DOLKA, China — At the two glacial lakes that give birth to the Yellow River, a Tibetan nomad named Tsende stands at the river’s edge and rolls up his pants. He says a dragon lives in the lakes, a god of rain. Two decades of drought convinced him the dragon is angry.
Tsende steps barefoot into the river, a human speck at an altitude of almost 15,000 feet, swallowed in the emptiness of the Qinghai Province grasslands. He is carrying five silver rings. A nomad on the other side has 20 sheep. They have arranged a trade.
He will travel across grasses that once touched his knees but now barely reach his ankles. Hundreds of nomads, prodded by the government, have sold their herds and fled the land around the lakes. Others like Tsende have rammed a Buddhist prayer pole into a hillside and prayed to the dragon. Told that some scientists offer another explanation for the weather — climate change — Tsende is unimpressed.
“The result is the same,” he said with a shrug.
Science or superstition, the result is the same: The source of the Yellow River, itself the water source for 140 million people in a country of about 1.3 billion, is in crisis, as scientists warn that the glaciers and underground water system feeding the river are gravely threatened. For the rest of China, where the economy has evolved beyond trading rings for sheep, it is the latest burden for a river saturated with pollution and sucked dry by factories, growing cities and farming — with still more growth planned.
For centuries, the Yellow River symbolized the greatness and sorrows of China’s ancient civilization, as emperors equated controlling the river and taming its catastrophic floods with controlling China. Now, the river is a very different symbol — of the dire state of China’s limited resources at a time when the country’s soaring economic growth needs more of everything.
“The Yellow River flows through all these densely populated parts of northern China,” said Liu Shiyin, a scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Without water in northern China, people can’t survive. And the economic development that has been going on cannot continue.”
China’s dynamic economic engine, still roaring at record levels, is at a corrosive crossroads. Pollution is widespread, and a nationwide construction spree, tainted by corruption, is threatening to overheat the economy. China’s leaders, worried about the unbridled growth, are trying to emphasize “sustainable development,” even as questions remain about whether the party’s rank and file can carry out priorities like curbing pollution and conserving energy.
The Yellow River, curving through regions only intermittently touched by the country’s boom, offers a tour of the pressures and contradictions bearing down on China, and of the government’s efforts to address them. The river’s twisting 3,400-mile path from the Qinghai grasslands to the Bohai Sea seems to encompass not just thousands of miles but thousands of years — from nomads like Tsende sleeping under tents made of animal hair to urbanites like Peng Guihang, a homemaker living in a new high-rise building in the city of Zhengzhou.
In between, in the ancient, irrigated oasis in the tiny region of Ningxia, farmers plant rice in the desert and treat the Yellow River like a bottomless well. In a pebbled, alien expanse along the river in Inner Mongolia, an enormous industrial region has arisen in only a few years, spewing out so much pollution that a shopkeeper surrounded by factories scoffs at government promises to clean up China.
Most astonishing, cities beside the river like Yinchuan, Luoyang and Zhengzhou — places few Americans have ever heard of — are racing to become China’s next new regional urban center with almost hallucinatory building booms. Yinchuan, a modest, ancient capital, is building an entire city district for a vast government complex and is adding 20 million square feet of construction every year through 2011. Luoyang, once the capital of the Zhou dynasty, has built a cluster of futuristic sports stadiums that look like a grounded armada of metallic, alien spaceships.
From one bend of the river to the next, and the next, an evolutionary chain emerges: nomad to farmer, farm to factory and factory to city. It is the kind of change that other countries have navigated over centuries. In China, it is happening all at the same time.
The Yellow River, then, is like a path into the future. To follow it is to watch China’s struggle to get there.
Climate Change and Drought
It is July, monsoon season at 15,000 feet.
The sky is spitting. Two days earlier, it rained. Nomads hope the dragon is no longer angry. Tsende is sipping a steaming cup of yak-butter tea inside a tent overlooking the frigid blue water of Gyaring Lake. Nomads like Tsende are the descendants of ethnic Tibetans whose families have lived here for generations to when the sparse region was part of Tibet, not China. Even now, many nomads speak no more than a few words of Chinese.
