The Yellow River: the threats of “China’s Cradle”

Published on Author mccarronp16

The Yellow River (Huang He) is perhaps China’s most historically significant geographical component. Its basin was the site of the first Chinese civilizations, and it was a very prosperous region from 2100-1046 BC. It is the most important water source of North China—which afforded settlers the opportunity to farm. It is China’s second-largest river—and the sixth largest in the world. It is also symbolically representative of Chinese spirit. The river’s yellow sedimentation represents bearing burdens, its changing course represents adaptation, and its continual flow represents Chinese perseverance.


But there is a dark side to the story of the Yellow River–nicknamed “China’s sorrow.” Its accumulating sediment causes a shift in the riverbed, making it prone to flooding. And this flooding had caused millions of deaths before modern agriculture brought damming to the river. It is also home to one of the most deadly natural disasters in human history: in 1931, 1 million died in a massive flood.

And the story of the Yellow River has only gotten worse in recent years. China’s economic development—which is correlated with pollution, hydropower, water extraction, agriculture, and industrial use—has harmed the river. The Chinese government has said that 66% of the river is too polluted for safe consumption. Also indicative of this phenomenon is that 30% of the river’s fish population has become extinct. Its floods have become even more disastrous with economic modernization. Deforestation and the embankment of tributaries have contributed.

w-china-flood-rtxsbtwWhat does this mean for economics? Environmental economics (a class I’m taking right now) suggests that the “pollution market” for the Yellow River is out of equilibrium. Many factors play into this. The costs—undrinkable water, the loss of life, loss of peace of mind due to the threat of floods, degradation a historic landmark—that Chinese society bears because of its pollution far outweigh the current benefits of the pollution. While basic economic modeling cannot put a price tag on these entities, they are clear losses. Pollution permits or taxes are ways of putting a price tag on these negative externalities, and would be a step forward to improving the condition of an important Chinese symbol.

11 Responses to The Yellow River: the threats of “China’s Cradle”

  1. The Yellow River’s pollution problem is further complicated by the income disparity between the downstream and upstream provinces. Many of the polluting firms are located on the upper and middle stretches of the river. As a result, the entire Yellow River is heavily polluted. Since these provinces are poorer, they are more concerned with creating jobs than helping conserve the environment. Conversely, the provinces lower downstream are more wealthy and would like to make an effort to clean up the river. However, there are currently no programs that enable these wealthy provinces to aid in the upstream cleanup.

    Reporter, Daily Mail. “China’s Yellow River Is ‘unsafe for Any Use’ Because of High Pollution Level.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 29 Feb. 2016.

    • The Qinghai Province only accounts for approximately 0.32% of China’s total waste water discharged. Despite this marginal impact on China as a whole, the Yellow River’s pollution must not be ignored. The Yellow River can increase pollution in contiguous regions through its natural flow of water in the ecosystem. In order to combat pollution, China has increased its investment in the treatment of environmental pollution. During 2010 and 2014, China invested 7,612.2 (100 million yuan) and 9,575.5 (million yuan) respectively. [Did not intend to reply to “williamsj18”]

  2. Does the Yellow River currently flow all the way to the sea? Or is it like the Colorado River and (?) Rio Grande, that are drained of the last drop to provide water to California and arid regions along their direct paths? That doesn’t change flooding but it does change pollution dynamics in the lower stretches of the river.

    There are similar issues alongside the Mississippi drainage. Higher dikes in one region mean more flooding in tributaries that don’t get dikes. Herman Missouri is an example of this, periodic small floods that would hit low-lying fields until the 1990s, so would quickly drain and not always ruin the entire crop. But since dikes downstream meant water backs up, repeatedly inundating the small hills where farmers built their houses while leading to complete crop losses.

