China Environmental News Digest

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Thursday, November 30, 2006

China's Groundwater Future Increasingly Murky

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The water in Zhao Bo’s village on the outskirts of Beijing was a sickly shade of green. After drinking from the local well, Zhao and his fellow villagers could not go a month without suffering from diarrhea. The contamination was believed to originate from a zinc-plating plant established near the upper reaches of the well ten years ago.

Plant officials compensated for the worsening water quality by drilling a second well, according to Zhao, a 50-year-old farmer from Daciluo Village. But the water in that well became contaminated too. To access cleaner drinking water, residents decided to drill yet another well further upstream, while wealthier members of the community vowed to drink only bottled water. But the problem still did not go away.

“The new well could provide only enough water for drinking. We still have to use the original well to water our crops and feed our pigs, chicken, and ducks,” Zhao says. He explains that the state-supplied tap water was cut off in the village three years ago after water prices went up and residents were no longer able to pay the bills.

No administrative action was taken against the polluting factory until last September, when the government closed down the zinc-plating plant after a local newspaper exposed the case. Daciluo Village was one of the lucky ones. While water contamination is not rare in China, few polluting enterprises are ultimately punished, according to Dr. Wen Dongguang with the China Geological Survey (CGS). “Those enterprises are pillars of the local economy. Local governments are reluctant to take action against them for fear of affecting their revenues and social stability if the companies…lay off their workers.”

Such misgivings have resulted in loopholes in the implementation of pollution prevention and control laws, and groundwater pollution has become ever more serious with China’s economic growth. Groundwater is now contaminated in about 90 percent of the nation’s cities, says Zhang Lijun, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration. An increasing number of water samples have been found to contain toxic substances.

Groundwater constitutes a third of China’s freshwater resources and plays a key role in the nation’s water supply. About 70 percent of drinking water and 40 percent of agricultural irrigation water come from groundwater.

Pollution is the biggest challenge to China’s groundwater management. Yet the most recent national survey, completed by the Ministry of Land Resources in 2004, downplays the alarm. It concludes that China’s shallow aquifer (rocky areas containing water that can be used to supply wells) is “relatively good,” with about 92 percent of the water supply fit for daily use and 63 percent suitable for drinking.

Due to the uneven distribution of groundwater—67.7 percent in the south and 32.3 percent in the north—China’s arid northern areas and relatively developed eastern areas suffer the most pollution, while poverty-stricken areas in the northwest are plagued by extreme water shortages. “China’s groundwater management is about 20 years behind the world’s most advanced levels,” says Yin Yueping, an expert with CGS.

Yin notes that many areas have reported ground subsidence or clefts due to groundwater overuse. “It’s easier for pollutants to seep into the groundwater in areas that have experienced unsustainable exploitation, due to underground pressure changes,” he observes. About 50 cities in China have reported sinking ground. Shanghai, Tianjin, and Taiyuan report the worst subsidence, each having dropped by more than two meters since the early 1900s, according to the Ministry of Land Resources survey.

In coastal areas, unbridled exploitation of groundwater has resulted in the infiltration of water supplies by seawater. This has occurred in Liaoning, Hebei, Shandong, and Hainan provinces and in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, leaving wells dry and residents with little access to clean water. In the eastern Bohai Gulf, seawater invades 62 square kilometers of groundwater annually. In 2003, the infiltration topped 2,457 square kilometers, leaving 400,000 people without access to clean water and destroying 300 million kilograms of grain, according to the survey.

“The areas in which the groundwater is highly exploited are where the pollution is most serious,” Wen says. The most affected areas include northern China, the reaches of the Huaihe River, and the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas, he notes.

According to Wen, the major culprit of the worsening groundwater pollution is industrial waste. “Some plants discharge waste without proper treatment due to the poor enforcement of environmental protection laws,” he says. He adds that an increase in human activities has exacerbated the situation. “For example, gas stations have boomed in recent years, causing serious pollution to nearby soil and groundwater.” Wen points to a survey that concludes that oil leakage occurs in 70 percent of gas stations in the United States, mostly from oil tanks stored underground.

Another major source of groundwater pollution is solid waste. “A large amount of solid waste is not treated properly before it is buried,” says Ma Jun, Beijing author of China’s Water Crisis and a water protection campaigner.

The overall deterioration of China’s water environment has compelled the Chinese government to tackle the issue. Qiu Baoqing, vice-minister of construction, claimed in August that the government would invest an unprecedented US$125 billion over the next five years to improve water treatment, recycling, and other water management to fight the mounting threat of urban water pollution.

Wen says only a tiny proportion of the spending will be devoted to groundwater, though he notes that the funding marks the real start of China’s investment in groundwater protection. In another landmark effort to tackle the problem, the government launched a large-scale survey earlier this year to investigate groundwater pollution. It is expected to be completed in five years. “The core problem is that no one knows how bad the overall situation is,” Wen says. “This survey is the first systematic one on groundwater pollution to provide scientific information for policymakers.”

Legislative measures are also picking up speed. According to Wen, more revisions on groundwater protection are expected to be added to China’s Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law, adopted in 1984. Experts are also calling for a real-time monitoring network on groundwater quality in key areas such as large plains, basins, populous cities, and energy bases. “Information on groundwater should be available to the public, since water pollution has been jeopardizing people’s health and safety,” Wen says.

Each year, China pumps 100 billion cubic meters of groundwater, about 30 percent of the nation’s annual exploitable groundwater. With merely a quarter of the world's average water resources per capita, China reports that 320 million people, about a quarter of its population, have difficulties in obtaining clean water. About 80 percent of diseases in the developing world are caused by contaminated water, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

China’s existing groundwater resources range from some 20,000 years old in the deepest aquifers to as recent as the last rainstorm, Wen says, adding that it is common to find a 1,000-year-old aquifer in Shijiazhuang or Baoding in Hebei Province near Beijing. According to Ma, the long life of an aquifer can be critical to its purity. “If polluted, surface water can soon clean itself,” he explains. “But groundwater needs an unimaginable length of time to become clean. Prevention is all we can do.”