Last year, a local official approached Tsende with an offer: sell his yaks and sheep and move to a township. His family would get a free cinder-block house and an annual stipend of 8,000 yuan, or about $1,000. Local cadres, responding to an edict from Beijing to reduce grazing, offered the same deal to every nomad around the lake.
“They wanted to protect the grasslands,” said Tsende, who like many ethnic Tibetans uses only one name. “They want to move all the nomads into towns, but some nomads are opposed.” He added, “I don’t think overgrazing is the problem.”
Gyaring Lake and its twin, Ngoring Lake, are considered the source of the Yellow River. Scientists began studying the region after drought took hold in the 1980s. Grasslands were turning to desert, raising fears that the river’s source could be endangered. Eventually, overgrazing was deemed to be the root of the problem, and local governments began moving nomads off the land.
More recently, though, Chinese scientists have examined the region and concluded that the pressures from herding are only one part of a much broader problem. Mr. Liu, the hydrologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and other scientists discovered that the complicated water system feeding the lakes was in crisis. Underground water levels were sinking and chains of smaller feeder lakes were receding or drying up altogether. Air temperatures were slowly rising, while the old pattern of two rainy seasons per year was down to one.
“We’ve found that the problem is much broader and is being caused by global climate change,” said Mr. Liu, who is also a professor at the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Institute.
Researchers found that the glaciers feeding the river had shrunk 17 percent in 30 years. Earlier this year, the official New China News Agency reported that glaciers across the entire Qinghai-Tibet plateau, which includes the Yellow River source region, are now melting at a rate of 7 percent a year because of global warming. The report also said average temperatures in Tibet had risen by 2 degrees since the 1980s, according to China’s national weather bureau.
At the source of the Yellow River, Mr. Liu said the combination of less rainfall and warming temperatures had thawed the surface layer of active permafrost and disrupted the underground water channels. Moisture is being absorbed deeper into the warmer ground and less water is funneling into the Yellow River.
The warming trend has literally moved the ground. Some sections of Highway 214, the two-lane provincial highway, now gently undulate because of melting permafrost. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the technological marvel that recently opened as the world’s highest railroad, has already reported track problems from the warming ground surface.
Climate change sounds as strange to a nomad as a dragon god does to a scientist. Yet nomads have been witnesses to what seem to be symptoms. At a chain of lakes known as the Sea of Stars, a nomad in a camouflage jacket described how the shoreline had receded more than 20 yards during the past decade. Other nomads, including Tsende, have noted steadily rising temperatures.
“The temperature has been rising every year,” Tsende said. “It is much warmer now during all four seasons than it was 20 years ago. Sometimes in the winter, the surface of the lake doesn’t even freeze anymore.”
China ranks behind only the United States in carbon dioxide emissions, which scientists consider the raw ingredient of global warming, though that is tricky to explain to a nomad who has never seen a factory. Instead, nomads remember the Han Chinese gold prospectors and fishermen who arrived in the 1980s.
Mining shaved huge scars into the grasslands. Fishermen arrived on donkeys, then later in cars, punching holes into the icy surface of the lakes and slipping nets into the them. At about the same time, drought took hold. Nomads considered the lakes holy and refrained from fishing. They say the local Buddhist holy man, or incarnate lama, warned that the dragon in the lakes was upset that the natural order had been disturbed. The drought lasted 20 years.
“Our Incarnate Lama told us that when the Han Chinese came and started the gold mining and the fishing, it insulted the spirit of the lake,” Tsende said. “He told us that the gold under the earth offered us protection for the grasslands.”
Almost half of the roughly 400 families who once lived around Gyaring Lake have left. In other surrounding regions, the same trend has played out, as thousands of nomads are leaving — though not all of them. Atop a hillside beside Gyaring Lake, nomads have built a tower where people pray to the dragon for rain. Mining and fishing are now banned. Tsende hopes the dragon is satisfied; it is too soon to say if the drought is ending, but this year the rains have improved. He has no plans to leave and has managed to buy the newest nomad status symbol, a motorcycle.
