River Of No Return

Written by Andrew Marshall

Posted on 1 February 2009

River Of No Return

Read the story in POWER MAGAZINE

“When the Yellow River is calm, the people live in peace,” says a Maoist slogan. But what does it mean for China when the river is dying?

By Andrew Marshall   Photos by Philip Blenkinsop/NOOR

FOR reasons that soon become obvious, it’s not possible to reach the Yellow River Scenic Area by river. We have to drive there, like everyone else. And I mean everyone else. The Chinese long ago abandoned their rivers for their roads, and the country is now witnessing the biggest car-buying frenzy in automotive history. This means you can always tell when you are entering a scenic area in China. You get stuck in traffic.

Our taxi joins a line of cars squeezing past an entrance booth. We buy tickets and climb to a hilltop viewpoint, the main attraction at this tourist park in Henan province in central China. Fed by glacial lakes high in the Tibetan Plateau, the Yellow River meanders for 5,470km through northern China, and through thousands of years of legend, history and politics. It is the cradle of Chinese civilization and, after centuries of catastrophic flooding, a graveyard for millions. It has shaped the destinies of emperors: control the river, they believed, and you had the mandate of heaven.

Mao Zedong believed it, too. He stood on this hilltop on October 1952 and declared, “We must take good control of the Yellow River!” Sitting on the same spot today is a giant bronze statue of the Great Helmsman, mobbed by Chinese tourists. What is missing from the Yellow River Scenic Area is the river itself. It has retreated into the faraway haze, a grey trickle on a polluted horizon.

Today, from source to sea, it is dying. Flanked by thousands of factories, whole stretches of the Yellow River – named for the color of its silt – have run black or red from industrial spills. It is throttled by hydroelectric dams, diverted by farmers to water crops, and sucked dry by the thirsty millions living in China’s newly prosperous cities. Dammed and drained, so noxious that a third of its fish species are dead, the river has often dried up before reaching the sea.

It is no longer a symbol of an ancient civilization but of environmental ruin – the terrible price China has paid for its rush to riches. By one estimate, 460,000 people die prematurely every year from poisoned air and dirty water. Pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death and caused the number of children born with birth defects to soar. On our environmental road-trip through the Yellow River’s turbulent past and uncertain future, photographer Philip Blenkinsop and I discovered that, for all its Olympic gleam, modern China’s prosperity rests precariously upon a doomed and outdated smokestack economy.

This has alarming consequences for us all. In 2008 China overtook the United States as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Will the country’s unchecked industrial growth put the great challenge of our times – averting catastrophic climate change – out of reach forever? Our warming planet is also accelerating the Yellow River’s demise, by shrinking the Tibetan glaciers that give it life.

Mao’s statue marks the moment when the modern exploitation of Yellow River began. A steady stream of tourists pose for photos beside it. They hold the giant hands or squeeze between the old tyrant’s legs to flash V-for-victory signs. There is lots of mischievous laughter. Clearly, not only has the Yellow River shrunk. So has Mao, even though he is six meters tall.

* * *

WE had got our first good look at the river that morning at a place called Huayuankuo. Here, in April 1938, the Kuomintang general Chiang Kai-shek ordered his men to destroy an embankment to stop the Japanese army’s advance, turning a symbol of Chinese civilization into a catastrophic weapon of war. The subsequent flood drowned between 500,000 and 890,000 people and left millions starving and homeless.

Today, Huayuankuo is another tourist attraction – “The best site to appreciate the charm of large river culture!” says a sign at the entrance. But the river here looks more like a tired estuary at low tide. A fisherman wades through knee-deep water 100m from shore. Upriver, tourists skim the shallows in inflatable dinghies.

In China, maintaining the Yellow River’s dikes was “an almost sacred task,” writes Diana Lary in Drowned Earth, an account of the Huayuankuo breach, which made the Kuomintang’s action “virtually unthinkable.” Today, the tragedy is marked by a large square with a series of heroic reliefs showing unfeasibly muscled peasants rebuilding the dike with what looks like Communist soldiers. A fountain squirts out water to a tune from the Disney cartoon Mulan.

