Mar. 23, 2023

Yellow River Decade (4) The Case of the Xiaolangdi Water Control Project

Reported by: Wang Yongchen August 19, 2010

On August 15, Green Earth Volunteers’ investigative team set off from Mengjin County for the Xiaolangdi Dam.

The Xiaolangdi Dam is situated on the main stream of the Yellow River, 40 kilometers north of the city of Luoyang in Henan Province. Lying 130 kilometers downstream from the Sanmenxia Reservoir and 115 kilometers upstream from the town of Huayuankou in Zhengzhou Prefecture, Xiaolangdi is the only hydraulic-engineering project with a large storage capacity downstream from Sanmenxia on the main stream of the Yellow River.

Standing on the dam

A horizontal view of the dam

Constructed between 1997 and 2001 under the Eighth Five-Year Plan, the Xiaolangdi Water Control Project is a key engineering project for the control and development of the Yellow River.

  Even before the Green Earth team arrived at the dam site, the project had already become the focus of the team’s discussion as it traveled toward Xiaolangdi through Huayuankou, Taohuayu and the Yellow River wetlands in Mengjin County.

Original wetlands

Model of the dam

According to Qi Pugao from the Yellow River Hydraulic Research Institute, the initial results following the completion of the Xiaolangdi project suggest that floods are essentially under control and riverbeds downstream have been successfully lowered. Mr. Qi also believes that Xiaolangdi still has yet to achieve its full potential and that if the Yellow River regulation policies can be adjusted to make use of the silt discharge at flood peaks, the prospects for the administration of the Yellow River will be promising.

Mr. Lu Jingzhuo, a villager interviewed by the Green Earth team in the riverside town of Huimeng, Mengjing County, agrees that the floods have become less frequent since the completion of the dam.

According to employees of Mengjing County’s Yellow River Wetlands Nature Preserve, since the completion of the dam the annual regulation of water and sand has replenished the water resources of the wetlands thereby helping to maintain the ecological balance of the area.
As previously discussed by the investigative team, nature has its own laws and humanity must abide by them. This is a consensus reached by Cui Sheng from the Henan-based environmental group, “Friends of Nature,” Wang Yongchen from “Green Earth Volunteers,” Zhang Lianshi from the Association for Scientific Exploration and Wang Jian, an aquatic ecologist. 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 due to human interference, an exasperation of the migration problem, and a loss of biodiversity.

So what are the facts? With doubt and uncertainty, the Green Earth team went to investigate the Xiaolangdi Water Control Project.


Sediment sluicing in the distance

 Introducing Xiaolangdi

In order for the investigative team to gain a better understanding of Xiaolangdi, You Lianyuan, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geography, explained the principles of its water and sediment regulation.

The Xiaolangdi Dam is positioned between mountains upriver and plains downriver. This stretch of the Yellow River is divided in half by the dam, thus forming the reservoir upstream. Without the dam, the river would carry sand and mud directly toward the downstream plains, increasing the threat of floods and choking the riverbed with silt. But with the successful completion of the Xiaolangdi project, these issues can now be artificially regulated. When rainfall downstream is intensive, the flood gate can be closed to prevent upriver waters from inundating downstream areas. Likewise, when the downstream channel is heavy with sediment, the floodgate can be opened to flush the channel. When sediment build-up is minimal, releasing a smaller volume of water is sufficient.

Flood control and sediment reduction are two of the most important functions of the Xiaolangdi dam and reservoir. At the same time, the project is also functional in electricity generation and irrigation.

Like natural lakes, reservoirs are faced with the inevitable problem of sediment deposition, which is indeed a challenge for all reservoir/dam projects including Xiaolangdi and the Three Gorges.  

Sediment sluicing

Water and sediment sluicing 

The sluice of water and sediment usually falls in July every year. Although the Green Earth team arrived in August and had missed the annual opening of the floodgate, they were fortunate enough to catch the impressive sight the Yellow River surging out through the sediment tunnels. According to Qi Pu, the release seen by the team was likely initiated in response to a recent rainstorm in the Wei River basin up the Yellow River, which resulted in flooding and the stirring up of large amounts of mud.  Due to the relative calmness of the reservoir water, the silt and sediment carried downstream settle to the bottom of the reservoir. Thus, the currents gushing from upper sediment tunnels of the dam are white and misty, while those spouting from the lower tunnels are yellow. 