“I think the warmer, the better,” he said of rising temperatures. “Then, there will be more grass.”
Mr. Liu, the scientist, is less sanguine. The entire source region of the river, stretching across different areas of Qinghai, accounts for roughly 40 percent of the water supply in the Yellow River. Rainfall can vary, he said, but other climate trends suggest that the threat to the source of the Yellow River is not going away.
“If the trends that we’re seeing up near the source continue — that the climate is getting dryer and hotter — the river will keep drying up,” he said.
Irrigating the Desert
The tiny, diamond-shaped region known as Ningxia could be the Rhode Island of China. It accounts for less than 1 percent of the country’s population and less than half a percent of its land mass. The terrain is arid and mountainous, and in recent years has been gripped by drought. Not surprisingly, per capita, few places drink more lustily from the Yellow River.
The Yellow River has allowed Ningxia to defy reality for centuries: rice paddies soak in the desert; sunflowers stare up at skies that almost never rain. Today, farmers repeat a phrase handed down for generations, “Tian Xia Huang He Fu Ningxia,” or “The Yellow River Is a Great Gift for Ningxia.”
But is Ningxia a great gift for the rest of China?
Water shortages are at crisis level in many regions. About 400 of China’s 600 cities lack an adequate supply for future growth , and many are now making do by draining underground aquifers to dangerously low levels. Some coastal cities are building desalination plants to turn seawater into drinking water. Over all, China has one of the lowest per capita water supplies in the world and one of the most uneven distributions of water. Northern China is home to 43 percent of the population but only 14 percent of the country’s water supply.
To address that imbalance, the government has begun work on a grandiose, and controversial, “South-to-North” transfer project, which would pump water along channels from the Yangtze River in southern China to replenish the country’s thirsty north, including the Yellow River.
Officials say they believe the plan, potentially the most expensive public works project ever in China, is the best hope for maintaining economic growth in the north, but critics point to practical and environmental concerns, and are fighting to block plans for a channel through Qinghai.
Ningxia, while far too small to blame for the country’s water travails, typifies the challenges China will face as it weighs logic against history in parceling out water. The village of Yingpantan lies in the Yinchuan Plain, a lush green stripe carved by centuries of irrigation. Rice paddies, wheat, corn and groves of red berries known as gouqi provide farmers a comfortable livelihood in a region where rain may fall twice a year.
“We used to be poor, now we are not,” said a farmer, Yang Fengyin, 52. “Water is not a problem here. On the banks of the Yellow River, we’ve never run out of water.”
Told about water problems elsewhere in China, including along many sections of the Yellow River, Mr. Yang was unconvinced. “It’s a rumor,” he said.
Yingpantan Village, built inside the bed of the river, exists solely because during the 1960s the Communist Party under Mao built a dam upstream in neighboring Gansu Province that harnessed the river below. A few doors away from Mr. Yang, a young man studying for the college entrance exam,, Chen Shuangquan, told a story that has become family lore, of the raging Yellow River forcing the family onto the rooftops during the 1940s until Mr. Chen’s grandfather, then a young soldier, returned by raft to rescue his relatives.
For the younger Mr. Chen, the tale became a morality play in which the untamed river was a destructive villain and dams were the savior.
“The dams have protected our way of life,” said Mr. Chen, 20, standing less than a mile from the river as mosquitoes swarmed in the humid July air and dusk summoned his neighbors back from the fields.
Dikes and irrigation in Ningxia trace to the beginning of dynastic rule, when the Qin rulers who unified China in 221 B.C. built irrigation for soldiers garrisoned on some of the earliest sections of the Great Wall. Farmers still plant rice on the same paddies tilled roughly 2,000 years ago.
Throughout history the Yellow River has spawned floods, and emperors who could not protect the people were said to have lost heaven’s mandate to rule. The Communist Party has built more dams than any dynasty, and the river is now a top-to-bottom plumbing project that many environmentalists fear is being plumbed to death.
For several years during the 1990s, the river ran so low that it failed to reach the sea. For the moment, engineers have corrected that problem, but the dams and dikes have accentuated a different one: the river is rising into the sky. The huge amount of sediment washing downstream is now pinched by so many dikes and interrupted by so many dams that it is pushing the bed of the river upward, which means as the river goes up, so must the height of dams to prevent floods.