Groundwater is a strategic freshwater reserve for humans, says Wen. “In water pollution emergencies, deep groundwater plays a key role in providing drinking water for affected residents, as occurred in the aftermath of the chemical spill in the Songhua River in northeastern China last November.”

“Don't wait until the water in the well dries up to cherish the value of groundwater," Wen says. “It’s imperative to prevent pollution from the outset and improve the public’s awareness of fighting pollution.”

Yan Zhan is a senior journalist with China Features. This article was coordinated through the Global Environmental Institute (GEI) in Beijing.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

China building major dam in southwest, raising debate over impact on people, environment

International Herald Tribune

SHANGHAI, China:Construction has begun on a major dam in southwestern China that will form part of a power generation base that will match the massive Three Gorges Dam in electrical generating capacity, reports said Monday.

Estimates of the number of people to be displaced by the Xiangjiaba dam project, being built on upper reaches of the Yangtze River, vary from about 88,000 to about 150,000.

The 6 gigawatt project, combined with the nearby 12.6 gigawatt Xiluodu dam, is expected to match or exceed the capacity of the Three Gorges dam further downstream on the Yangtze, the state-run newspaper China Daily reported.

Construction of the 28.9 billion yuan (US$3.7 billion;€2.8 billion) project formally began Sunday, reports said. The project is due to be completed by 2015.

Apart from Xiangjiaba and Xiluodu, China plans to build 12 hydropower stations along the upper reaches of the Yangtze, known as the Jinsha river, part of a frenzy of dam building aimed at meeting soaring demand for power to fuel China's booming industries.

Hydroelectric power is viewed as a relatively clean alternative to the heavily polluting coal-fired plants that are the country's mainstay source of energy. But some critics have questioned the potential environmental and social impact of so many huge projects.

"The project will have to face manifold challenges, including environmental protection and resettlement of residents," the China Daily cited Fan Qixiang, a vice president of China Three Gorges Project Corp., which is also building Xiangjiaba and Xiluodu, as saying.

About 1.3 million people were moved to make way for the US$22 billion Three Gorges project after construction went ahead despite complaints over its high cost and worries that the dam will trap and concentrate pollution.

Fan said that planning for Xiangjiabe began in the late 1950s.

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Monday, November 27, 2006

China Punishes Officials A Year After Toxic Spill

BEIJING, Nov 24 - Reuters

China has punished officials responsible for the Songhua River spill that cut off drinking water in Harbin for days, one of the country's worst environmental disasters, Xinhua news agency said on Friday.

An explosion last November at a PetroChina plant in northeastern Jilin province poured 100 tonnes of toxic benzene compounds into the Songhua, leaving millions of people in the downstream city of Harbin without drinking water for nearly a week.

The blast, caused by a mishandling of a steam valve by workers, killed eight people and injured 60, and caused direct economic losses of 69 million yuan (US$8.79 million), it said.

Duan Wende, vice president of PetroChina and its parent company, the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), received an "administrative demerit" for the state-owned firm's negligence in work safety, Xinhua said.

Nine others, including Yu Li, general manager of the Jilin Petrochemical Company, and Shen Dongming, head of the benzene plant, were either sacked, demoted or received demerits and warnings, Xinhua said without elaborating.

Wang Liying, director of the Jilin provincial environmental protection bureau, received a demerit and Wu Yang, head of the environmental watchdog in Jilin city, where the plant is located, got a warning, it said.

The report did not mention whether any criminal action might be brought against any of those involved.

The penalties came two days after a cabinet meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao that vowed "serious punishments".

China's leaders under Wen and President Hu Jintao have been trying to instill greater accountability among officials in order to boost legitimacy in the ruling Communist Party.

Investigators concluded that the plant had had no effective contingency plans for accidents and Jilin environment officials had failed to report the potential water pollution risks "comprehensively and accurately", Xinhua said.

The State Environmental Protection Administration, whose minister Xie Zhenhua was fired in December over the spill, was also blamed for initially underestimating the "grave consequences", Xinhua said.

A vice mayor of Jilin city hanged himself in December after national media criticised city officials for deliberately covering up the spill, delaying preparations and causing panic in Harbin.

CNPC's head, Chen Geng, stepped down earlier this month after reaching the retirement age of 60, and is expected to leave his post as chairman of PetroChina by the end of the year.

China sometimes allows top officials to serve beyond the official retirement age. But Chen's two-year tenure was marred by a string of industrial accidents.

(US$1=7.853 Yuan)

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Used pachinko machines harming health in China

Monday, Nov. 27, 2006

Environment policy officials from Japan and Hong Kong have started consultations on the large volume of exports to Hong Kong of used pachinko machines, which contain electronic components that pose a serious health hazard when the circuit boards are disassembled in China.

News photo
Workers separate components from discarded pachinko machines exported from Japan. KYODO PHOTO

Around 3 million pachinko machines are discarded each year in Japan, according to Nippon Yugikikogyo Kumiai (Nikkoso), an association of pachinko manufacturers.

Of these, more than 1 million are believed to end up in Hong Kong, with the remainder passed on to domestic recycling companies, officials at the Environment Ministry said.

Most of the old pachinko machines that are exported are listed as recyclable "used products" and could violate an international law regulating transborder movements of hazardous waste, the officials said.

These machines have had the liquid crystal removed from them and as a result cannot be refurbished for future use.

Hong Kong companies disassemble the machines into groups of components such as metals, plastic and circuit boards, which are sold in resource-hungry mainland China, the officials said.

Hazardous substances have reportedly been released into the air in Guangdong Province when electronic components are removed from circuit boards and have caused lead poisoning and other serious health problems among nearby residents, the officials said.

According to a study by a university in the province, 80 percent of children aged 1 to 6 living in the area where many recycling businesses are concentrated suffer from lead intoxication, which can cause nerve damage, and workers who disassemble electronic components have respiratory and skin diseases.

