Mar. 23, 2023

Yellow River Decade (19) Conclusion

Reported by: Luo Kanglong, Wang Yongchen

30 August. From Xining we fly to Chongqing, then onto Zhangjiajie before returning to Jishou University.

From our ecological investigation into the state of the Yellow River, conducted 12-30 August 2010, I have observed that the main problems facing the Yellow River can be divided into the following ten categories: dams on the Yellow River, Yellow River embankments, wetlands of the Yellow River, Yellow River nature reserves, the Yellow River and cities, the Yellow River and industry, the Yellow River and agriculture, the Yellow River and herdsmen, the Yellow River and migrants, and the culture of the Yellow River.

Dams on the Yellow River

There are many different type of dams. Some cut the river in the middle, some conform to the river's flow, some alter the river flow, some raise the river and so forth. The project we will be visiting today has aroused heated debate, and has led to the construction of 8,700 dams of various sizes. There still remain eleven dams in their plan to be built in the upper reaches that will cut the river in the middle. Hearing this doesn't surprise us, but it does still worry us.

Upstream dam opens its flood gates

Sanmenxia Dam (Zhao Lianshi)

The course of the river is blocked

Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with building and repairing dams, there remains a lot of space for discussion. The foremost necessity of today's industrial civilisation is electricity, but electricity doesn't only come from the flow of rivers; there are many ways through which nature can deliver electricity to us. Much traditional wisdom exists on how to derive energy from the water, but nowadays we often ignore this wisdom. We ought to be able to reflect upon what we have done, to feel human decency and concern for other people. Only if the people building the dams are able to do this can they ever be said to be truly ethical.

Yellow River Embankments
The ideological pursuit of technology and industrial projects has been the primary driving force behind the policies governing the Yellow River. Although we understand that the ordinary people living in the flood plains of the Yellow River have suffered through many disasters and hardships, we must have further discussion and debate on these issues. The flood plains of the Yellow River aren't our own neighbourhood, so why are we so greedy, so rude as to come and exploit this land without restraint? Then when the river floods as a result, who is it that bears the consequences?  Whether the river wreaks havoc or benefits us, we cannot blame the river itself: this is the work of mankind. Survival for the people in the Yellow River basin can be achieved in harmony with the river, and can bring to the people innumerable rewards. If we disturb the river's natural state, however, disaster will inevitably follow. These preconceived notions of harming the river, espoused by the advocates of the ideology of managing and engineering nature, serve only their own ambitions and ideals. It is merely for their own careers and livelihoods that we make these flood-control dams in the name of technology and progress. This brings to mind a phrase from the 1980s: 'to tile the Great Wall, to build a barrier along the Yellow River.'

Yellow River water being conveyed to arid regions

Water pipes
Irrigation channel

Wetlands of the Yellow River
There are wetlands at the Yellow River Delta, in the middle reaches, and in the arid upstream regions. Throughout these many different types of wetland in various regions, the wildlife is abundant and the indigenous cultures are extraordinary. Wetlands are the earth's kidneys—the planet's water purifier. The wetlands at the Yellow River Delta are expanding, producing new wetlands every year, and has become the base for the Shengli oil field. During our investigation, however, we realised that the wetlands were being developed into an important base for the chemical industry. The wetlands were made a nature reserve, but the size of the protected area was then reduced. The Zhengzhou and Mengjin wetlands not only purify the river water but are also an important habitat for many migratory birds, yet we humans wantonly reclaim these wetlands to build settlements and turn them into farmland for growing maize, rice, cotton and other cash crops.

Masters of the wetlands
An industrial park being constructed on the wetlands
Sunset at the wetlands at the mouth of the Yellow River
On the banks of the Yellow River

Yellow River Nature Reserves

Many nature reserves, both large and small, have been established by the government along the Yellow River. The largest of these is the Three Rivers Nature Reserve, but the Hoh Xil Reserve has aroused the conscience of countless people. On the bus, we feel strongly that although there are good intentions between the establishment of the Three Rivers Nature Reserve, taken as a whole it is not a good thing. If we can understand how the indigenous people of the Three Rivers region survived throughout such a long stretch of history, it's not hard to realise that it is because their relationship with the environment and the river is harmonious and sustainable. Today we establish nature reserves to some extent, but this does not have the effect of protecting the environment. Of course, after establishing nature reserves governments need large investment to maintain them—which they can only get if the land has resources that can be exploited for profit. In this problem, at the end of the last century,

Fencing at the Three Rivers grasslands
Materials for fencing

The Yellow River and Cities

Cities are emblematic of human civilisation. Along the banks of the Yellow River, throughout it's thousands of years of history, it has already given birth to hundreds of large and small cities. In our research, however, the most divisive was the development in the Ordos grassland of Kangbashi, a controversial new city which is being called the 'Dubai of the Orient'. What a city needs most of all is a safe and stable source of water. With water, a city has life.; without water, a city will die—human history has shown this numerous times. It worries people how a modern city could be built in a place with such dire water scarcity issues.

Since the 1980s a number of new  metropolises have arisen—Shenzhen, for example, was transformed overnight from a fishing village to a cosmopolitan urban centre. So how did it achieve this? Ordos, although it lacks water, is rich in natural resources such as coal and natural gas. In this place with no water, they have already begun erecting high towers and mansions.