In Ningxia, generations of farmers in villages like Yingpantan have paid no attention to how much water they drained from the river. Their work fulfilled a national priority still evident today, as some Chinese officials sometimes voice fears of China being unable to feed itself. More recently, though, different fears — of not enough water — have prompted the introduction of local conservation efforts. In Yingpantan and nearby villages, irrigation schedules are now announced over public loudspeakers. Rice paddies have been banned in some areas.
But conservation also assumes that demand will not grow, and demand in Ningxia is driven by desperation. Drought is written on the landscape of the arid, lifeless mountains beyond the river’s reach; the name of one mountain village, Hanjiaoshui, roughly translates as Shout for Water. Conservation is becoming a national priority but a recent drought has made finding water a matter of survival for many people in Ningxia.
“People are starving and have no way of living up there,” said Wang Qirong, 64, a farmer in Yingpantan. “You just can’t let people starve. If we have water, we should take it into the mountains in trucks.”
People are already coming down from the mountains. A short drive north of the village, Ma Junqing, a grandfather in a threadbare gray Mao suit, said drought forced him to leave two years ago. He said 100 families from his home county were now leasing wasteland just beyond the edge of the river’s irrigation system. They have built water channels to turn sand into soil, and soil into survival. “There is absolutely nothing in my hometown,” Mr. Ma, 56, said. “It didn’t rain. If it rains, you eat. If it doesn’t rain, you don’t eat.”
Thirsty Factories, Dirty Air
Down a potholed street leading into an industrial park, a brick building that was once part of a forced labor camp is now another sort of prison: the small sundries shop where Zhang Yueqing lives amid the choking pollution of one of China’s newest industrial corridors.
Hulking factories spew blue smoke as hunched men shovel minerals into the red glow of open pit furnaces. They are making coke, silicon and other raw materials to be shipped elsewhere in China, as well as to Europe, Japan, South Korea and the United States. Furnace ash is spread over empty lots like black icing over a cake.
“If you are here in the morning, you’ll see an inch of coal dust on the ground,” said Mr. Zhang, 54. “We cough a lot. At night, sometimes the smoke is so thick that you can turn on your car lights and you still can’t see where you are going.”
His wife, Chen Fengying, 53, added: “We can’t plant anything. We can’t plant tomatoes or hot peppers. They cannot grow.”
The industrial park sits along the river in the region that joins Ningxia and Inner Mongolia, part of an industrial colossus built in less than six years on the arid, water-starved land surrounding the city of Wuhai.
“The kind of development that is happening is abnormal,” said Chen Anping, an advocate for restoring grasslands in Inner Mongolia. “There’s no way this can be sustained. There are not enough resources.”
With one important exception: coal. The northernmost route of the Yellow River courses through the center of China’s coal country. Under the planned economy in 1958, the central government founded Wuhai in the rocky terrain as the coal supplier for the state-owned steel maker, Baotou Steel.
But the collapse of the planned economy almost meant the collapse of Wuhai. By the early 1990s, local officials were debating how to save the city and built three coal-fired power plants to provide electricity to the east. But the city still needed jobs. So officials recruited investors to build the energy-intensive, heavy polluting industries that other regions no longer wanted.
“We told them we have cheap coal, cheap electricity, and if they came and invested here, we could give them land on credit,” said an official in the Wuhai environmental bureau, who explained the city’s history but asked not to be identified for fear of official reprimand.
The strategy worked. Before 1998, Wuhai had four factories. Now, it has more than 400. Wuhai became an industrial model for nearby cities like Shizuishan. In June, the New China News Agency reported that more than $50 billion in industrial development was planned for the 500-mile stretch of the river in Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. Experts estimated that industrial demands for water would quintuple by 2010.
Many investors had arrived in Wuhai with a frontier spirit, heeding the government’s call to develop the west while enticed by the prospect of big profits.