The death toll from Huayuankuo was almost four times that of the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004, a disaster it must have resembled. Yet outside this theme park the event is barely commemorated. It’s easy to understand why: it was neither a natural catastrophe nor an atrocity committed by foreigners, but the premeditated mass murder of Chinese by Chinese. The dead are conveniently forgotten, and the lethal power of the river a distant memory.

We must take good control of the Yellow River. Mao already saw himself as a modern emperor when he gave this order. But what did he actually mean by it? One interpretation stood outside our next destination, the city of Sanmenxia, where the first dam on the Yellow River was completed in 1960. An article in the state-controlled China Daily described Sanmenxia as “a pearl on the Yellow River.” But China’s own environmental watchdog had listed it as one of the nation’s most polluted cities in 2004. Ringed by factories, Sanmenxia’s air quality remains terrible. The thick, unyielding haze diffuses the sunlight and reduces visibility to 1.6km or less. It is the same everywhere we travel in central China: cities without horizons, people without shadows, everything bathed in this weird, insomniac light.

Most of Sanmenxia’s two million residents are migrants who came here to work on the dam and the industries it spawned. First mooted in August 1949, just before Mao took power, the dam’s shabby history is recorded in “A Lamentation for the Yellow River,” a once-banned article by Shang Wei. From the beginning, explains the writer, “sensational claims” were made about its potential benefits.

The millions of tons of sediment raised the riverbed in its lower reaches, causing terrible flooding. But what if a giant dam were built to hold back the silt and the floodwaters – and generate electricity? Shang Wei calls this “an attempt to fiddle with the laws of nature.”

Built with Soviet help, work officially began in 1957. More than 300,000 people were resettled – some are still fighting for compensation today. The first turbine started in early 1962, but within a month the dam had to be rebuilt to flush out sediment clogging up the reservoir. By 1963, a sediment tail stretched upriver almost as far as Xi’an, the capital of neighboring Shaanxi Province, threatening the city with exactly the sort of calamitous flooding the dam had been built to prevent. Mao was exasperated. “If nothing works, then just blow up the dam,” he reportedly said.

The sediment problem worsened again in the 1980s. “The Yellow River simply would not behave itself,” writes Shang Wei. The answer this time? Build another dam downstream. This has been a grimly familiar pattern in China ever since, particularly in respect to its long-suffering rivers: the only solution to the deficiencies of one massive public works project is another massive public works project.

Sanmenxia means “three gates gorge.” The gates are rock formations created (runs the legend) when a flood-tamer called Yu the Great split the gorge with his magical hatchet. The reservoir begins just north of the city. At the entrance to the dam an expressionless People’s Liberation Army soldier checks our bags. Soon we are walking along the top of a monstrous slab of weathered concrete wedged between dynamited hills. Turbines thrum far below, producing only a fraction of the power the dam was designed to generate.

After its completion, Sanmenxia Dam appeared on banknotes. It became a symbol of modern China, too iconic for the Communist Party to admit its failure. Painted on the dam’s downstream flank is a faded slogan: “When the Yellow River is calm, the country is prosperous and the people live in peace.” Upstream, the reservoir stretches off into the haze, the sun a sphincter of light reflected in its oily surface.

I meet an engineer called Fu Jian Xun. As a boy, he had seen a picture of the dam on a matchbox and it had amazed him ever since. “Much of the dam was built with bare hands. That’s one reason I like it,” he says. He lives in Sanmenxia city and is a frequent visitor. I ask Fu what the Yellow River means to Chinese people. “It means home,” he replies. He is saddened by how polluted the river had become. “But these factories are working for our benefit,” he reasons. “Waste treatment is expensive and factories can’t afford them.”

I walk further downriver, past a mineshaft oozing grimy water. Here, the river picked up speed again, running over a shallow, stony riverbed. Peering into the shallows is a thin man with a car battery strapped to his back. Liu Bai Chun is looking for fish to electrocute.