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal provides for procedures for exporting lead and other hazardous waste. It calls on the exporting country to confirm in advance whether the recipient country is capable of disposing of the waste without contaminating the environment.

"Out-of-service pachinko machines are exported increasingly under the guise of used goods, where the confirmation step is not required," an official at the Environment Ministry said.

The ministry may step up preliminary screening by requiring pachinko machine exporters to submit documents and by including the machines in guidelines being drawn up in concert with the Hong Kong government on classification of used goods and waste, according to officials.

Illegal dumping of pachinko machines has become a social problem in Japan. Three years ago, makers began collecting and recycling used machines for free. However, they have recycled only about half of all used machines because brokers try to snap them up at 500 yen each for export, industry sources said.

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China plans a dozen hydro stations on Jinsha River

(China Daily)

Updated: 2006-11-27 08:54
Construction began Sunday on a hydropower project in Southwest China which will have a third of the capacity of the Three Gorges Project when completed in nine years.

Power generation from the 6-gigawatt Xiangjiaba project, combined with the 12.6 gigawatt Xiluodu project on which construction started 11 months ago, would be the equivalent of the Three Gorges Project by 2015.

"The start of construction indicates the Xiangjiaba project, whose initial planning started as early as in 1957, has entered a new phase," said Fan Qixiang, vice-president of China Three Gorges Project Corp (CTGPC) which is the builder of the project.

CTGPC is also building the 18.2-gigawatt Three Gorges Project "the world's largest" scheduled for full operation in 2009.

"The project will have to face manifold challenges, including environmental protection and resettlement of residents," Fan told a press conference on the eve of the ground-breaking ceremony.

Vice-Premier Zeng Peiyan inspected the construction site of the country's third-largest hydropower station at Yibin in Sichuan Province yesterday.

The 28.9 billion yuan (US$3.68 billion) project is on the Jinsha River, another name for the upper reaches of the Yangtze ?the longest waterway in China.

In the course of construction, CTGPC will earmark 1.46 billion yuan (US$184.8 million) for environment protection, Fan said.

He said hydropower could help reduce ecological contamination by saving pollution-causing energy resources.

The Xiangjiaba project is expected to generate 30.7 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually upon completion, which translates into 14 million tons less coal burnt each year. China is estimated to have consumed about 2 billion tons of coal last year.

About 25 million tons of carbon dioxide and 30,000 tons of sulphur dioxide emissions will be eliminated thanks to the new project, according to project sources. Emissions of carbon dioxide were about 4 billion tons in 2004; and sulphur dioxide, 25 million tons last year.

As the river section where the project is being built is habitat for some rare species of fish, Fan said an aquatic protection zone and a station for fry spawning and release are being planned.

The Ministry of Agriculture announced on Friday that it had started a two-year survey on rare aquatic resources in the upper reaches of the Yangtze, including those at the Xiangjiaba section.

Like the Xiluodu project, the Xiangjiaba project would also play a role in flood control, irrigation and navigation, and help retain silt and so reduce sedimentation in the Three Gorges reservoir, according to CTGPC official Zhou Shuangchao.

Nearly 90,000 people from six counties, three each from Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, will have to make way for the Xiangjiaba project.

CTGPC President Li Yong'an said his company will implement new resettlement regulations issued by the State Council, which prescribe higher compensation for affected people.

At least 8,000 people have already left the site where construction started, according to Xu Junxin, another executive in charge of resettlement for the project.

Apart from the Xiangjiaba and Xiluodu projects, China plans to build 12 hydropower stations in the water-rich middle and lower reaches of the 2,300-kilometre-long Jinsha River by 2020, according to Wei Xikan, deputy chief of the planning and development department of CTGPC.

In response to concerns that the projects would affect the natural habitats of wild pandas, Yu Jianqiu, vice-director of the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Centre, said that investigations had found that most of the concerns were "unfounded." All the projects were built or are planned on the Yangtze mainstream, far from the giant panda habitats, Yu said.

The Mamize Natural Reserve, the closest habitat, is about 50 kilometres from the Xiluodu project, Yu said.

Yangtze tributaries Xining River and Xisujiao River are the main water sources for Mamize, said Gyina Guqe, chief of the natural reserve.

