Oct. 04, 2022
Yellow River Decade (11) From watermelons miraculously grown on sandy earth to green onion

AuthorWang Lina

Cameraman: Wang Yongchen


At 6 a.m. on October 22, 2010, the twelve of us, having stayed overnight in Shapotou Agritainment Farm during our Yellow River Decade Tour, came to the river bank at Shapotou once again to take pictures of the sunrise. 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.


With the pictures taken, we returned to Shapotou Agritainment Farm and made for the grape garden owned by Zhang Xike. Having failed to photograph them yesterday evening because of the darkness, we were left wondering how the sweet grapes we ate were grown on sandy soil.


At nine in the morning, the team – composed of over 30 experts, journalists and volunteers – left the fresh air of Shapotou for the first pumping station that channels water from the Yellow River in Jingtai, Gansu Province. There, we gained a better understanding of how much the fertility of Ningxia Province depends on water from the Yellow River. While visiting the pumping station, we came across group of sculptures which wordlessly explained the innovation behind lifting water from the Yellow River for irrigation.

The pictures above show how water “flows” to farmland and to households after being pumped and piped. Piping water for irrigation continues to be an integral part of life in Ningxia, along with increasing importance on proper management of the river basin.

Located in the transitional area between Loess Plateau and Tengger Desert, the development of Jingtai County has always been limited due to droughts. In an effort to solve this problem, the first and second phases of the High-Lift Irrigation Project of Jingdian were completed in 1974 and 1994, respectively. The project was praised as the best of its kind in China. Now over twenty thousand hectares of land are irrigated by water from the Yellow River in Jingtai, which some boast is the electric power irrigation system with the largest irrigation area in China.

On the hillside near the site of the High-Lift Irrigation Project stands the Yansi Grottoes, built by an eminent monk from Dunhuang in the Northern Wei Dynasty during a short stay there as he roamed the world. Considering the first grotto had been constructed in the east section of Hexi Corridor on the ancient Silk Road, the Yansi Grottoes are of great significance in the research of the integration of Yellow River culture and national culture. However, after the High Lift Irrigation Project was built, it began to suffer from water seepage, peeling wall paintings, and erosion of the Buddha statues due to moist air.

In the temple pictured above there is a pair of couplets written by a certain Mr. Wang, a local old master. According to a hydrologist among us, Wang Jian, the couplets reveal the association between ancient ecology and the philosophy behind sustainable development.

Dug in the time of the Northern Wei Dynasty, the grottoes, though preserved through numerous changes of dynasties as well as natural disasters over the past several thousand years, have in the last several decades suffered immense damage through the irrigation project. At the sight of the damaged grottoes, I could not help but wonder how many other cultural relics beside the Yellow River were endangered.

The northwestern arid and semi-arid regions rely upon the Yellow River for two reasons. Firstly, the low rainfall urges people to depend on the river rather than the mercy of the weather as their water resource. Secondly, ground water resources here, though relatively large in reserves, cannot be extracted because it would decline the water table and further aggravate the regions’ desertification.

Although Shapotou was located on the edge of the Tengger Desert, we found several oases occasionally passing our view from the car window. They were possibly formed from the nearby Yellow River and are likely being used by people in the area to channel water for irrigation. It appeared that crops and fruits flourished in these oases. However, given the large consumption of water for their production,  should this way of cultivating land be encouraged?

On our way, we also came across an example of cultivation on dry, sandy earth, a method which seemed to be more ecological and suitable for the environmental conditions found in deserts in comparison to the high water-consuming cultivation found at the oases. During our drive towards the site of the Jingtai Yellow River Irrigation Project, we occasionally saw large tracts of farmland planted with watermelons spread out over barren, desolate dunes. An expert among us who had previously interviewed a local melon grower explained the method: instead of relying on water from the Yellow River for irrigation, the fields here were being cultivated in a way intended for naturally sandy soil, utilizing the local climatic conditions of a wide temperature range, low rainfall, and great evaporation. The specific method is to spread broken stones over the sandy earth for heat absorption during the day, when land is hot, and for heat transfer to the soil during the night, when land is cold. Meanwhile, the stones can reduce evaporation as well as increase the amount of rain captured for utility. Using this method, some melon growers here can make an annual income of several hundred thousand RMB.

Dr. Shao Kan of Jishou University in Hunan, who specializes in the history of agricultural disasters, observed that the approach had already been employed by people in ancient times. However, the modern way of treating the environment which advocates science, technology and ‘innovation’ appears to have led us astray from truly sustainable methods. Had we kept more ecological wisdom of the ancients, perhaps we would have found a route of harmony with nature.