“I used a reel before,” Liu tells me. “Then I saw some colleagues doing it this way. It’s much more effective.” He is holding two rods with fishing nets on the end. The metal rims of the nets are attached by wires to the 1,000-volt battery. Liu closes the circuit with a simple switch and taps the metal rims together to make them spark.

So far, Liu has caught one small fish. Undeterred, he zaps the shallows again. Swirls of tiny fish, all dead, float to the surface and are carried off by the current.

* * *

THE next morning we cross a bridge into Shanxi province. Behind us, the smog reclaims the Sanmenxia skyline, leaving visible only a tall building with baroque spires: fittingly enough, the headquarters of the Sanmenxia Power Supply Company. It looms from the sky like some experimental spacecraft preparing to blast off.

The water along this stretch of the Yellow River is unfit even for industrial use. This is according to a recent report in National Geographic magazine, which obviously the farmers here haven’t read. For kilometers either side the riverbanks are planted with soy beans, sesame, peanuts and other crops, while irrigation canals carry the same water to distant orchards. Whatever its quality, water is in huge demand in rural China. The population in the Yellow River region has tripled since 1949.

We lose sight of the river and seem to be driving repeatedly through the same village. Our interpreter, a well-traveled Beijing resident nicknamed Nancy, asks directions from an old man. He grins and points, and soon we are corkscrewing down a narrow road towards its banks. “We have a saying in China,” says Nancy, pleased that we have managed to relocate the world’s sixth-largest river. “If we say a guy never stops ‘til he sees the Yellow River, it means he’s very stubborn and never gives up.”

We’re not stopping until we get to Linfen (“near the Fen”) on the banks of the Fen River, an important tributary of the Yellow and now a major source of its filth. The New York-based Blacksmith Institute ranked Linfen among the world’s 10 most polluted cities in 2007. Philip straps on a black filtration mask, which makes him look like an evil, short-billed bird.

Linfen is supposed to be cleaning up its act – the authorities have shut down dozens of factories, foundries and coalmines. These days the pollution is sometimes thin enough for the sun to penetrate, and the people of Linfen have shadows again. As we drive through the city, a musical water truck passes us, spraying the dusty streets to the tune of “Happy Birthday To You.”

We find a quiet spot on the Fen. Its water is brown, slow moving and lifeless. It looks as if it barely has the strength to reach the Yellow River, never mind pollute it. Opposite, a blood-red rivulet feeds into it from a paint factory over the hill.

Another rivulet nearby also froths with chemicals. Such toxic dumping goes largely unchecked. The United States Environmental Protection Agency employs 17,000 people. China’s watchdog, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), employs about 450. Cozy links between local officials and factory owners make regulations easy to evade or ignore.

The “ever-deteriorating environmental situation” in the countryside was a growing cause of social unrest, said MEP chief Zhou Shengxian in 2007. But industry also brings jobs, which means ordinary Chinese tolerate the environmental costs. On the way back to Linfen we stop outside the village of Jinjiang, where a farmer named He – he gives only his family name – is sowing maize seeds. Looming over his field is a giant coke-producing plant, built 18 months before. As we speak, sulfurous fumes gust across the field.

“I am just a little person,” replies Mr He when I ask him about the plant. “Who cares about my opinion? It makes a lot of noise and pollution, but the government owns it. What can I do?” And anyway the plant had its benefits. “Local people can get jobs there, earn a salary. That’s good for their families.” The impact of pollution is long-term and hard for people to quantify, whereas jobs produce tangible, near-immediate benefits.