"When completed, the hydropower station will slightly raise the water levels of the two tributaries and the humidity of the natural reserve will also rise," said Gyina, adding that this will help the growth of the subtropical wildlife in the area, especially the 12,000 hectares of bamboos that giant pandas feast on.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Rising Dragon’s Environmental Disaster Asia Sentinel Jasper Becker 22 November 2006 This is a chapter reprinted by arrangement with the National Geographic Society from the book Dragon Rising: An Inside Look at China Today By Jasper Becker. Copyright 2006 Jasper Becker. ImageIts nose-curling stench hits you even before you see the floating carpet of green algae and a dense matting of water hyacinth. Once a beauty spot praised by poets, Dianchi Lake, around Kunming, the capital of subtropical Yunnan province shows the cost to China of its frantic growth. “There are fewer fish and they keep getting smaller. They don’t taste good either.” complains fisherman Gong Gaoling. When he was growing up, the waters were crystal clear and there were 57 types of fish and shrimp to catch. Now, half of the species have vanished altogether and just six are worth catching. “When I was young you could swim in it and see the stones at the bottom,” he said. Now the bottom has poisonous sediment of cadmium, arsenic and lead, three feet thick which can only be removed by dredging. Where ever you go in this beautiful landscape that borders Burma, Thailand and Vietnam, you find a heartbreaking legacy of environmental mismanagement and the prospect of worse damage to come. Kunming has spent over US$2 billion on efforts to clean up the lake but it is still too toxic to drink, and nowhere near meeting the country's minimum quality standards. The industrial hub of a poor province with 42 million people, Kunming has around 5,000 industrial plants, pouring effluent into the lake. For years, the municipal government would order, time after time, the worst polluters to shut down. “They just pretend, I can hear them when they secretly open again, sometimes at night,” Mr. Zhong scoffed. Many factories are still using machinery dating from the 1950s to produce chemical fertilizers or to process tine and phosphorous. And until the first waste water plant was built in 1990, Kunming pumped ninety percent of the city's waste water directly into the lake untreated. Around 254 million cubic meters of wastewater is discharged into Dianchi Lake every year. “Even after treatment you still can't drink this water,” admits Wu Yihui who manages a second plant which was built in 1996. Liang Congjie, the founder of Friends of Nature, a rare Chinese NGO, recalls swimming in Dianchi Lake as a student in the 1950s and speaks bitterly about the failure to clean up it up. “It is awful, they just made a kind of show,” he said. Liang said the authorities even poured chemicals into the lake to kill the algae and then filter it before Kunming staged an international horticultural exposition in 1999. To manipulate scientific data on the lake’s effluent levels and to make them match claims of success, local officials would resort to tricks like moving a monitoring station from one end of the lake to the other, cleaner, end to get better readings. Dianchi was once one of Asia’s biggest freshwater lakes but over the past fifty years, it has shrunk to a third of its former size and silted up. “Our water per capita supply of water is just one ninth of the national average,” says Mrs. Lin Kuang, spokeswoman for Dianchi Lake Regulatory Commission. “Without the water we can't grow our economy.” In its search to find drinking water, Kunming has had to build reservoirs and dams built on rivers ever further away. Since the 1980s, the city has relied on water channeled from the Songhua Dam reservoir in the mountains some 50 miles away. Now as the city prepares to expand, it also simultaneously been forced it invest in an even bigger engineering project to divert water from other rivers like the Golden Sands River 120 miles to the North. Major cities across the country are grappling with just the same threats as Kunming and water is only one facet of a crisis which, if unchecked, could overwhelm the whole modernization project. Its origins can be traced to a mixture of inherited problems and new ones but in both cases the root causes are political. The environment poses one of the gravest threats to the political stability of the country because lays bare for all to see the failure of the political system. The environmental protest movements and failures like the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant spurred the downfall of the Soviet system in the 1980s. It is remarkable that so far nothing similar happened in China because the failures are as painfully evident here. Disputes over pollution are one of the chief reasons for the rapid growth of grass roots protests in China. In Yunnan it all started in the early 1950s when the state sent logging companies to fell the forests and to settle hundreds of thousands of newcomers. Virgin tropical forest still covered most of the mountains and plains. The great rivers, the Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, rise in the high Himalayan Plateau and flow in parallel through some magnificent steep gorges which had been so remote that Western explorers only saw them at the turn of the last century. One of them was the explorer Joseph Rock whose travels in the 1930s, published in the National Geographic, made Yunnan’s flora and fauna internationally famous. As Rock revealed, Yunnan is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world, with half the nation’s animal species and a quarter of its plants species. It was still largely untouched by the modern world in 1949. Rock traveled everywhere on foot and horse, and sometimes had to be carried by porters. More than anywhere in China, the blame for what has gone wrong cannot be laid anywhere but on the post-1949 government. In a short few decades Yunnan’s rivers and lakes including Dianchi have all silted up. Even the more recently built dams have begun suffer as the sediment accumulated in the reservoirs and industrial and agricultural effluents have poisoned the water in them. In this chapter my journey starts in Kunming at a meting of environmental NGOs and end at the Tiger Leaping Gorge, a chasm through which the Golden Sands River hurtles beneath the snow-capped Jade Dragon Mountain. A dam will soon be built across the Gorge and may soon block all of Yunnan’s great rivers, the last pristine rivers left in China. If the dams are not stopped, the rich diversity which Joseph Rock marveled at will be doomed. It is an easy call to make because one by one all of China’s great rivers have already been ruined. The dire state of China’s rivers is the most visible evidence of the ecological mismanagement which began during the Mao era and has continued in the market economy that followed. The Chinese Communists borrowed from Stalin, the philosophy that “man must conquer nature” rather than live in harmony with it. Stalin’s economic policies required rapid electrification. This in turn depended on the construction of large-scale hydro-electric schemes and nuclear power stations which could demonstrate man’s technological mastery one of the great forces of nature. Under Mao, China paid no attention at all was paid to the principles of sustainable growth. In fact people actually felt proud of pollution because it was a sign of progress. The more chimneys belching out dirty smoke, the more successful and developed a place could claim to be. Mao had cultural and historical reasons to be even more eager to conquer China’s rivers. China’s civilization developed in river valleys and each dynasty depended on its ability to mobilize large numbers to prevent floods and irrigate fields to ensure its prosperity. Mao was especially eager to tame the Yellow River, whose frequent devastating floods gave it the name “China’s sorrow.” Soviet engineers arrived soon after 1950 and started planning the construction of 46 giant dams across the Yellow River. Before 1949, China had built just 40 small hydropower projects and only a handful of larger ones. At the same time Chinese students were sent to the Soviet Union and began to study hydro-electrical engineering. Among them was the future prime minister Li Peng, who began to harbor the ambition to erect a dam bigger even than any Stalin had built, a dam across the Yangtze at the Three Gorges. Nothing less would do to demonstrate China’s maturity as a great power. The Soviet experts with drew in 1959 in the midst of a great ideological dispute between Moscow and Beijing, before the first of these Yellow River dams at could be completed. The Chinese decided to press on themselves regardless but the Sanmen Xia, proved to be a disastrous mistake because, for one thing, the reservoir quickly silted up. Some 300,000 peasants were pushed off their land and many later died of starvation during the Great Leap Forward. Later engineering efforts have not managed to make it a success and 40 years on locals have petitioned the government to dismantle the dam. Even so China continued during the Great Leap Forward with an ambitious dam building program. Like latter