Feb. 26, 2017
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?