Where the River Ends

The mighty Yangtze is dwindling -- and a debate has emerged in China over the role of the Three Gorges Dam in exacerbating this summer's devastating drought.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

SHANGHAI — In glittering Shanghai, known for its hopping night life and influx of Western luxury stores, a VIP cocktail reception last Thursday night, May 26, marked the opening of a new H&M clothing store on upscale Nanjing Road. As a parade of BMWs, Audis, and Mercedes pulled up to valet parking alongside a red carpet unfurled on the sidewalk, an observer might never have suspected that the local government here in China’s richest and most urbane city has been struggling with two very basic problems: keeping the water running and the power on.

Both problems stem from a drought that has been plaguing central China since January and the related shriveling of the Yangtze River. The Yangtze — Asia’s longest river — tumbles down from the Tibetan plateau, traversing nearly 4,000 miles across the length of China, before emptying into the East China Sea near Shanghai. The water of its final tributary, the Huangpu, winds along the famed Bund area and sparkles at night under the glow of illuminated skyscrapers and the Oriental Pearl Tower. For centuries a source of inspiration for poets — and frustration for emperors trying to manage its turbulent flooding — the Yangtze remains in many ways essential to the modern Chinese economy.

Today, it carries 80 percent of China’s river freight — a steady procession of barges laden with coal, construction materials, and container traffic, floating from the megacity of Chongqing to the port of Shanghai, now the world’s busiest. The Yangtze and its tributaries are now the site of thousands of small and large dams, including the $45 billion Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydropower station. It also supplies water for drinking, farming, and industrial activity to 400 million people in the Yangtze delta, where 40 percent of China’s economic activity is located.

The mighty Yangtze’s water level has been dropping for years as new towns crop up along its banks and older settlements, such as Chongqing, grow into vast megacities, with factories and farmers siphoning off their take, often in unregulated serve-themselves fashion. Meanwhile, the phalanx of dams has changed the river’s hydrology, and Chinese and U.S. scientists project that glacial melt in Tibet, where the river begins, points to a diminished future. But most troubling, whether related to climate change or not, is that this year’s rainfall in the provinces that water the upper Yangtze has been a trickle — as much as 40 percent below the annual average for January to April. China is facing its worst drought in half a century.

The Yangtze, and all who depend on it, are suffering. In May, freight shipping was halted for a 140-mile stretch near the central city of Wuhan due to low water levels. In the parched central provinces of Hubei and Hunan, farmers have been struggling to keep vegetables alive, delaying planting the summer rice crop and losing livestock. The farmers’ woes aren’t theirs alone. The People’s Daily reported on May 28 that in just one week the price of some key vegetables jumped more than 10 percent at a time when the central government is desperately trying to control inflation.

Meanwhile, rolling blackouts have hit central and southern China as many of the dams on the river are operating below capacity. That includes the Three Gorges Dam, whose operator reports that water levels behind the dam are 40 percent lower than usual. Shanghai, which receives a portion of its electricity from Three Gorges, is one of many cities feeling the crunch. (Barge traffic carrying coal down the river has also been strained by the low water levels.) Last week, Shanghai’s largest utility company announced that factories and retail stores could soon face outages.

Shanghai’s well-heeled elite are often blissfully isolated from the development woes facing China’s poorer hinterlands, but the drought has revealed their common vulnerability. In addition to its power, Shanghai’s water supply is at risk. The city’s municipal water is drawn from two reservoirs that tap the mouth of the Yangtze. With less water flowing downstream into the river’s mouth, salt-laden seawater has begun to push upstream. On May 25, the Shanghai Water Authority disclosed possible contamination of the city’s freshwater supply by unusual "salt tides."

The plight of the Yangtze is becoming impossible to ignore. Newspapers across the country have lately been plastered with photos of mournful farmers standing in parched fields and river barges marooned in low water. Inevitably, with so many lives affected — from Hubei peasants to Shanghai glitterati — people have begun to ask: Who’s to blame? Who killed the Yangtze?