    • As the scarcity of water becomes a bigger and bigger problem in the north, China will need to figure out a plan to aid agriculture in the area. I looked for evidence of this and found an article published by the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The government has indeed come up with a plan of desalination of seawater and a comprehensive system of water that includes delivery to the north. The program is called the South-to-North Water Diversion Project (SNWDP). The article explains it has an expected completion date of 2050, so the project is clearly a long-term one that “will link the Yangtze, Yellow, Huaihe and Haihe rivers, and divert 44.8 billion cubic meters of water yearly from southern rivers to the arid north.” If completed before agriculture is abandoned in the area, this should prove helpful to farmers, giving them much needed water. However, as expected, issues are present. A main concern by economics and environmentalists alike is the pollution in this water, which may render the water useless. It’ll be interesting to see if this is simply delaying the inevitable, or if it will make a real difference.

      • This sort of long-run solution meets the standard quip by Keynes: “in the long run we’re all dead.” Today’s farmers – since they are older than the population as a whole – won’t be around by then. The region is also a long ways from the ocean, so desalination won’t work.

        See the World Bank China 2030 book (link on right) for more details on water issues. There are several good books in the library, too.

  3. The Chinese government seems to be moving too slow on this matter. Beyond water pollution, all of us are aware of the massive air pollution problems, particularly in Beijing. The implementation of pollution permits and taxes will require Chinese firms to restructure their processes, which will slow down the economy to some extent, but as the article alluded to, the long-term benefits of these projects far outweigh the costs. It appears that China is headed towards an environmental tipping point, and perhaps a point of no return. The government needs to take action now, before the further slowing of the Chinese economy affects their ability to effectively respond to this crisis.

  4. It kind of reminds me of the story of Yangtze River (长江), the largest river in China. Although they have long history and are important symbols of China and Chinese spirits, the problem of flooding for both rivers has bothered Chinese people for so long. And the poorer people are, the more damaging it is for them. And flooding problem definitely has an irreversible and more severe damage for farm lands, which are basically in the countryside: not only the corps will be destroyed, the land is maybe ruined for years, if not forever. What makes the whole situation for farmers who live in the countryside worse is that whenever flood is happening, Chinese government, like any government would do, will always sacrifice the rural counties for the safety of the big city. I remember in 1998, the big flood of Yangtze River endangered millions of people. And in order to protect Wuhan, the government decided to steer the flood into a lowland village. And they had all the villagers move out beforehand. However, in this kind of situation, villagers basically lost everything: their home, their land, and they are unable to live in a large city due to their low wage. Sometimes the most horrible thing is not the flood itself, but poor government decision which made the life for farmers even harder.

    • 1. So should governments do nothing about floods? Or was it sensible to build the dike system as described in Village China?

      2. Historically flooding was one source of renewal for lands, washing fresh dirt into fields. Severe flooding does however destroy infrastructure – irrigation systems and the like – even if it doesn’t really hurt land itself. There are exceptions: deforestation in North Korea means that flood waters contain sand not soil, and sand does not improve the fertility of fields.

      3. So there are lots of challenges with building dike and dam systems, because they change these silting patterns – see Daisy’s post below. It may not be an issue in Ireland, but likely the dikes and dams have hurt wetlands (cf. the Everglades in Florida). In China, the amount of silt in the Yangtze River and Yellow River mean dams fill up with muck, and muck weighs more than water so it’s not clear that designs will be robust to this. (Bursting dams are really, really bad relative to the occasional big flood.)

      • I’m sure they will build dikes and dam when the flood comes. However, when considering how and where to build it, they would fist try to sacrifice the village instead of the city. What I remember was a very specific flood that happened in my city in 1998, when I was two years old. There are lots of records of how the government helped people with fighting the disaster. However, what I heard from my parents, might not be reliable sources but even the official record might not be reliable in China, is that when realizing they cannot build dikes fast enough to reduce lost, they choose to sacrifice a village, built a tunnel for the flood, so that the water would be lead to distroy the village instead of the city.

  5. With the implementation of China’s Five Year Plan, although optimistic, I think that it will have an effect on every aspect of China’s environmental health, not just air quality. Hopefully, with the betterment of China’s air pollution, the water quality of the Yangtze river will allow for more uses and life. In Ireland, Galway’s river overflows regularly, destroying many local businesses and causing a handful of deaths. They have been able to control it by creating a number of dams that also provide the city with electricity.