So how to fix the environment without breaking the economy? Every country faces the same dilemma, but China is hampered by two factors. First, there is the sheer scale of the problem: an unofficial policy of “pollute first, clean up later” has killed rivers and blotted out the sun, produced acid rain over Tokyo and thickened the smog over Los Angeles. Second, there is politics: cleaning up China might slow the double-digit growth upon which the Communist Party’s survival depends. Past rulers derived legitimacy from controlling the Yellow River. Today, for an ideologically bankrupt Party, it’s about controlling the economy, about sustaining the expectations of a billion-plus people that next year will be better than the last.

despite the hydroelectricity produced by Sanmenxia and other dams, three quarters of China’s energy still comes from coal, and the banks of the Yellow River are rich with deposits. China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, the leading player in a global coal-rush that makes the challenge of climate change seem insurmountable. Coal is a prime source of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and China is its biggest emitter. By 2007, the country was building two coal-fired power stations every week.

It’s said that the people of Shanxi province have been burning coal as fuel for 10,000 years. It shows. We take a train that follows the Fen River through a valley where power stations and factories squat amid endless dunes of coal. The banks of the Fen turn black.

In a terrifying 2007 report, China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission found that every year between 800,000 and 1.2 million babies are born with defects. Up to 40 percent of those with “visible deformities” – about 300,000 children – die soon after birth. The Commission concluded that polluted air and water was a major cause. And the province with the highest number of birth defects? Shanxi.

At Datong, Shanxi’s coal capital, the rising sun is a pinkish bruise in a corpse-grey sky. The city is booming. Half of it seems freshly built – new roads and office blocks, new apartments advertised with catchphrases like “Rising life. Never-ending imagination.” The rest is being demolished to make way for new construction. It looks like Dresden, circa 1945, except with traffic jams.

Datong reminds Philip of his British childhood. It isn’t the morning chill or the all-day drizzle, or even the inexplicable fact that Datong is twinned with the Lancashire town of Bury. It is the pervasive, long-ago smell of burning coal. A leaflet at our hotel offers a “mysterios” day-trip to a working pit. “Welcome to Jinhuagong coal mine!” it enthuses. “Hope you enjoy yourself there!” But you can have a mysterios coal experience just by walking around town and breathing the air.

Datong is our base for exploring Daying, a place known in Chinese as a “dead-skin village.” Northern China has 43 percent of the population but only 14 percent of the nation’s water, a chronic shortage further exacerbated by the unchecked exploitation of the Yellow River. Over 300 million rural Chinese have unsafe drinking water. At Daying village, we glimpsed a nightmarish future in which Chinese are forced to drink water that was slowly killing them.

Here, as in many countries, groundwater is contaminated by naturally occurring arsenic, which causes chronic poisoning called arsenicosis. One symptom is hyperkeratosis or a thickening of the outer skin — thus the name “dead-skin village.” Arsenicosis also causes anemia, liver damage, gangrene and numerous cancers.

Daying is one of 25 arsenic-afflicted villages in the same county. It seems deserted. Its brick houses sit inside walled compounds linked by muddy lanes. Signs placed strategically around the village by a local hospital advertise a miracle cure for skin diseases. A mad woman shambles past, humming and striking her thigh with an empty plastic bottle.

We meet Gao Wen Xian, who shares a compound with his wife, a donkey and an ornamental dog. For generations, Gao explains, the villagers drew their water from a nearby river, until it was dammed in the 1960s. So the villagers drilled tube wells to draw water from depths of up to 50m. Spots soon appeared on their chest and stomachs, tell-tale signs of arsenicosis. The livers of children swelled up to twice their normal size. “Everyone was weak,” recalls Gao. “Our bodies felt soft.” Ten people died before local officials, prompted by central government, arranged to pipe clean water from a distant reservoir. But today the state’s supply of clean water has grown erratic – water officials haven’t explained why – so Gao and his neighbors have no choice but to pump up arsenic-tainted water again. The dirty water makes his stomach ache. His grandchild, who is breastfeeding, has constant diarrhea. Everyone in the village feels listless. “We’re getting weaker and weaker,” says Gao. “We have no energy left to cultivate our land.”

