Dec. 02, 2023
Yellow River Decade (10) Transition of the Yellow River

 Wang Lina Wang Yongchen

On August 21, 2010, after learning about the irrigation canals and industrial pollution in Yinchuan, experts, journalists and volunteers involved in the "Yellow River Decade" travelled through Qingtongxia and Zhongwei, finally arriving at Shapotou, a successful model of sand dune stabilization.

At nine in the morning, our team left the urban district of Yinchuan, heading toward the suburbs and finally arriving in  Tanglaiqu. Standing along the channel, seeing the willows dance in the breeze, Wang Jianzhan, a water expert, spontaneously sang a song called Story of Liubao. Judging from the width and velocity of flow, Tanglaiqu might be a Grade II channel. You Lianyuan who worked at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, told us that the irrigation channel in Ningxia was made up of five grades of canal. The highest one is the main canal, the lowest one is the capillary and the others are the  branch canal, half canal and field canal. These five channels criss-cross a dense irrigation network system, watering the farmlands of Ningxia plain.

The annual mean water discharge is 58 billion cubic meters, of which 20 billion cubic meters is used for agricultural irrigation of the upstream areas. Neither the government nor the farmers consider the overall situation, in particular whether there is enough water for the whole drainage areas. Although the water discharge is large in the upper stream, little water flows from the upper and middle reaches to the lower reaches. The can be attributed to a lack of awareness of the necessity of saving water on the part of both the people and the government. There was one year when the water stopped flowing for over 200 days. Although China has taken control of provincial water consumption along the Yellow River, and forced the upstream areas to institute water-saving irrigation techniques  - which improved the situation slightly - flood irrigation is still commonly used for farmland irrigation. This is due to high management costs and the need to raise overall management levels.

Standing on the side of Tanglaiqu, we could see the floodgate crossing the river. The floodgate is opened to discharge water when irrigation is needed, otherwise it is closed to save water. Regardless of whether a flood or a drought occurs, the floodgate plays an essential role. The state of the trees, reeds and grass in front of us demonstrated the health of the river. Plants growing on the slope that has not been stabilized by cement protect the slope and filter out contaminants. Ever since Dayu tamed a flood, our ancestors have gained many important experiences,, but it seems that we have forgotten these lessons.

Walking along the channel, we found a ditch diverting water from Tanglaiqu. The ditch ran under the road to an agricultural field. However, the field did not need irrigation since a tall building under construction would soon replace it. This is just one example of the urbanization that is taking place all over the country. Urban sprawl makes the original size of irrigation canals untenable. The blocked capillaries may be one of the reasons causing drought and floods.

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 water wastage, 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. We moved along until we arrived at the gate of Qiyuan Pharmaceutical Company. Near the enclosure, a sewage ditch emerged from the factory. The smell induced heavy coughing among the group.

A notice was posted on the gate for purchasing corn. Wang Jian told us that starch was used for pharmaceutical purposes and that corn was the raw material used in production. The production of starch emits a high concentration of organic matter in water, which would cause pollution if not properly treated.

We stopped a couple on a motorcycle. The 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, from where the local people obtained their supply of drinking water. She also noted that the situation was even more severe in Yongning County, where many more chemical factories are found.

In an area densely populated with pharmaceutical factories, even if the sewage water discharged by all the factories could meet the state's discharge standards, it does not imply that the environment could handle all of the sewage water. A regional environmental impact assessment was therefore necessary, but under the existing assessment system, we could not expect too much it, said Wang Jian. That is also why Green Earth always advocates information disclosure and public participation.

Most of the sewage water is discharged through the ditch networks to the Yellow River. Zhao Lianshi from the Association for Scientific Expedition said that among the cities the Yellow River flowed through, such as Erdos, Wuhai and Yinchuan, the Yellow River has slowly transformed its role from promoting agricultural irrigation to supporting industrial production. People take water from the Yellow River for irrigation, and at the same time discharge sewage water back into the river. Consequently, the sewage water irrigates the farmlands. As time is limited, we cannot do a detailed survey but we will keep an eye on this issue.

We also discussed the abundance brought by the Yellow River during our journey today. The Yellow River brings not only beautiful farmlands but also lush green corps to the people living around it.

Decorated by wide green lawns, a large stretch of woods and a broad stretch of water, the city of Zhongwei was also beautiful. But when we recalled that the city was in an arid area, we had to question the beauty of the city. Both irrigation of the grass and woods, and establishment of water features, requires large quantities of water. Will this be too much in an area that has difficulty providing sufficient water for drinking and agricultural irrigation? We have to remember that green does not mean ecologically friendly.

By the afternoon, we reached the Qingtongxia Hydropower Station located at the exit of Ningxia Qingtongxia Valley.

Established in 1978, it is a large-scale project; it has multiple functions including power generation and flood prevention in addition to providing irrigation and water supply. Here we saw the eastern main ditch of Qingtongxia reservoir, from where the Yellow River flows. Watching the plentiful water flow from the main arm of the Yellow River, we thought about how generously mother nature has provided for us. But what have we, her children, done to repay her?