Sediment Sluicing

The sight of the Yellow River spewing forth from the dam elicited different thoughts and fillings amongst the members of the team. Some were excited by its magnificence; some were distressed because the Yellow River seemed like a restrained beast; others were impressed by the strength of the collision between man and nature. As Wang Yongchen described, upon seeing the water shooting forth from the dam, she did not understand why the first image that entered her mind was that of Premier Wen Jiabao squatting over a piece of drought-cracked land on a trip to Southwest China this past spring.

Taking photos 

Taking photos

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 not in the relocated village, but on a mountain nearby because there was no source of income in the original relocation site. In the nearby area where she and her family live, the woman can make a living by collecting bottles at the dam’s tourist sites, while her husband can also earn money by providing pedi-cab services to tourists. Each month, the government issues her a subsidy of 50 RMB for water and electricity bills and, as an elderly person, she also receives 70 RMB of insurance benefits per month. 

A local migrant

A Xiaolangdi resident

The Decade River Project, initiated by Green Earth Volunteers in 2006, is a ten-year-long investigation into six great rivers in Southwest China, including the Min, Dadu, Yalong, Jinsha, Lancang and Nu rivers. From the outset, Green Earth has planned to focus on and follow up with ten families living in each of these areas. Likewise, in the Decade Yellow River Project, Green Earth Volunteers will spend ten years interviewing ten households. At the scenic area of Xiaolangdi, the team encountered a water vendor named Yang Pinghua. After a brief chat with Ms. Yang, it was decided that her family would serve as one of the cases for the Decade Yellow River Project.

Heading home with Ms. Yang 

Conducting interviews in the migrant village

Ms. Yang lives in Liaowu Village, Pitou Town. Miao Dezhong, a 60-year-old party chief of the Village and Ms. Yang’s relative by marriage, told us about their living conditions since construction of the Xiaolangdi Project began.
The village is home to a total of about 1200 people, divided into 108 households. More than two million hectares of land, 1.4 million heactares of which were arable, were expropriated for dam construction. Some of the villagers have moved to the town of Jiyuan in search of alternative livelihoods and the second round of migration is currently under way.

According to Miao, the Xiaolangdi Project was an urgent case and villagers were relocated to temporary accommodation on the hillside because the final site had not yet been settled upon. Asked about the reason, Mr. Miao said it was because they had not yet received approval from higher authorities and relocation would start as soon as official approval arrived. The investigative team wondered why local peasants were supposed to bear the brunt of this government inaction. 

Experts talked with migrants

Conducting an interview with a local woman

Miao said 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 were full of potential danger, and indeed new houses started to crack and cave-in. In 1994, the local government purchased 333,350 hectares of arable land about 40 kilometers away from the original village. Because of the inconvenient distance, some of the villagers contracted out their land, but these rents were not enough to make ends meet. The village chief repeatedly reported the problem to higher authorities and the government finally agreed to build houses for villagers in Jiyuan Town, where the purchased farmland was located.

A considerable number of young villagers who went to work in factories initially received compensation for transfering from agriculture to non-agricultural industries. Many of these factories have gone bankrupt or undegone institutional transformation in recent years and as a result these young people have returned to the villages, now without rural hukou status. Having opted to be legally recognized as urban residents during their time in the factories, these young villagers and their children no longer have access to preferential treatment for migrants.  

An episode of Yang’s daily life

Investigation in Ms. Yang’s home.

Ms. Yang told us that she could earn around 200 yuan per day by selling mineral water during the peak tourist season and 30 to 50 yuan per day during the off-season. Asked about her livelihood after moving to Jiyuan, she remained reticent. For a woman of almost 60 years, leaving the scenic area will make it difficult for her to make a living. If she needs money, she will have to turn to her child for help. 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.

Nevertheless, the team from Green Earth Volunteers did not hear much complaint from Ms. Yang, who seemed resigned to reality. By selling mineral water for a day, she and her husband can earn enough money for a day’s living and tomorrow can be dealt with when it arrives.