'Cow Dung' Museum

New government offices in Ordos

The only river in Sun City

The Yellow River and Industry

Industrial development is broadly the same in the industrial cities that lie on the banks of the Yellow River, such as Baotou, Baiyin, Lanzhou, Rulegong and Mahai. During our investigation, we always paid special attention to the effects that these industrial cities had on the state of the Yellow River. In the age of industrialisation, we only see how industry increases our country's GDP, and pay little heed to the adverse effects of this process. In fact, though, the consequences also affect our GDP. How much do we ultimately profit? Some say we are still in the early stages of the industrial age; others say we've already reached the industrial age, or even the information age. This is a time when we must make momentous decisions that will have profound and lasting effects on the future. A mature civilisation should be responsible for all of its own actions, and should be able to deal with the contradictions it creates.


What illness has effected these plants?

Little girl looks over the river

Factory on the banks of the Yellow River

The Yellow River and Agriculture

Along the course of the Yellow River we encountered many instances of agriculture that was experiencing hardship. No matter if they are on the wetlands and nature reserves, or if they are on the loess plateau or the flood plains, agriculture was omnipresent. Although agriculture provides the livelihood of farmers and feeds the cities, urbanisation and industrialisation 

The lives of today's rural families

Dessert grapes


The Yellow River and Herdsmen

The nomadic herdsmen of the Yellow River basin preside mainly in the upper reaches of the river. In the Ordos plateau, these are mainly Mongolian nomads; in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, they are mainly Tibetan nomads. However, those from Linxia to Guide typically combine farming with herding. This pattern of subsistence has become deeply entrenched over the millenia.

The efficient use of natural resources has been essential to ensure their survival and to protect the unique character and spirit of theirs and every other nationality. Since the 1950s, however, a series of campaigns—be they economic campaigns, political campaigns or military campaigns—all caused tremendous changes. The division of the pastures and the enclosure movement in the 1980s both continue to have a deep impact on the grasslands and their inhabitants. Yellow River Decade will be returning to this question over the next ten years, to determine the actual outcome of these policies.

The nomadic lifestyle
Sheep grazing

The Yellow River and Migrants

The case of migrants is an extremely important one. As family homes are turned into reservoirs, power stations and nature reserves, 'reservoir migrants' are displaced and form new settlements. In my encounters with the migrants, although they were relocated to brick house and live on paved streets, still they often hear people say,  'It isn't good here. I want to return home. This is not my home.'

We will play close attention to this problem over the next ten years. With regards to the problem of the migrants, irrespective of which classification of migrants, we all want to see an equal platform for dialogue. A family home is not just bricks and mortar: it is a living, breathing thing, to which we attach so many cherished memories, hopes and feelings. It's devastating to live without such a home.

Displaced by Liujia Gorge hydro-electric plant
Displaced by the Longyang Gorge reservoir (Wang Jianshe)

Culture of the Yellow River

Originally, the Yellow River was a natural, ecological river, but thousands of years of use and exploitation have spoilt this generous mother river. Even the roaring torrents and the ebbing flow have been disrupted. Will a mother who has been treated in this fashion still be kind? We are ashamed at what we humans have done, and we have serious doubts toward the motives of those who advocates the interests of industry and technology. The Yellow River should be a river of culture, as it has been since time immemorial. The Yellow River gave birth to and nurtured Chinese civilisation. It is a river flowing through with culture, and the history of industrial, agricultural and nomadic civilisations. All of these civilisations that grew up on the banks of the Yellow River had their own specific communities and developed their own unique customs. Unfortunately, the pride and prejudice of civilisation have hurt the innocent Yellow River.

The mainstream culture of today's civilisation always finds fault with and overpowers non-mainstream cultures, to the extent that non-mainstream cultures have lost their self-respect and confidence. The Yellow River groans with pain under the weight of human desires, and cries at our willpower and determination, and weeps for our survival.

Surviving river
Yellow River wetlands in Guide County

Human Reasoning

Our only option is to use our reason to understand nature and the ecosystem. If we learn how to look at our problems from an ecological perspective, we can stand taller and see these problems more comprehensively, and achieve longer-term social development.

Of course, in addition to understanding nature and the ecosystem, we also need to understand the relationship between human beings and nature. Overall, our human understanding of the environment needs to be considered in the following five ways: the integrity of the ecosystem, biological diversity, the continuity of human survival and development, and the interconnectedness of culture and nature.
Today, in our age the natural sciences still hold sway. The technological doctrine is supreme, whilst the social sciences and the humanities are in a helpless and difficult situation. We are extremely concerned, but know that these times also have their end.

Once this era has ended, we will need far greater intelligence and critical faculties. We cannot merely echo the views of others nor cling to the past. Nor can we blindly hesitate. We must reason.

Canyons forged by the Yellow River
Natural landscape of the Yellow River

The Yellow River Decade project shall follow the changing course of ecology, human affairs and history. Whether or not we can honestly and accurately record these ten years' of history or we will truly do our best.

Translator: Ryan Kilpatrick

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