Saturday, Jul 22, 2017, 8:50 AM CST – China

Society

Yellow River

Changing Course

The pilot phase of a grand resettlement project affecting more than 1.2 million people living along the Yellow River has begun in Henan Province, but the scheme’s necessity is being called into question by a few outlying researchers

Bridges were torn down in the lower reaches of the Yellow River to allow discharged water and silt runoff from the Xiaolangdi Reservoir to drain downstream, July 4, 2015 Photo by Zhou Guangxue

The Xiaolangdi Reservoir has regulated sedimentation since 2002 in order to prevent the Yellow River’s bed from rising Photo by Huang Zhengwei

Resettled residents look out over the site of their former homes, flooded during the construction of the Xiaolangdi Reservoir, June 9, 2007 Photo by IC

Chen Cunli, a farmer in his fifties in Xingmiao Village, Henan Province, spoke animatedly with NewsChina when asked about an ongoing pilot resettlement project which will relocate his village. Xingmiao, with some 1,000 inhabitants, is located on the banks of the lower section of the Yellow River, historically notorious for its frequent floods, unpredictable course changes and rising bed due to silt sedimentation.

“Our village is one of the poorest in Henan due to its proximity to the Yellow River, with each farmer allocated a mere 100 square meters of land,” Chen told our reporter. “Almost all the villagers have agreed to the government-initiated relocation project.”

According to the official schedule, the project, once completed in early 2016, will provide Xingmiao’s displaced villagers with new apartments located in buildings in the county’s town center, some 10 kilometers away.

In January 2014, the Henan provincial government formally announced its plan for the resettlement of over 1.25 million people living on the Yellow River floodplain, a displacement on a scale almost equal to that which occurred during the building of the Three Gorges Dam, which saw 1.3 million people relocated. Since early 2015, Henan Province launched the project’s initial pilot phase in 14 villages, affecting some 10,000 local residents living along various stretches of the Yellow River.

The main purpose of the project, according to officials, is to ensure public safety, reduce the impact of natural disasters during the flood season, promote healthy development of the shipping industry and help lift local residents out of poverty.

Unnecessary

“The resettlement project will cost an enormous amount, over 100 billion yuan (US$15.68bn),” said Qi Pu, a retired senior engineer with the Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC) under the Ministry of Water Resources, in a recent interview with NewsChina. “[This is] a huge waste of national resources, since the current situation on the Yellow River, after decades of human interference, has changed dramatically.” 

The Yellow River is famous – indeed, named for – the vast quantities of silt created by the flow of a disproportionately “insufficient” volume of water. A commonly acknowledged figure for silt deposits washed down the Yellow River annually is 1.6 billion tons (a figure confirmed in the 1950s and 1960s). In sharp contrast, the Yangtze River, China’s other major waterway, only produces around 600 million tons of silt annually. At the same time, it enjoys an average annual delta runoff of 960 billion cubic meters, almost 17 times the volume of water that is disgorged into the Pacific by the Yellow River (50 billion cubic meters).

According to Qi Pu, official data released by the YRCC have indicated that both the average annual runoff volume and production of silt in the Yellow River have been falling dramatically from the mid-1980s onwards. NewsChina obtained a 2014 YRCC report on water and silt levels that measured silt deposits in the hydrological monitoring station at Tongguan, Shaanxi Province. Engineering data showed that the average annual volume of silt in the river fell from 1.59 billion tons over the period 1919 to 1959, to 1.2 billion tons between 1960 and 1986, then to 807 million tons from 1987 to 1999, with only an average of 276 million tons deposited from 2000 to 2012. The average annual volume of water discharged into the ocean also fell from 42.6 billion cubic meters to 40.3 billion, 26 billion and finally 23 billion over the same periods of time. Indeed, water levels in the Yellow River have hit record lows in recent years due to drought and the central government’s immense South-North water diversion scheme (See: “River of Constant Sorrow,” NewsChina, November, 2013, Vol. 063).

