I fell asleep quickly, lulled by the sound and motion of the train. I intended to awaken early so as not to miss a main attraction (at least for me), the crossing of the Yellow River. And it was that sight -- of China's second largest river, the cradle of its civilization -- that has most stuck with me for the last 20 years. I was amazed at how little water was in the channel. Such a paltry flow couldn't possibly sustain a major expansion of irrigated agriculture, industrial production, and urbanization, much less the fisheries and diversity of freshwater species that depended on those flows.
Some numbers confirm the impression. Chinese scientists first recorded zero flow in the lower reaches of the Yellow River in 1972, and between then and 1999, the river ran dry for a portion of all but six years. By the mid-1990s, about seven years after I returned from my trip and wrote in World Watch about how north China was exceeding its water budget, the average length of dry riverbed had expanded to 700 kilometers, up from 130 kilometers in the 1970s. In 1997, the lower reaches of the Yellow went dry for a record 226 days, causing US $1.6 billion in economic damage to Shandong Province, last in line for the river's water.
The disappearance of wetlands, harm to aquatic life, and other downstream ecological effects have led the Yellow River Conservancy Commission to restore some minimum flows to the river in recent years. But the overall health of the Yellow remains in serious decline. [ for more click on the heading]