day Pharaohs, the Communist Party mobilized huge resources and manpower to build dams, big and small. They were built everywhere at a furious pace and often without any proper planning or tools, and sometimes in defiance of basic engineering principles. By now China has more dams than any other country in the world. Some 3,500 have collapsed and even now nearly 40 percent of the 84,000 existing dams are at risk of collapsing. China kept hidden for decades, news of the world’s worst dam disaster. It took place along the Huai River when in August 1975, the Shimantan and Bangqiao dams suddenly collapsed and drowned 240,000 people. China’s dams are to blame for other problems, above all for the worsening shortage of water. Some 500 cities are now dangerously short of water. Even by official accounts, 70 per cent of rivers and lakes across the country are so polluted they fail to meet government standards and the water in one in seven major reservoirs is undrinkable. The rivers and reservoirs around two of the country’s most important cities, Beijing and Tianjin, have either run dry or are poisoned. The aquifer below the two cities is being steadily drained and the water table is now 300 feet below the surface and dropping by 10 and sometimes twenty feet a year. This means that in Tianjin, some 60 percent of the land is plagued by subsidence If there is no solution to the water shortage in northern China, 20 million peasants, perhaps one day many times that number will be forced to abandon using irrigation or will leave marginal farmlands. Some fear that China’s water deficit has already become so serious (the shortfall in the north alone is more than ten trillion gallons a year) that the nation’s entire prosperity is in jeopardy China is spending some 30 billion US$ to ship water all the way from the Yangtze along the South-North Water Diversion Project to keep Beijing and Tianjin going. Tianjin tries to disguise the lack of water in the Tai river which runs through the centre by importing water diverted from the Yellow River and keeping a stretch of water dammed at either end just for show. If one takes the night train from Beijing through the Loess plateau to Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province, one glimpses factories in steep valleys emitting a grand and yellowish glow amid billowing clouds of black and yellow smoke. In daylight, you can see streams and rivers, where effluents - mat black, ochre red, yellow and even a Day-Glo green, gently bubble and simmer like a witch's cauldron. The Fenhe River, a tributary of the Yellow River, is now just a ghostly presence in Taiyuan. Not long ago, it was wide and deep enough to carry fleets of barges and huge bridges span a bare river bed along which flows a trickle of dirty water. The Taiyuan Iron and Steel Works, the city’s largest employer and polluter, continues to pump out a steady stream of black and foul smelling water directly into the Fenhe. As in Tianjin, a few hundred yards of deep water has been imprisoned and kept for show. Like Beijing and Tianjin, Taiyuan has been forced to import water from far away. Yet another dam has been flung across the Yellow River at Wanjiazhai in Pianguang county, from where 1.2 billion cubic meters of water is being pumped 250 miles to Taiyuan. It is a stupendous engineering feat because the water crosses rough mountainous country so the engineers had had to bore tunnels longer than the Channel Tunnel and dozens of aqueducts. The fate of the Yellow River which runs through the Loess Plateau is a warning of what might yet happen to other rivers, even the Yangtze River, the third longest in the world. For all but two months of the year, the Yellow River ceases to flow entirely. It is a dry bed along 600 miles. The Huai River basin in central China, home to 150 million people, has fared no better than the Yellow River. In all China built 36 large dams, 150 smaller dams and 4,000 locks and barrages along its length yet instead of preventing disasters or improving the management of water resources, the problems have multiplied. Residents along the Huai River are plagued by constant water shortages. In 1999, for instance, the Huai River basin, suffered a drought for 247 days. Cities and towns had to frantically start digging deeper wells to chase the shrinking aquifers hundreds of feet deeper underground. Even in the best of times, the dams and barrages trap the pollution released by thousands of factories in the basin creating undrinkable and toxic reservoirs of water. The grandiose dam building mania of the Mao era had other repercussions which became clear in 1998 with deadly floods along the Yangtze River. To create more arable land to grow grain, the Communist parties drained many of the lakes along the middle Yangtze which held the overflow of the summer floods. From 1949 onwards two thirds of the Yangtze lakes disappeared. The total surface area of the lakes in the middle and lower Yangtze shrank from 18,000 square kilometers to 7,000 square kilometers in just 50 years. In China as a whole, wetlands have shrunk by nearly two-thirds since 1949. The lakes were reclaimed but those that survived silted up. The storage volume of these lakes fell by eight billion cubic meters. Dongting Lake, the second largest in China, was cut by half and become very shallow as 100 million cubic meters of silt sank to the bottom raising the bed by 3.7 centimeters a year. When the Yangtze flooded, there was nowhere for the water to go and the resulting damage cost 36 billion US$. If the floodwaters had risen a few more inches over the emergency levees, then the loss of life and property would have been far greater. The authorities were poised to dynamite the levees in order to protect the great industrial cities like Wuhan. Mao’s insistence of raising grain production at costs led to the drainage of lakes and wetlands down stream. It also led to phenomenon unique to China, a backbreaking effort to terrace steep hillsides after destroying the natural vegetation. Since much of China is mountainous, nowhere more so than Yunnan, the policy accelerated the rate at which silt was washed off steep slopes and filled the rivers with silt. Every year in Yunnan some 500 people die in floods that wash away not just houses but entire sections of roads and railroads. The silt is not just raising the levels of lake beds but rivers too which is forcing the local population to keep raising the levees ever high each year. By now the Yellow River flows nearly a hundred feet above the surrounding countryside. As the reservoirs silted up, the dams become progressively less useful at controlling floods or even providing reliable flows of electricity. The costs of maintaining the dams and building ever higher flood barriers often outweighed the economic benefits. For the Chinese, crowded together in river valleys and relying on farming limited land, the consequences of these errors were felt far more keenly than in the Soviet Union. The Russians are after all far fewer and scattered over a much bigger territory. The dam building had a direct human cost. To make way for the dam reservoirs, the Party forcibly relocated some 16 million people from their farms in fertile valleys and exiled them to poorer lands. The Mao era had other features which were peculiar to China. His rush to industrialize China led him to order that all China’s major cities should invest in heavy industry and that the new factories should be built right in the heart of ancient walled cities. Even Beijing which had no industry to speak off before 1949 soon had 6,000 factories operating inside the old imperial capital. Many were small but Beijing ended up with its own steel works, machine tool plants and a power plant. In most cities little or nothing was invested in water treatment plants after 1949. Some 20 billion tons of urban waste water is dumped each year straight into rivers and lakes. Later the peasants switched from using human waste (“night soils”) to fertilize their fields to applying nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers. The result is that this chemically charged runoff brews thick films of algae in rivers, lakes, and canals or dense coverings of water hyacinth. Some scientists are convinced there is a direct link between China’s water pollution and the country’s high rates of Hepatitis A, diarrhea, and liver, stomach, and esophageal cancers. In the end China did not get a large share of its electricity from the hydro-power schemes nor did it invest in a civilian nuclear industry. Instead it relied on its plentiful supplies of coal for heating and electrical power so all Chinese cities soon suffered from a suffocating pall of industrial air pollution that was worst in winter. On the World Bank's list of 20 cities with the worst air, 16 are Chinese and the capital is perhaps the most polluted of all. People in two thirds of the 338 monitored cities in China breathe air that fails to meet national air quality goals and these are set at well below those used by the World Health Organization. Air pollution related to the burning of coal is believed to kill more than 700,000 people a year. A World Bank report estimates that air pollution costs the Chinese economy $25 billion a year in health expenditure and lost labor productivity alone