In the November 2013 edition of Hohai University’s bimonthly periodical Advances in Science and Technology of Water Resources, Qi Pu published a research paper entitled “Great changes on the Lower Yellow River channel since 2000 and future prospective [sic].” In this paper, Qi states: “With the construction of large hydropower projects on its upper and middle reaches and the development of soil-water conservation and irrigation projects, the probability that a big flood event will occur [has been greatly reduced alongside] flood peak discharges.”

“There are at least 600 dams and reservoirs on different scales along either the main course or branches of the Yellow River, with total storage capacity amounting to over 70 billion cubic meters, surpassing the river’s yearly runoff,” Qi told our reporter. “With these reservoirs’ high adjustment capability, the possibility of flooding has been greatly lowered. Meanwhile, because of sediment retained in the reservoirs, especially sediment regulation by Xiaolangdi Reservoir, and sediment release at the right time by floods, raising of the riverbed will not occur. Thus, the proposed grand relocation project in Henan is not necessary.”

Minority View

Throughout history, the cause of flooding on the Yellow River has been the large volume of fine-grained loess, a loamy sediment carried by the wind, from the Loess Plateau on China’s central plain, and continuously deposited into the river, where it collects on the bed. This sedimentation causes natural dams to slowly form over time, obstructions that eventually divert the river, inundating surrounding settlements and agricultural land. These major changes could ultimately cause the river mouth to shift as much as a few hundred kilometers.

Therefore, for thousands of years, the Yellow River’s frequent changes of course in its lower reaches have resulted in the formation of what is known as a “wide-shift channel.” Historical records indicate over 1,500 instances of devastating flooding before the year 1946, and the river has discernibly shifted course on at least 26 occasions.

In terms of managing the Yellow River, there’s no international historical model that China can refer to. Extremely high sedimentation load and unpredictable morphology make the Yellow River unique, so managing it is among the world’s most complex environmental challenges.

The traditional approach to harnessing the Yellow River is to build high levees parallel to, but a long distance away from, its natural banks, in order to provide a degree of space for the waterway to change its course. However, the construction of a large number of reservoirs along the river, the application of new soil and water conservation practices in the past two decades, and the massive development of new irrigation projects have transformed the riverbed.

In recent decades, based on his personal research into the mechanisms and capacity of the sediment regulation in the Yellow River, Qi Pu and a handful of researchers have put forward an alternative management system to put an end to what Qi views as wasteful and unnecessary practices.

Qi believes that it is unnecessary to widen the lower reaches of the Yellow River to accommodate greater floodplain inundation as a measure to reduce wider flooding. “After the Xiaolangdi Reservoir went into operation in the late 1990s, great changes have taken place in the lower channel, with maximum longitudinal water surface elevation reduced by 10-22 meters, and a dramatic increase in bank discharge. But the wandering reaches are still wide, shallow, scattered and in poor condition, and they need to be regulated on both banks to form a stable, deep and narrow channel,” he said.

Qi told NewsChina that there are successful international examples of “two-bank training strategy” practices, such as projects on the Mississippi River and some other major US waterways.

According to Qi’s son, Qi Honghai, a senior water resources engineer with the global consulting company WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, the two-bank training strategy can form a narrow and deep channel more suitable for flow discharge and sediment transport. In a recent email exchange with NewsChina, Qi Honghai quoted Dr Dave Rosgen, US expert in river restoration and management, who acknowledged that China should use narrow river channels to facilitate sediment transportation, and to develop stable channels that would prevent riverbeds from rising.

Proper adjustment of the sediment levels of the Xiaolangdi Reservoir could ultimately restore the natural cycle of silt build-up and discharge that occurs during flood periods on the Yellow River, and prevent the main riverbed from rising too high. Meanwhile, if the speed of the main channel’s current can be increased, the flood plain will decrease in size, and debate over constructing new levees can cease. According to Qi and his team, this is the rational method of managing the Yellow River. In 2010, Jiao Yong, vice minister of the Ministry of Water Resources, expressed support for conducting some trial projects on “regulating both banks” along the lower reaches of the Yellow River.