“A lot of people came here and invested their own savings,” said one factory owner who had been in the region for five years. “But they didn’t know it would reach such a scale and that the environmental problems would become so bad.”
Decades of strip mining had already transformed some parts of coal country into vast tracts of denuded wasteland. Rapid industrialization made Wuhai a pollution nightmare. The Yellow River itself was already one of the most polluted rivers in the world. But suddenly clouds of polluted air were drifting hundreds of miles east to Beijing. When a reporter visited the region in late July, the air was so polluted that raindrops left black spots on car windshields.
“The government is in a tough position here,” said the factory owner. “They had nothing. They had to build infrastructure and improve people’s lives. Without these factories, there is nothing.”
This spring, the severity of the pollution problem finally forced official action. The State Environmental Protection Administration closed scores of smaller, dirtier coke factories. Local regulators demanded that other factories install better pollution equipment or face closure.
Some investors felt betrayed. One woman who had invested $1.2 million to build a coke factory but who had no money left to install antipollution equipment committed suicide after it was closed.
But the Wuhai environmental official said the city could no longer ignore pollution. “We are taking it seriously,” he said.
From his vantage point inside the industrial park about an hour from Wuhai, the shopkeeper, Mr. Zhang, said factories belched pollution without restraint. People digging wells now must dig about 260 feet deeper because factories have drained so much underground water. He said local officials did little to stop them.
“They want to collect taxes and attract investment,” he said.
Mr. Zhang said factory managers were adept at duping environmental inspectors. Often, he said, they are tipped in advance of a surprise inspection.
“When someone comes from the prefecture or the provincial government, the owners shut the factories two days in advance,” he said. “Environmental protection costs money.”
A short drive away, a cluster of factories lined a stretch of the Yellow River. Outside one factory, a faded propaganda slogan promised, “Environmental Protection Is Our Country’s First Priority.”
Local residents had said factories sometimes operated at night to avoid environmental oversight. At 6:49 p.m., almost all of the smokestacks were silent. But as the sun later fell behind the Helan Mountains, the silence was broken: 17 smokestacks had just begun a long night’s work.
New Cities Scour for Water
From her fashionable apartment in one of the newest high-rises in the city of Zhengzhou, Peng Guihang is eating a bowl of dumplings in her enclosed balcony. A basketball game is playing on her flat-screen television. Her laptop is open on her marble coffee table. The only thing missing is neighbors. Mrs. Peng and her family are among the first tenants in the unfinished district known as the “new city” of Zhengzhou.
“There is not much here yet,” said Mrs. Peng, seemingly not too worried. “The shops will probably open in two or three years.”
Mrs. Peng is embarrassed by the suggestion that she is living the new Chinese dream, but she is part of a new consumer class that must grow and prosper for China to keep rising. It is for people like her that “new cities” are being built across the country. The view outside her apartment would be astounding if it were not common in many Chinese cities: a horizon filled with rising towers, each 25 stories or taller; a sleek exhibition center built beside an artificial lake splashed with colorful schools of carp; a half-built arts center resembling five massive concrete eggs. Construction cranes filling the sky in all directions.
The end of the Yellow River is still a few hundred miles downstream, but this is the destination China is trying to reach — a nation of peasant farmers transformed into a modern, urban country. And yet so many cities are expanding so quickly, at the same time, and often following much the same blueprint, that China’s urbanization rush has alarmed national leaders and raised fears of overheating. One recent gathering of city planners found that more than 100 cities aspire to become major international cities, while more than 30 cities have requisitioned millions of acres of land to build central business districts.
“Some local officials really don’t understand how to properly urbanize,” said Lu Dadao, a Beijing scholar who specializes in urbanization. “They want it to happen fast, and they want it to be big. They have all taken up urbanization without considering what the natural speed of it should be.”
Along the Yellow River, major cities, and many smaller ones, are in the throes of construction booms, competing to emerge as dominant cities. In Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia, officials are spending about $1.2 billion a year to build a government complex across hundreds of acres. It includes a huge provincial legislature, provincial ministry buildings, a government-owned five-star hotel, a residential compound for foreign entrepreneurs and an outdoor People’s Plaza that can accommodate 30,000 people.