While having lunch in Zhongwei, an old woman peered in at the restaurant. The waiter saw her, took her bowl, asked her to wait outside, and soon got her a bowl of rice. After a while, we learned that she had two children. Her daughter had died of an illness and her son refused to support her for reasons unknown. For over ten years, she lived upon the aid of these restaurants on the street. When we talked to her, she always grinned at us. We were touched by her infectious smile.  She could have applied for subsistence allowance from the government, but for some reason she did not. However, people on the street never avoided her, but instead helped her out. Nowadays, it is hard to imagine the old woman surviving so many years solely on the generosity of others.

After lunch around four or five o'clock, we arrived at Shapotou. It was desert all along the journey, and we cheered up when an oasis suddenly appeared. The Yellow River almost flowed around here, nurturing the oasis. Shapotou is located at the east-southern edge of the Tengeli Desert. In order to prevent the desert from expanding and to protect Baolan Railway, the government started to work on desertification control at Shapotou in the 1950s. By building a straw checkerboard barrier, they were successful in stabilizing the sand dunes, for which Shapotou became well known all over the world. It was also the first nature reserve to maintain a desert landscape and successfully implement a desertification prevention program in China.

At the cross road, a middle-aged man transporting tourists took us to a spot where we did not have to buy a ticket but  could still photograph the big bend in the river. We took a picture of the Yellow River with the big dune beside it. The man had a placard saying that he was a tour guide for a bed & breakfast. After chatting with him for a while, we decided to choose him as our fifth interviewee among the ten interviewees Yellow River Decade would keep in touch with. His name is Zhang Xike and he is 47 years old. Since childhood, he lived in Mingzhong, a village outside of Zhongwei. People call him "Zhang Stone" for he could "talk" with stones. There were three other people in his house: his wife, his son and his daughter. His son drives off-road vehicles at this scenic spot while his daughter attends high school.
In earlier years, Zhang Xike made his living off the land, like other farmers here. Cultivated land was rare since it was a desert region. Later someone tried to divert water to the desert areas, and found they could grow anything they wished. Tourism then began to develop in Shapotou, the village moved, and Zhang Xike and his wife built up a bed & breakfast from nothing. Afterwards, construction of Shapotou water conservancy was initiated and the village moved again. He received 1 mu of reconstructed sand land. Only 1000 pieces of land were provided. One could earn ten thousand Yuan on a 1 mu plot. Instead of complaining, they worked hard to build a larger house and then continued to run their Bed & Breakfast. Now they earn about forty to fifty thousand Yuan per year running the Farmer's House. This year, he aims to earn one hundred thousand Yuan.

Zhang Xike told us that since Shapotou developed, the life of villagers who farmed the land for generations has become varied. But people who have the ability and intelligence to run a Bed & Breakfast, as he does, are few and far between. Some villagers continue to farm and plant fruit trees; other villagers farm while running a Bed & Breakfast or work at a hotel. Still others have given up farming and now make a living by rowing a rubber boat or leading camels.

We asked Zhang for his opinion on the planned construction of the Daliushu Water Conservancy Project. He said they have been looking forward to it for generations, as it will not only be a chance to earn money, but will also, once completed, improve water access.
We also asked him whether he had noticed any climate change. He said sand storms are becoming more intense and it was windy for an entire spring, which is abnormal. He also found that it rained less, the temperature was increasing, and the ground had become unbalanced. When asked whether the change had anything to do with the excavation of the desert, he said he did not believe so.
We asked him what troubled him most now. He listed his troubles: the government was not publicizing the bed & breakfast; the villagers did not know how to use the Internet to promote themselves; and travel companies were not willing to cooperate with them, mostly taking tourists to larger hotels in the area. However, they have not given up. He told us he had a meeting with other bed & breakfast managers almost every day, and in those meetings they emphasized that every villager should do their bit to maintain Shapotou’s reputation and one should never do anything bad to the tourists. Because of the development of Shapotou’s tourism industry, the 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.

After interviewing Zhang Xike, we had a short talk with his daughter. She will soon be a senior in high school and told us how life now was much better than before, but she still wants to leave the mountain to pursue an even better life. She also told us her grandmother lived on the mountain where the house her ancestors had left behind was located. Her grandmother could not get used to life at the foot of the mountain, so she mostly stayed in the house and watched the fruit trees bear fruit.

Three generations, three dreams. This ambitious young lady may some day understand that her old grandmother stayed in the house not only because she could not adapt to life down the mountain, but also because she wanted to guard the spiritual home for her ancestors and her offspring.

The townspeople usually work hard at their jobs, but whenever they have some free time, they will come out to enjoy nature. In fact, the yearning for a spiritual home is precisely what follows gaining material wealth in life. Nature is the spiritual home of human beings. I hope we can find our way back when we want to return to nature.

In the twilight, the sun, the Yellow River, the oasis and the desert together look 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..
After dinner, we decided to stay overnight at Zhang's home, planning to go to Shapotou the following morning to watch the sunrise. We may have come from different places, but when we chatted at midnight under the pergola, we had a great time. People who have stayed in the city for a long time tend to enjoy the slow pace here; where else can they get this feeling except in nature? Can city residents still find their spiritual home? Most people on the Yellow River Decade team chose to go back to their hotels in the town, because the bed & breakfast still seems strange and unfamiliar to them.

Tomorrow, we will survey a large irrigation district along the embankment of the Yellow River, and we will go to Baiyin, an old industrial district.


Translator: Fengyan

Proofreader: Pierre Thompson, Cam Norton