Ongoing Debate

However, beyond a few token mentions in academic circles, Qi Pu’s concept of “regulating both banks” and “narrow channel” management of the Yellow River remains marginalized within mainstream Chinese academia.

Hu Yisan, vice chairman of the YRCC Technical Committee and a proponent of the traditional “wide channel” strategy, told China Science Daily in 2014 that a wider river channel can decrease the average flow of water during an inundation. Meanwhile, a large proportion of silt deposited in the wide channel section can offset silting in narrower channels. “In addition, with a wide floodplain area to contain silt, the speed of the elevation of the riverbed due to sedimentation may slow down, prolonging the river channel’s functional lifespan,” he said.

Liu Guowei, senior engineer with the Nanjing Hydrology Research Institute, also told China Science Daily that the bulk of silt reduction in the Yellow River is the result of human activity the widespread construction of dams to store silt. Within two or three decades, Liu suggested, the storage capacity of many reservoirs may hit their upper limits, and thus the lower reaches of the Yellow River will need more space to change course.

The YRCC has historically leaned towards conservatism when it comes to management strategies for the Yellow River, shunning the implementation of radical measures that could potentially have disastrous consequences. Therefore, consensus is championed, and “rogue” researchers discredited. During a recent telephone interview with NewsChina, Zhao Yong, deputy director of the YRCC, vehemently disagreed with Qi’s opinions, claiming that over 95 percent of YRCC experts share his view.

Xue Songgui, chief engineer and YRCC technical committee chairman, also remarked that it was quite natural for academics to debate solutions to the complex situation of the Yellow River. According to Xue, despite the recent trend towards silt reduction, the long-term situation is hard to predict, yet future approaches to management hinge upon knowing whether there will be more or less sedimentation along the Yellow River in the decades to come.

“With existing domestic technology, even decades of research is not enough for us to obtain a complete understanding of the changing conditions of water and silt [along the Yellow River],” said Xue. “We share a common grounding in some basic facts and the general trend, however opinions on specific management measures vary widely, with some experts even contradicting one another.”

“As far as I know, Qi’s opinion is so far not accepted by the majority of YRCC experts,” Xue added.

Uncertainty

Qi Pu has devoted most of his life to researching the Yellow River, and his strong views have turned him into something of an activist. He has brought his concerns and proposals to national leaders, colleagues and major figures across a range of industries. Even those who don’t agree with Qi have expressed admiration for his somewhat quixotic commitment to a single cause.

A Xingmiao village official surnamed Hao told our reporter that, in the past two decades, the Yellow River has not threatened the village. Instead, he argued, a lack of land has caused severe poverty, making locals eager to use the resettlement plan as an escape hatch. “With moderate compensation from the government, people can at least live in better conditions,” he said.

“Whatever the situation is now, we cannot predict that there won’t be any devastating floods in the future, so, in my view, the resettlement project is crucial so long as the country can afford it,” said Xue Songgui. “When addressing public safety, the worst-case scenario should be considered.”

In late 2014, Qi Pu joined a few other academics, including Qian Zhengying, one of China’s most esteemed hydrologists and former vice chairwoman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and You Lianyuan of the Institute of Geographic Sciences and National Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in presenting a letter to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stating their opinion on the current situation of the Yellow River and calling off the “unnecessary” resettlement project that would “waste huge amounts of money.” Different sources informed our reporter that the letter was indeed passed on to the National Development and Reform Committee for “further study and reexamination.”

Yet, whether resettlement will continue unabated remains open to question. While Qi Pu claimed to our reporter that, since his letter was submitted to Li Keqiang, the resettlement project has been halted, we were unable to get official confirmation of this information. At press time, no official response had been forthcoming from the Henan Provincial Development and Reform Commission.

A spokesman surnamed Wang told NewsChina: “The project remains in its trial phase, and it is not certain that it will be promoted in other areas. Nor is there a timeline for the completion of this project.” 

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