Some houses in Daying are abandoned. “This village used to have 500 families,” one villager tells me. “Now it’s only 200. Some people died. Some people moved away.” Across China, jobs in towns and cities were luring away the countryside’s young. At Daying, poisoned water is accelerating the exodus, and the village – like the great Yellow River that flowed to its west – felt doomed. We see no children in Daying: to spare their health, they have been sent to live with relatives. As we leave, the mad woman shambles past again, still striking herself with the plastic bottle, trapped in a circuit through a benighted village.

* * *

WE return to Beijing with our interpreter Nancy, who seems chastened by what she had seen. Like many educated people in the prosperous capital, she has never really comprehended how bleak life is in the country’s industrial heartlands. The rest of the world only dimly grasps it too, even though the threat of climate change has made China’s environmental ruin a global problem. “There is no Chinese race without the Yellow River,” Mao once said. There might be no human race at all unless China urgently tackles this crisis.

But will it? In Beijing I seek out Shang Wei, the author of A Lamentation for the Yellow River. Her real name is Dai Qing, and she is one of China’s most outspoken environmentalists. Born in 1941, she graduated in engineering and worked at a top-secret missile plant. She later became a campaigning journalist who opposed the Three Gorges Dam – Sanmenxia’s gargantuan successor spanning the Yangtze River – and spent 10 months in jail after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

We meet Dai Qing at a newly built retirement community near the airport. She is an energetic woman dressed in navy slacks, with wisps of grey in her short black hair. We squeeze into a tiny lift to reach her fourth-floor apartment, while Dai Qing bounds up the stairs, beating us to her door. It is hard to square this hyperactive granny-figure with the younger woman who, according to her Wikipedia entry, “worked on guided missiles to make them go straight.”

While Dai Qing brims with cheer – she is prone to explosive chuckling – her message is gloomy. “The future is terrible,” she says. “Maybe you will live in an era when millions of Chinese will be crossing the borders into your countries – not because they want freedom or more than one child, but because they need fresh air and clean water.” This sounds like hyperbole, until I think about Daying. What if China had 250 “dead-skin villages,” or 2,500, or a whole region blighted with poisonous water? Suddenly, Dai Qing’s vision seems entirely plausible. She still laments the Yellow River. In early 2008, billions of cubic meters of its water had been diverted to Beijing and adjoining Hebei province to prevent the drought-prone capital from running dry. But how to stop the river from running dry? Answer: yet another massive public works project. Two canals were now under construction to channel water from the Yangtze River to the parched north.

A third canal, still on the drawing board, will divert the headwaters of the Yangtze to replenish the Yellow, a US$60 billion plumbing project that will require blasting high-altitude tunnels through western China. The so-called “South-to-North Water Diversion Project” also owes its origins to Mao. (“Southern water is plentiful, northern water scarce,” he said in 1952. “If at all possible, borrowing some water would be good.”)

Such schemes make Dai Qing scornful of her government’s newfound concern for the environment. “At the moment everything is green,” she says. “Green this, green that. It’s just a brand. It’s not an environmental concept. It’s a political one. A commercial one.”

A grassroots environmental movement is growing in China – the Beijing-based group Friends of Nature had been around for a decade – but not fast enough for Dai Qing. The concept of activism still seems alien to many Chinese. An environmentalist in Datong had explained to me his difficulties in recruiting volunteers. “People always ask, ‘How much will you pay me?’’’ he said.

Rapid growth has devastated China’s environment. But a faltering economy – now inevitable, considering the US-led downturn – might only devastate it further, as the government jettisons its few green initiatives in favor of short-term economic gains. Can a government that instinctively stifles bad news to protect its economy – as exemplified by the recent tainted-milk scandal – ever successfully clean up its air and water? Is there any hope for more transparency or accountability in a one-party system whose workings are as murky as a Sanmenxia sunrise?

We say our farewells outside. Dai Qing’s housing estate is built around a golf course. “I hate golf!” she exclaims with her usual gusto. It is now mid-morning, and for a moment I wonder why the mist over the fairways hasn’t lifted. But it isn’t mist, it is smog, and it isn’t going anywhere.

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