Deaths from respiratory disease have increased by more than a quarter in the 1990s. After 1979, the new government led by Deng Xiaoping began to take environmental issues more seriously and slowly began admitting the scale of the problem. The first environmental legislation was approved and new bodies set up to monitor and enforce legislation. Errors like the Sanmen Xia dam on the Yellow river came to light for the first time. The dam building program slowed. The government admitted that out of the 16 million displaced by reservoirs, some ten million were still living in poverty. A fresh effort was launched to help those relocated find new ways of earning a living and to provide better compensation to new relocatees. Deng’s new agricultural policies helped redress the ecological mistakes of the Mao era. As grain production rose, the state encouraged farmers to abandon the terraces or to grow other crops including fruit and nut trees, tea bushes, trees, and drought resistance grasses. Ambitious reforestation programs were unveiled. To combat the growing desertification of North West China and to protect Beijing from the spring dust storms, it announced plans to build a “giant great green wall” and plant a belt of a billion trees. Then in the 1990s the government began addressing the problems of urban China and spending massively on building new housing. It began the complex process of relocating factories from the centers of Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Shenyang and other major cities. The urban redevelopment allowed a clean up of polluted waterways like the Suzhou Creek that runs through Shanghai. As China’s leading cities were rebuilt, natural gas pipelines arrived and helped replace the old coal-fired heating systems. Households started cooking with clean gas instead of the noxious coal briquettes, the cause of so much lung disease. China’s response to the 1998 Yangtze floods was another milestone in Chinese thinking about the environment. The then premier Zhu Rongji ordered a national ban on the logging of old growth forests and he commissioned a massive Yangtze watershed reforestation project. The terraces on all hillsides steeper than 25 degrees were to be replanted with grasses, bushes, and trees. The ten-year program, affecting 200 million peasants, aimed to convert fields back to pasture, forests, lakes, and wetlands. In particular, he put in motion a plan to re-flood the middle Yangtze wetlands—an integral part of the Asian flyway for swans, herons, storks, duck, geese, cormorants, egrets, and Siberian white cranes—which has involved moving about 2.5 million people onto higher ground or into small rural townships. The project reversed the Maoist scheme to drain Dongting Lake and called into question the philosophy behind China’s water management. After 1989, the Soviet-trained hydropower engineer has pushed through the plan to dam the Yangtze at the Three Gorges against considerable domestic and international opposition. One of the avowed purposes of the dam was to control the dangerous summer floods but it became clear that even if the dam had by then been completed it could not have prevented the floods or even reduced their threat. Dam opponents put forward many other objections to the scheme ranging from the engineering difficulties, the economic cost, and most of all the difficulty of relocating up to two million residents, many of whom lived in cities and towns along the banks. As the project got under way, it became clear that the original proposal had vastly underestimated the number of urban residents who would have to be re-housed and found employment, and the amount of farming land available to resettle the farmers who lost their land. It also become clear the forecast electricity demand was not materializing and when in 1998, China’s economy seemed to be contracting during the Asian Financial crisis, the project looked like a white elephant in the making. The ‘trillion dollar’ infrastructure spending program launched in response to the Asian Financial Crisis, and the foreign investment that flooded after China joined the World Trade Organization saved the Three Gorges Dam. Energy demand shot up, far ahead of even the most optimistic predictions. China’s accelerating growth has justified the need for hydro-electric schemes as the best way of diversify away from coal. China sits on massive reserves of coal and it accounts for 75 percent of its energy output. Since 1998 China doubled its coal production to 1.8 billion tonnes, mining almost twice as much coal as the United States, the world’s second largest coal producer. If China’s economy keeps roaring along, it will overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest source of greenhouse gases within a decade, contributing mightily to acid rain and global warming. China has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest emitter of sulfur dioxide and about 30% of China's total land area and over 60% of cities in southern China are damaged by acid rain. In 2004, acid rain is reckoned to cost China over 110 billion yuan (13.4 billion USD) a year. Chinese coal is cheap to buy but the human cost is high. Officially, China has three million coal miners, who mostly work in 580 big state mines, but in reality, China probably has 6.6 million miners. The rest work in 70,000 mines run by villages and local governments where equipment and working conditions are extremely primitive. Most of these miners are local peasants who earn low wages whose lives are worth little. As a result, about six thousand die in Chinese mines every year, a death rate that is 100 times the rate in America or Australia. China, which produces a third of the world’s coal, therefore accounts for 80 percent of the mining industry’s fatalities. In addition, some 600,000 miners suffer from pneumoconiosis, a number grows by 70,000 a year. Some estimate that perhaps the real death toll from mining, if the deaths from lung diseases are included, is around 20,000 lives a year. Before 1998, Chinese economic planners had been trying to close these small mines, suspended new dam projects and to shelve an ambitious nuclear power plan. A surplus of electricity, plus the disastrous Yangtze floods, had opened a window to pursue more environmentally friendly policies. Yet this window soon closed as economic growth raced ahead and on world markets, the price of oil and other commodities rose higher and higher. Between 1998 and 2006, the price of barrel of oil went from 14 US$ to over 70 US$. As China became the world’s second largest oil exporter after the United States, its energy policies had to be drastically revised. The drive to close small and in efficient coal-mines stopped and every part of Chinese began a frantic effort to build new coal-fired power stations to keep up with the demand. As most coal is shipped by rail, the railways and harbours quickly jammed up leading to coal shortages as 60 percent of rail transport is tied up in transporting coal. Across the country, 500 new coal-burning power stations were under construction in 2005 and planners now assume that over the next 30 years half the world’s new power capacity will be built in China. Hydro-power engineers took off the shelves all the dam projects they could find and began a new drive to start building new dams in every possible site. The engineers could now safely argue that hydro-power is cheaper, safer and more ecologically sound than coal or anything else. As most of the untapped rivers lie in the west of China, areas like the mountains of Yunnan, China also began to invest in new nationwide electricity grid to transport electricity to the east coast. It is also starting to establish a functioning market for electricity that allows different suppliers to compete on price. China ranks second globally in installed electricity capacity (338 gigawatts in 2000) but its use of electricity is just 38 percent of the world’s average. When you consider that China has 1.3 billion people—more than four times the population of the United States—the implications of the country’s gallop toward a Western-style consumer society are sobering. If per capita energy use were to reach the world average, China will have to add the generating capacity of Canada every four years. And even if the lower predictions of per capita energy use are realized, then China is likely to add an extra two or three hundred million gigawatts before 2050 when the population will peak. China is rapidly trying to exploit its natural gas reserves and is building a network of pipelines to serve the growing urban population. By 2030, natural gas could account for eight percent of China’s energy needs. Over time, China’s cities should enjoy cleaner air as natural gas is used for heating and power generation instead of coal. China is beginning to ship liquefied natural gas from Australia, Indonesia and eventually Iran. Also planned are pipe lines to bring natural gas from Siberia and Kazakhstan. There are ambitious plans to build a range of nuclear power stations. A handful of plants were built with French help in the 1990s but China’s energy shortages could mean a bonanza for the whole nuclear power industry.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Experts: Inefficiency aggravates water shortage

