Mar. 23, 2023

Yellow River Decade (12) - A Visit to Liujiaxia

Writer: Lina Wang, Yongchen Wang

On August 23, 2010, over 30 experts, journalists and volunteers guided by workers from a local NGO named Green Camel Bell made a trip to Liujiaxia to investigate the pollution from and current conditions of Lanzhou.

As explained by Xu Dingyan from Green Camel Bell, his NGO has made extensive contributions towards preventing water pollution as well as increasing community development, environmental education, post-disaster aid and volunteer development. With a primary focus on preventing water pollution, Green Camel Bell has promoted environmental education in elementary and junior high schools using materials developed by the NGO. Moreover, Green Camel Bell has worked in cooperation with the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs to develop a water pollution source map. The NGO supervises, monitors, and services notice to polluters in Lanzhou while paying special attention to drinking water safety. The Green Camel Bell is a member of a non-governmental joint committee on water protection in China.

Zhao Lianshi, an accompanying expert, explained that Lanzhou is one of the five key chemical industry cities that China plans to develop. As Lanzhou’s geography limits development towards the north and south, the city is currently developing east and west along the Yellow River. Power stations, thermal power plants, and heavy-chemical enterprises are located on both banks of the Yellow River and due to their location on its upper reaches above the city their pollution has seriously degraded Lanzhou’s air and water quality. At the end of the 1980s, the Chinese cities of Lanzhou and Benxi were listed on the U.N. world’s top ten most polluted cities. The United Nations Environment Programme informed China that Benxi had disappeared on satellite images due to intense air pollution while Lanzhou only had a vague outline. At this point water pollution had also turned the Yellow River black.

Xu Dingyan stated that Lanzhou has greatly improved the quality of its local environment after years of diligent management. However, as a key energy industry base in China experiencing continuous growth, Lanzhou also has some enterprises that secretly discharge unprocessed wastewater and gas. Thus, reports of environmental pollution are very common. Lanzhou recently created a special management team in order to investigate and monitor such enterprises. Walking along the Yellow River, we saw plants densely distributed on both banks and thermal power plants under construction in the Xigu District.

Xu Dingyan also told us that although the Yellow River passes directly through Lanzhou, the city still experiences water shortages. Due to its arid climate and geography, Lanzhou has an annual rainfall of only 300 millimeters, and cascade hydropower stations built on the upper reaches limit the amount of water flowing down the Yellow River. 

Before leaving Lanzhou, Xu Dingyan took us to the Chaijiaxia Reservoir. Villages within the watershed draw their drinking water from the reservoir, but the water quality is very poor. Some villagers told us that they suspected that nearby plastic manufacturers and valve factories were discharging wastewater directly into the reservoir. After climbing to a two-stage water pump located on a nearby mountain, we opened the well cover and were greeted by a terrible stench.

Today’s investigation focused on the Liujiaxia Dam located in a plateau valley; this area is called the plateau pearl for its majestic scenery. Together with Binglingxia and Yanguoxia in Yongjing County, the three places are known as the three gorges of the Yellow River. Sitting on the transition zone between the Loess Plateau and Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, water loss and soil erosion is prevalent in this geographically complex region. Furthermore, very little attention was paid to the issues of water and soil erosion during the dam’s construction; this resulted in serious reservoir sedimentation in the 1990s.

In the late 1990s, the government strove to promote landscape restoration policies that would turn farmland into forests and pastures. The objective of these policies was to finally bring water loss and soil erosion under control. In addition, interception ditches were constructed on slopes parallel to contour lines. In the event of a heavy rainstorm, excess rainwater flows are intercepted by these ditches and thus soil erosion is averted. However, without the influx of these rainwater torrents, the Yellow River has lost its uniqueness and looks just like any other dammed and calmed river that has been deprived of its turbulent passion and natural soul. 

Local farmers made tremendous sacrifices for the development of Liujiaxia Dam. In the 1960s, reservoir construction mandated the relocation of a village which 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 several taxi drivers at the gate of the Liujiaxia tourist site. We learned from these conversations that they were all reservoir migrants. Wang Yufa, one of the drivers, lost his farmland because it was within the reservoir inundation zone but he still has not received any compensation. In order to learn more about his story, we decided to include him as an interviewee for our follow-up study to the Yellow River Decade project. 


On the way to Wang Yufa's home, we passed a Danxia landform. Professor You Lianyuan explained to us that Danxia landforms are an ancient geographic feature. In these landforms, iron-rich rocks were oxidized by the high temperatures of the Cretaceous age and thus lend the Danxia landforms their characteristic red hue. Since red was regarded as a sacred color in ancient China, many temples were built on Danxia Mountain. Danxia landforms not only have geographic importance but also carry cultural significance. Indeed, UNESCO has listed Danxia Mountain as a World Natural Heritage site. Danxia landforms are also characterized as having steep cliffs. Although we did not spend too much time there, we were still deeply impressed by this masterpiece of nature as well as its tremendous cultural power.