In our opinion, in order for everyone living in the Yellow River basin to benefit from and contribute to its protection, it is imperative that not only decision-makers reconsider appropriate measures to be taken, but it is also imperative to establishm a mechanism of dialogue to successfully bridge the farmers in the upper and lower reaches. This way, everyone’s interests are considered. Of course, it will be a long and slow process, but that is the very reason that we are determined to explore the Yellow River from estuary to source – so that more information about our Mother River becomes known to the public. 


Outside the car window, sand dunes stretch out as far as the eye could see. It suddenly dawned on us that widespread poverty in the western part of China had always been ascribed to the adverse natural environment, serving as an excuse for mining and building factories in an unbridled way there. In actuality, if we let go of conceit and learn from nature, we are likely, by imitating nature, to find an ecological way of obtaining resources. 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?

It was only four o’clock in the afternoon when the coach we took reached Baiyin City, but it appeared to be dusk, or perhaps a cloudy day. As several stacks towering high up in the sky emitted black or white smoke, the whole city had become shrouded in a stifling and gloomy atmosphere.


Located in the central part of GansuProvince, Baiyin is abundant in heavy metal reserves such as copper, lead and zinc. After the foundation of new China in 1949, a batch of state-owned enterprises mainly engaged in smelting and heavy chemical industry were established, transforming this place from a small city with refreshing air, as well as groves and meadows scattered over the Gobi Desert, to a medium-sized city specializing in industrialization.

Since the 1990s, with aging factory plants and equipment, decreased accumulation, reduced economic efficiency and insufficient funds for environmental protection, the state-owned enterprises have long since been unable to reach the “three wastes” emission standards, causing great damage to local water, air and soil. The “three wastes” mainly refers to sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid fumes and heavy metal industrial sewage. The principal polluters are Baiyin Nonferrous Metal Company, Yinshui Corporation and Gansu Rare Earth New Material Co., Ltd. After nearly twenty years of pollution control and prevention implemented by the state as well as the local government and environmental protection agencies, only initially was success achieved. Today’s interview in Haojia Village, Wangxian township, Baiyin was still a major disappointment.


Spotting two farmers weeding in the fields beside the road, we came up to them and struck up a conversation. Initially we requested to go to their home for an interview, but they refused. After we offered to help with their work, the farmers began chatting with us. One complaint they had was 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 heavily economic loss as the green onion cash-crop grown in the village were polluted by exhaust gas. The gas discharged by surrounding smelteries had even turned the blades of the green onions’ yellow. With conversation flowing freely, we asked for interviews once again. One of them—Hao Dongsheng, a 55-year-old man—agreed gladly.


As we stepped into the yard of his home, we found it very neat and clean. Beside the garden sat his wife, who was suffering from the protrusion of a lumbar vertebral disc. He told us that he and his wife had two children: their daughter had gotten married and left home while their son was put in prison. Now the main source of income for the family was to sell vegetables. He grew one-third hectare of green onions, which would have brought in over 1,000 RMB. Unfortunately, since they were all polluted by exhaust fumes, they had to be sold at a very low price last month, resulting in a great loss. At present, with only about a sixth-acre of celery and rape available for use, the possible income for this year is estimated to be only several thousand yuan. When asked whether they had claimed compensation, they said someone had been sent to negotiate with the concerning factories on behalf of the villagers and they were given a verbal promise of a 300,000 yuan compensation payment for the losses they had sustained. So far, however, Hao has received nothing and does not dare take the lead in making a demand.


To our great disappointment, we later learned that this was only part of a much bigger problem. 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. Although it is not certain yet whether they are associated with water pollution, in recent years there have been cases of cancer occurring now and then in the village. Some fellow 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.


During our interview, the couple repeatedly stressed that they were uneducated, illiterate and ill-informed. Although we kept reminding them to fight for compensation, we understood that this was too much for them to handle. They were too shy to speak in front of a camera, much less to make demands of others. It is not that they do not cherish their life – for who does not cherish it? – rather that they are much too tolerant. Even when their health is seriously endangered, they have no idea how to defend their legitimate rights.


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


With such an environmental reporting system, disadvantaged and misinformed communities are helpless in harm’s way. It has been a great challenge for those of us participating in the Yellow River Decade Project to cover all of the ecological tragedies found along the this river, especially those man-made environmental tragedies confronting disadvantaged communities.

Tonight we are staying in Lanzhou, and tomorrow we are to be guided by a local environmental NGO, Green Camel Bell, around part of the Yellow River in Lanzhou. Considering this city was once invisible in satellite pictures because of its serious pollution problem, I wonder what Lanzhou is like now.


Translator: Zhang Xin

Proofreader: Cristina Airado