Nov. 22 (Xinhua) -- Inefficient water use is greatly worsening the China's water shortage, an environment advisory body has warned.

from the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) said much water was wasted in agricultural irrigation and the daily use of urban residents.

water use rate of flood irrigation, the main irrigation method of Chinese farmers, was only 45 percent, while the rates of developed countries was above 80 percent.

25 percent of water pipes and facilities in urban areas leaked, resulting in a loss of 400 million cubic meters every year, according to the Ministry of Construction.

also attributed pollution and ecosystem degeneration caused by human use of natural resources to the worsening shortage.

is suffering chronic water shortages, with per capita resources of about 2,200 cubic meters, a quarter of the international average and ranking the 110th among 149 countries.

safety of water supplies for 320 million rural people could not be guaranteed and more than 400 cities suffered inadequate supplies.

severe drought in July and August left at least 18 million people short of drinking water in 15 provinces, municipalities and regions, according to the Ministry of Water Resources.

government should raise public awareness of water conservation, adopt new irrigation methods and spread the use of water-efficient facilities, experts said

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Pollution increases in first half

(China Daily)

Updated: 2006-11-22 07:53

A man with the local environmental protection department collects sample from the Lanzhou section of the Yellow River in Lanzhou, capital of Northwest China's Gansu province November 21, 2006. The section of the Yellow River turned red and the cause of the pollution, covering a perimeter of two kilometers, is under investigation, local media reported. [Newsphoto]

The relentless effort to increase the country's gross domestic product (GDP) led to an increase in the discharge of major pollutants in the first half of this year, according to the country's leading environmental watchdog.

The State Environment Protection Administration (SEPA) announced the findings in a summary of its evaluation of the country's overall environment, which the organization posted on its website. The summary covers activity in the first half and third quarter.

The quality of the country's overall environment remained unchanged or deteriorated in some areas, the report said.

As the country notched up a GDP growth rate of 10.9 per cent in the first half of the year, it also generated larger volumes major pollutants, the release showed.

For example, China produced more than 12 billion tons of industrial waste-water in the first half, up 2.4 per cent from the same period last year.

The chemical oxygen demand (COD), a major index of water pollution, increased by 3.7 per cent, while emissions of sulphur dioxide increased by 4.2 per cent in the first half.

Acid rain, which already affects almost one third of the nation's territory, remained unchecked. The report singled out East China's Zhejiang Province, where nearly all rain in the cities monitored for pollution was acidic.

The report attributed the increasing volume of pollution to the country's industrial structure. It said that food-processing, paper-making and chemical plants accounted for more than 80 per cent of the increase in COD.

The report also attacked some local governments, saying that only 30 per cent to 40 per cent of public projects had undergone environmental evaluations before receiving approval.

The release's findings bode ill for the country's goal of reducing energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20 per cent, and the discharge of key pollutants by 10 per cent within the time frame of the 11th five-year plan (2006-10).

The country has already failed to reach some of the major environmental objectives contained the 10th plan (2001-05).

In September, the SEPA announced that pollution had inflicted economic losses of 511.8 billion yuan (US$ 64 billion) on the country in 2004, representing about 3 per cent of the GDP that year.

"It is almost impossible to reduce energy consumption within a short period while experiencing such a high economic growth rate," Lu Zhongwu, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told China Daily at a meeting on November 11.

Coal output grew by 12.8 per cent in the first half of this year. Coal-fired power plants emit greenhouse gases.

