grassland degradation, the river’s increasing evaporative capacity and the shrinking lakes continue, our Yellow River will probable die. However, the change will not last forever because nature is continuously beginning new cycles.”

Compiled by: Becky Tisherman



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