Rather than resigning himself to his situation like Ms. Yang, Mr. Miao developed an entrepreneurial plan, endeavoring to repair the shoddily made houses to which the villagers were originally relocated and use the surrounding land as a fruit orchard. When his financial situation has improved he plans to repair his house to prepare for retirement because the air quaility in the area is excellent. But it is unclear when Mr. Miao’s finances will be in a state for him to fulful this aspiration. 
The Cave-house: Ms. Yang’s former home

The Cave-house: Ms. Yang’s former home 

The house in the hill concealed by trees

A fish from the Yellow River

Upon returning to the bus, the investigative team went on dicussing the Xiaolangdi project.

Wang Jian believes in using water in moderation. He believes that it is acceptable to use 40% of the water in a river, and that going beyond this limit can cause problems. Upriver from Xiaolangdi there are over three thousand reservoirs, large and small. In order to satisfy their range of needs various communities along the Yellow River take water from it without considering the issue of water distribution over different regions and seasons. As a result, during the 1990s the downstream portion of the Yellow River experienced severe drying-up problems, failing to flow to the Yellow Sea. When the river dries up, the exposed sand on the riverbed can be blown by the wind into dunes, which increases the danger of flooding when there are heavy rains. Mr. Wang added that while water-control projects like Xiaolangdi are well intentioned, if there are too many, they may actually undermine water-control.

According to Qi Pu, the four benefits of Xiaolangdi include flood control, deposition reduction, irrigation and power generation. In the ten years since the construction of Xiaolangdi, the benefit of power generation has been outstanding. Downstream deposition also been dramatically reduced, with 1.8 billion tons of silt washed away, and the water level lowered 1.8 meters and 1 meter in Henan and Shandong Provinces, respectively. Xiaolangdi has also performed well in flood control. Since its construction, there have not been any serious floods. Mr. Qi has his own theory of harnessing the Yellow River. Sand may be reduced in the middle stream by floods, leaving clean water to flow downstream. A river channel of stable width and depth could thus be gradually formed, which would strengthen the watercourse’s flood-discharge and sediment-flush capacities, reducing deposition in the channel and increasing bank discharge. In turn, this would reduce the possibility of flooding over the riverbank.

According to You Lianyuan, the Yellow River’s average volume is 58 billion cubic meters, ranging from 20-30 billion to 60-70 billion depending upon the year. Distribution over the course of a year is also highly variable, increasing during the summer and decreasing during the winter. In light of this variation, one purpose of building reservoirs is to balance water distribution to increase use efficiency. The Yellow River is not a rich river in and of itself, and 30 billion cubic meters of the total 58 billion have been used. Since the upstream districts of the Yellow River are very dry, it is a main source of water for this area. In the time when development was minimal, the Yellow River could deal with this burden. As the economy grows, however, the increasing demand of water in upstream, middle, and downstream districts is resulting in water-use conflict. People living along the water have the legal right to use it, but since water is a finite resource the whole river system could break down if everyone withdraws water without considering the larger context. In view of this, Committee member Huang submitted a report to the State Council, proposing to bring water use of the Yellow River under unified management. The realization of this proposal will be a difficult task.

Wang Yongchen mentioned that unified water resources management has been successful in other countries. One example is the Rhine River, running through Germany, Italy, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, France, and the Netherlands. Led by the country at the lowest stream of the river, each of the countries through which the river runs formed a union to supervise water distribution, water monitoring and water utilization in the form of law.

According to You Lianyuan, 20 billion cubic meters of water is necessary in order to ensure the transport of sediment in Yellow River to the sea every year. With 30 billion already used and 20 billion reserved to deliver sediment, the Yellow River is nearly used up, and this is not to mention the years when the volume of the river is minimal. As a result of this, the downstream areas of the Yellow River frequently dried up during the 1990s. This became rare after management projects like Xiaolangdi were introduced. If Qi Pu’s theory is correct, the water to be used for transporting sediment could be reduced by one third, which would benefit the whole river.

Discussions are beginning between environmentalists and people advocating the harnessing of the river through technological projects like Xiaolangdi.. Though people still have questions about Xiaolangdi, widespread discussion and argument have extended the issue to more levels.

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 allowing the river to support non-human life. It must be a river of culture and ecological diversity for our future generations.  Should this aim be achieved the implications of the “Ten Years along the Yellow River” program will be great.

Distant view

View from nearby

Translator: Li Hongyi; Tong Jun; Li Xiaohan
Proofreader:  Britt Crow-Miller

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