This is a common development blueprint in second-tier Chinese cities: use government money to build government districts in hopes that they will become the equivalent of anchor tenants to attract private real estate development.
“Provincial leaders decided that Yinchuan represents the province,” said Jiang Guanglin, chief of the Yinchuan Construction Bureau. “They want to make it a bigger, more powerful and more beautiful city. They want it to be a regional center.”
But so does Lanzhou, the nearby capital of Gansu Province. And so does Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, which is on a tributary of the Yellow River. In Luoyang, just a few hundred miles east of Zhengzhou, officials are finishing a government complex as well as apartment and office towers and a sports complex with four arenas for basketball, cycling, target shooting and swimming, as well as a soccer stadium.
Rapid urbanization is already transforming the Yellow River region. Population in the region has nearly tripled since the 1950s. Government statistics show that roughly four billion gallons of wastewater are dumped into the river every year, double the amount from two decades ago. Every growing city, each trying to lure people and industry, is scouring for water. Some are building reservoirs; others are draining so much water from underground aquifers that several cities have reported serious land subsidence.
This summer, the State Council, China’s equivalent of a cabinet, approved national regulations to improve controls over the Yellow River and better regulate water use, partly by raising prices. But officials agree that regulations alone are not enough to compensate for the rapidly rising demand for water. Water saved from farming must be diverted to industry. And cities along the river want to grow like cities on the country’s prospering coast, even though the Yellow River region has none of the same natural advantages.
“The capacity of the river hasn’t changed,” said Su Maolin, a senior engineer with the Yellow River Conservancy Commission. “There is only so much water they can use. It’s already at the maximum capacity of usage.”
The “new city” where Mrs. Peng lives is fashioned after the famed Pudong, the swamp-turned-financial district in Shanghai. In 1992, an elderly Deng Xiaoping visited undeveloped Pudong and exhorted China to build faster and bigger. What followed was an economic explosion that has changed the world. But China’s new leaders are no longer encouraging projects like Pudong. They are trying to tamp down on a runaway economy by ordering provinces to build slower and more judiciously, while cracking down on the corruption endemic to so many projects.
Indeed, so many large construction projects are so infused with corruption that urbanization has become a get-rich scheme for many officials. In the first six months of this year, Chinese prosecutors secured convictions in 1,608 major bribery cases, in which officials accepted kickbacks to facilitate construction projects. A senior official in Beijing was sentenced to death, and then given a reprieve, for embezzling state highway construction funds. In June, a Beijing vice mayor in charge of Olympic construction was removed for embezzlement and kickbacks related to non-Olympic projects.
In Zhengzhou, central government investigators in September found that city officials illegally seized — and then resold, at a handsome profit — thousands of acres of land for a “university town” adjacent to the “new city” project. A month earlier, investigators used satellite technology and found 654 examples of illegal land grabs for construction projects, mostly for local government projects.
This messy, chaotic process is ultimately supposed to help China reach its goal of becoming a “well-off society” by 2040. Mrs. Peng, the tenant in the Zhengdong “new city,” is excited about her family’s new apartment, if reluctant to call herself affluent. Her husband owns a landscaping business, and they are trying to save for college for their two high-school-age sons.
“I’m not one of the rich people,” Mrs. Peng said modestly, looking around her stylish apartment. “This is just very ordinary.”
Her own parents could never have dreamed of such a home, though. Her father worked in the post office and was killed during the Cultural Revolution. She recalled the terror of Red Guards breaking into homes to threaten and harass people. Her widowed mother had to rear five children, and did so without begging. Each has done well — a brother in real estate, another brother working in Beijing, a sister working as a teacher.
“We’re all doing fine,” Mrs. Peng said. She predicts that her neighborhood will be bustling by the year’s end. Her building is apparently already sold out. Others are less certain. Local television stations are filled with advertisements promoting the “new city.” They say the district is the future.
Mrs. Peng, meanwhile, watches through her window as a friend in an adjacent building renovates an apartment. “I can see she has almost finished renovating,” she said. “But I haven’t had the courage to go see it. I don’t want it to be better than mine.”