By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 2, 2006
BEIJING, Aug. 1 -- For centuries, the Chinese have struggled through flood and drought to tame the Yellow River, known as the Mother River, birthplace of Chinese culture, writing and folktales. Now the government is tightening controls over the river's precious contents.
Authorities said a new law, which went into effect Tuesday, will allow for better management of resources and reduce the number of regional fights over water from the Yellow River. It will give the Water Resources Ministry the power to set plans for water usage for 11 provinces or municipalities along the 3,395-mile river, and it will impose sanctions or fines on officials who do not comply with regulations or who take more water than is allowed.
The new law also differs from previous water conservation rules in that it includes emergency measures in case of severe drought or "major water pollution events."
"This regulation provides more explicit and strict organizational guarantees compared with previous regulations," Li Guoying, commissioner of the Yellow River Conservancy Commission, said at a news conference in Beijing.
The move to tighten control over the river is a reflection of China's tremendous economic growth and industrial development, which have fueled the demand for natural resources. More than 400 of China's 600 cities suffer water shortages. The problem is especially acute in 108 cities, many of them along the Yellow River.
The river supplies water to 140 million people, or 12 percent of China's population, and irrigates about 15 percent of the country's farmland. For years, overuse, pollution, drought and farming took their toll. The river dried up during 21 out of the 27 years between 1972 and 1999, officials said.
At times, dry riverbed stretched for more than 372 miles. Only in the past five or six years has the river begun to reach the Bo Hai Gulf again, said Ma Jun, author of "China's Water Crisis."
"To keep the river flowing, they need to work on the distribution of water. They have been monitoring that, and this regulation gives them more power to do that," Ma said. "But the sediment and pollution problems still haven't been solved."
"We need to give priority to conservation because there is now inefficient use of water in agriculture, in the cities, in the urban and industrial uses along the river," Ma said. "The real cost will be much higher if we take into account the environmental costs. That part has not been seriously studied."
The Yellow River is part of a massive $63 billion project that will divert water from the lower, middle and upper reaches of China's longest river, the Yangtze, connecting the two famous waterways to two other rivers.
The diversion project is far from finished, but officials said the northern sections of it will be ready to help provide relief in time for the 2008 Olympics, when an estimated 2.5 million visitors will descend on Beijing. Water from the Yellow River could be diverted to Beijing as an emergency measure, Li said.
Li acknowledged that challenges remain in managing the Yellow River. Many Chinese officials continue to propose additional dams on the river. Development in western China, a concerted effort to enrich poorer provinces, has vastly increased pollution along the Yellow River.
"But now the good thing is that the government, in repairing the Yellow River, has set aside pollution repair investment and also requires that new projects be clean," he said. "This requirement is very strict."
Local officials in cities along the Yellow River greeted the new law with resignation and concern.
"Water is the lifeline of a country's economy and a regional economy. If a place can't have enough water resource, how can you expect it to develop its regional economy?" said Ouyang Xi, who develops water resource policy for Henan province. "Sometimes we have to sacrifice our own interests in order to meet the interest of the country. If the central government and its commission can't fulfill our requirement for water, we can only reduce production."