Wang Yufa took us to the house he lived and grew up in located on Majia Mountain in Shengli Village within Yongjing County, Gansu Province. When his family’s home was flooded by the reservoir, his grandfather, father and uncles moved to the mountain to live. After his father married, he left his old home and built his own house halfway up the mountain. When we arrived there, Wang’s wife Nie Linxia was screening sesames. Wang Yufa, 37 years old, poor, simple, and somewhat slow-witted, was lucky enough to marry a 28-year-old wife who is pretty and hardworking. Nie told us they usually lived further down the mountain and went up here when they needed to do farm work.

We conducted our interview with Wang and his wife in their front yard. Wang told us he had worked in cities for over ten years and then returned to his hometown to start a family. His 9-year-old son stays at a relative’s home in order to attend elementary school. The family’s main source of income comes from driving taxis in tourist areas. On average, Wang makes 2,000 yuan every month. However, he bought his taxi with a loan of 70,000 yuan and some money borrowed from relatives. He hopes to pay off the money as quickly as possible so he will be able to fund his son’s future college education.

The family owns an 8 or 9 mu plot of farmland that grows enough food to sustain the family. In addition, Wang raises cattle and has over 20 chickens. Last spring he even earned 800 yuan by selling a pig. When Wang heard that chili sold at a good price, he decided to plant over one hundred chili plants. However, he worries about his current vulnerability to future price drops as it takes three years for chili plants to mature.

We asked Wang and Nie questions on how their life was influenced by the reservoir. Wang said that building a reservoir was a national decision on which common people had no say; the reservoir made it easier for them to irrigate crops, but when floods occurred crops would be lost.
We then asked why then they had not received any compensation. He explained that when their old house was submerged, it was registered under his uncle's name, and compensation was distributed to the person registered. We asked him if he ever tried to get the compensation back, he replied that he didn’t know whom to turn to and in any case didn’t think that it would work. These complaints seemed to be a common refrain that we had frequently encountered during the course of our investigations. In fact, these were the most often cited complaints by local farmers. Should poor farmers always remain so vulnerable to development projects?

Outside Wang’s yard we saw a well that also served as a cistern. Houses here are built with a sloping roof so rainwater flows down the roof and into the cistern through ditches in the ground. The well for water storage can be seen as a cultural symbol shaped by the surrounding natural environment. Most of the cisterns in the area are funded by the Mother Cellar Project with the aims of alleviating poverty in western China.  

After leaving the Wang’s home, we drove to a brick house further down the mountain where Wang’s mother was waiting with cooked corn and potatoes. Just like other people we interviewed, she keeps the yard and the house clean and tidy. There is a long couch under the roof with a table in front of it. We had a pleasantly relaxing time resting on the couch and taking in the view of the Yellow River and the Loess Plateau.
On our way to the house, Wang talked of how unfairly he had been treated: like people living in neighboring villages he should have received the treatment for farmers affected by the farmland restoration policy but he received nothing and didn’t even dare to ask for the compensation he deserved. He said his dream was to finally pay off the loan for his taxi, but he refused to take our money for gas and food. He kept saying, “The corn and potatoes were planted by me, I won't take any money for them.”

When the Yellow River Decade project ends, will Chinese farmers continue to suffer and be forced to endure such troubled and uncertain situations?

After interviewing Wang Yufa, we went back to our buses and shared the information our three teams had collected. Each team reported on the information that they had collected. We heard from every group that migration, landscape restoration, and social security compensation funds were oftentimes stolen by government officials. Indeed, just a few hundred yuan for each household adds up to a sizeable sum if it is stolen and shared by only a few officials. While farmers work desperately to survive, these officials can afford to live in fabulous houses and own several luxury cars. One of our drivers said that in the past, farmers could earn some money by catching fish and shrimp in the reservoir, but this practice was prohibited after use of the reservoir was contracted out to non-locals. This situation even resulted in a violent attack last year. In addition, farmers who work as taxi drivers in tourist areas have to pay high monthly fees to the managing department.
Such unfair treatment of migrants is very common. Some officials dare to abuse their power because they know that public oversight is very limited and information is not accessible. In big cities, people are highly aware of issues through information openness and public oversight. However, the vast rural areas in China have a long way to go in the process of building such a highly developed civil society.


Today, after leaving Liujiaxia, we drove through the surrounding mountains where power station development has resulted in a clear but unnaturally calm stretch of the Yellow River. Only in places far removed from reservoirs did we see the wilder, more natural side of the Yellow River. We have provided two pictures above to show the contradiction in nature between the dammed and uncontrolled stretches of the Yellow River.

As we were taking pictures of the calmed stretches of the river, we also happened to notice the sparsely forested condition of the surrounding mountains. From the bare mountain landscape, we could tell that re-growing the forests here would be difficult due to limited rainfall. Clearly, these few trees here had been planted manually. Qi Gong, from the Yellow River Water Conservancy Committee, who had been debating with us over the significance of hydropower, explained that all these projects are contract-based and that once a hydropower plant is built the local forestation department receives tree-planting funds.

We didn’t expect to see mountains like this. We wonder what changes these mountains and farmers living here will undergo over the ten-year project timeline of the Yellow River Decade project. We are willing and ready to not just record the past history of these rivers but also document their future development.

Tomorrow, we will drive to Longyangxia. According to the map, we will enter the Qinghai-Tibet area and are definitely looking forward to experiencing its scenic beauty.


Translator: Yan Feng, BAO Lan
Proofreaders: Brendan Ebner


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