Lu called for more oversight of the high GDP growth goals set by local governments. He said some local officials seem to place economic growth ahead of everything else.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Beijingers told to stay indoors as smog hangs

Updated: 2006-11-20 22:10 style="font-size: 9pt; font-family: Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif;"> (AFP) Via China

BEIJING - Beijing residents have warned to stay indoors due to high pollution levels, as a blanket of heavy smog across northern China caused traffic chaos and delayed flights throughout the region.

People visit the Tian'anmen Square as fog smothers Beijing November 20, 2006. Heavy fog enveloped capital much of north and east China beginning Sunday night, forcing the closure of highways around the Beijing and Tianjin area, and delay of several flights at the Capital International Airport.[Xinhua]

"Under these weather conditions it is better to reduce outdoor activities especially in areas where pollutants are concentrated such as where traffic is heavy," the Beijing environmental protection bureau said on its website Monday.

"Residents should take measures to protect themselves in order not to breathe heavily polluted air."

During the 24-hour period from Sunday noon, Beijing's air quality was rated a "hazardous" four on a scale of five, the bureau said, with five representing the worst level of pollution.

Besides the regular car pollution, the bad air quality was also due to the city's 6,000 coal-fire heating furnaces and up to two million home coal burners that went into operation this month to provide the capital with heat, it said.

Meanwhile the blanket of smog caused traffic chaos as drivers were left lined up at numerous highways that were shut down due to the atmospheric conditions.

Five highways in the capital and eight in neighboring Tianjin were shut down beginning late Sunday due to the fog, which reduced visibility in some places to as low as 10 meters (33 feet), Xinhua news agency reported.

During Beijing's early morning rush hour Monday, 154 accidents were reported, with some of the incidents due to heavy smog, the report said.

Fog was worse in northeastern Liaoning province and eastern Shandong province where air flights in and out of the regions were delayed since Sunday, separate reports said.

Beijing has set an ambitious annual target of realizing "blue sky days" of level two air quality or better 65 percent of the time.

As of November 14, the city had registered 213 blue sky days and needed an additional 25 more clean air days by the end of the year to reach the target, the environmental bureau said.

"We still have hopes to fulfill this year's task, it can be done but it will be a serious challenge and we must not take this lightly," it said in a report.

Beijing, a city of 15 million people, is regarded as one of the most heavily polluted in China, although authorities are trying desperately to improve the situation ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Barely Breathing

Air pollution kills more than 1,000 Chinese a day, which means cleaning Beijing's air for the 2008 Games poses an Olympian challenge

It starts out as a tickle in the back of your throat but before long it's that moment from Alien when the monster begins sawing its way through your chest. For some Beijing residents, a hacking, lung-ripping cough that leaves the sufferer unwilling to draw a full breath for fear it might set off another bout is as much part of the onset of Fall as red leaves at the Great Wall. Colds and the flu are common all over the world when winter threatens, of course. But this is something special, a by-product of Beijing's putrid air that serves as a painful reminder of how much damage China's invisible menace is wreaking.

Doctors in the city say the affliction, which affects newcomers like myself disproportionately, is sparked in part by the changing weather and the city's arid climate. But it is the city's heavy air pollution that seems to be the chief culprit in transforming what might be a seasonal irritation into something that can be truly frightening. For one thing, this cough simply won't go away. In my case it lasted for almost four weeks, often improving for a day or two only to return in full force. It's also scarily hard to control, even with medication: After a couple of weeks of hacking, my wife complained of a pain in her side and was told by the doctor that she had coughed so much that she had torn rib cartilage. In fact, he said, she was lucky not to have actually cracked a rib, an occurrence so common that she was routinely sent for an x-ray.

The effect of the Beijing air on newcomers is a vivid reminder of just how awful China's pollution problem is — and the grim toll it is taking on millions and millions of ordinary Chinese. Recent estimates by the State Bureau for Environmental Protection put the annual number of premature deaths in China caused by air pollution at a massive 358,000.

Even though on Beijing's worst days you can actually taste the poison in the air — an eye stinging, throat rasping experience similar to breathing in anti-mosquito fogger — the capital is theoretically one of China's better cities when it comes to air pollution. Some days it doesn't even make the list of China's top 10 most polluted cities. Still, competition is fierce: China boasts 15 out of the world's top 20 most polluted metropolises.

The best hope of the city's residents for a cleanup is the fact that Beijing will host the Olympics in 2008. It's hard to exaggerate the importance to the Chinese authorities of an event they see as China's coming out party as a major world power. Yet, even with so much at stake and the executive power bestowed by authoritarian rule, Beijing'S doggedly dirty atmosphere may yet defeat the government's seemingly half hearted attempts to clean up. The capital remains a standout among Chinese cities in that it has no restrictions on the number of new cars hitting its streets. Shanghai for example limits new cars sales by charging for new license plates. In Beijing, there are no limits, and every day about 1,000 new vehicles boost the approximately 2.8 million total in the city.

If the city's experience during the recent China-Africa Summit is anything to go by, drastic measures may be required to clean up Beijing's air in time for the Olympics in August 2008. During that summit, which featured 42 heads of state, the authorities ordered half a million official cars off the roads and said another 400,000 drivers had "volunteered" to refrain from using their vehicles. The Air Pollution Index responded grudgingly, slowly falling until finally, on the last day of the meeting, it had dipped into a range considered normal anywhere else in the world. By the next day, though traffic was back to its usual chaotic state and the index had shot back into "unhealthy" territory. And Draconian measures to keep the air clean for a three-day summit would be considerably more difficult to impose over a 17-day sporting festival.

Still, the Chinese government has made it clear it will do whatever it takes for a successful Olympics. And if needs be, that will include ordering most of the capital's cars off the road for three weeks and shuttering factories. For those weeks anyway, Beijingers can be sure they'll be able to breathe easy. Other than that though, it looks as though we'll be stuck with poisonous air for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

A Troubled River Mirrors China’s Path to Modernity

November 19, 2006

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.”

Jake Hooker and Lin Yang contributed to this article.