One common, if incomplete, answer is the Three Gorges Dam.

China’s state-run newspaper Global Times reports that it has tallied 100,000 messages on the microblogging site Weibo — China’s homegrown equivalent of Twitter — venting about whether Three Gorges caused or exacerbated this summer’s dire water shortages. Accusations have ranged from the reasonable to the inflammatory, such as alleging a deliberate plot by dam-builders to shortchange downstream residents. In response, the reliably patriotic paper has published a defense, of sorts, saying that such an ambitious undertaking necessarily involved risks: "Droughts in China’s Yangtze River have sparked a new wave of criticism over The Three Gorges Dam.… As the biggest hydropower project ever in history, both the dam’s pros and cons could hardly [be predicted]. It was built at a special juncture of transition from the planned economy to market economy."

The Three Gorges Dam, first proposed by Sun Yat-sen and later championed by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, has long been a source of controversy. But until recently, it was risky to voice criticism. A dogged anti-dam activist, Dai Qing, was arrested in 1989 and spent a year in maximum-security prison for publishing a book-length exposé on problems the proposed dam would cause. (Many of the book’s predicted woes have since come true, including frequent landslides and geologic instability in the region. Indeed, Columbia University scientists have connected the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province with increased seismic pressure partly attributable to the Three Gorges reservoir.) Ground was broken on the dam in 1992, forcibly relocating 1.4 million people living upstream. It was completed in 2008.

In today’s slightly more open media climate, faulting the Three Gorges Dam is increasingly common among Chinese bloggers, reporters, activists, and even some officials — those who don’t have to take direct responsibility for green-lighting it, anyway. "The primary cause of this drought is a lack of rainfall. But we can also be certain that the Three Gorges Dam has had a negative impact on the water supply downstream," prominent Beijing-based environmentalist Ma Jun told the Guardian‘s Jonathan Watts. In a similar vein, Wen Bo, a Beijing-based fellow with Pacific Environment, told me: "Three Gorges Dam is part of the problem" for shrinking the Yangtze and destroying the resiliency of the delta’s ecosystem.

Shockingly, Beijing agreed. In May, China’s State Council released a statement, approved by Premier Wen Jiabao, acknowledging severe problems caused by the dam. Not quite a mea culpa, it read: "At the same time that the Three Gorges project provides huge comprehensive benefits, urgent problems must be resolved regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection and geological disaster prevention."

Of course, blaming the Three Gorges Dam doesn’t alone revive the Yangtze. Nor will fancy technical tricks, like recent efforts at cloud seeding to bring water to a parched land — there’s little moisture to be wrung from the region’s dry summer sky. What’s needed is a long-term vision for river restoration. Indeed, a discussion is bubbling up among municipal officials and NGOs about the need to create a new environmental planning body to coordinate watershed planning among the provinces and major cities along the Yangtze. Meanwhile, better regulation of industry and agriculture now siphoning off water upstream would give teeth to current water-conservation regulations.

Going forward, the looming question is whether the current drought will prompt the central government to reconsider its future plans for the river — such as building 100 new large dams on the upper Yangtze in a bid to boost China’s hydropower output 50 percent by 2015. Or constructing the final legs of the controversial South-North Water Transfer Project, by which massive quantities of water would be channeled from the southern Yangtze to the northern Yellow River. (The Yellow River is even more polluted and diminished than the Yangtze.) Dai Qing, among others, has warned of the water-transfer project’s pitfalls for years.

At some point, the Yangtze, like poet Shel Silverstein’s metaphorical "Giving Tree," will have nothing left to give. There are only so many uses to which its water can be apportioned and diverted — there is little left to take. Or, as environmentalist Ma Jun puts it, "The water in the Yangtze is not unlimited. We cannot bet everything on this river."

Christina Larson is an award-winning science and technology journalist based in Beijing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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