The Yellow River is the second longest river in China and the cradle of Chinese civilization as the Nile is cradle of Egyptian civilization. It originates in Tibet---like the Yangtze, China's largest river, and the Mekong River---and gets nearly 45 percent of its water from glaciers and vast underground springs of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. From Tibet it flows for 5,464 kilometers (about 3,400 miles) through Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, the border of Shaanxi and Shanxi, Henan and Shandong before it empties into Bo Hai Gulf in the Yellow Sea.

The Yellow River is known as the Huang in China. It is slow and sluggish along most of its course and some regard it as the world's muddiest major river, discharging three times the sediment of the Mississippi River. It gets its name and color from the yellow silt it picks up in the Shaanxi Loess Plateau . The Yellow River flows in braided streams, a network of smaller channles that weave in and out of each other. In each channel slt slowly builds the riverbed above the surrounding landscape and gives the river its devastating habit of breaking its banks and changing course,

The Yellow River is a vital to making northern China inhabitable. It supplies water to 155 million people, or 12 percent of the Chinese population, and irrigates 18 million acres---15 percent of China’s farmland. More than 400 million people live in the Yellow River basin. Agricultural societies appeared on its banks more than 7,000 years ago. Web Sites: Wikipedia Wikipedia University of Massachusetts U Mass Yellow River Conservancy Commission Yellow River Conservancy Commission Maps : China Highlights China Highlights


Yellow River Floods: Sometimes called the "River of Sorrow," the Yellow River is one of the world's most dangerous and destructive rivers. Since historians began keeping records in 602 B.C., the river has changed course 26 times and produced 1,500 floods that have killed millions of people. The root of these disasters is the large amount of silt generated by soil erosion.

From time to time the Yellow River overflows its banks and fills huge plains with large amounts of water. Floods sometimes occur when blocks of ice block the Yellow River. About once a century these floods reach catastrophic levels.

When the levees of the Yellow River break, which happens with some regularity, the countryside is devastated. When the river’s dikes were breached in 132 B.C., floods occurred in 16 districts and a new channel was opened in the middle of the plain. Ten of millions of peasants were affected. The break remained for 23 years until Emperor Wu-ti visited the scene and supervised its repair.

In A.D. 11, the Yellow River breached its dikes near the same place, and the river changed course and forged an new path to sea, a hundred miles away from its former mouth. Repair work took several decades.

In a tactic intended to halt the southward movement of Japanese soldiers from Manchuria before World War II, Chiang Kai-shek ordered his soldiers to breach the levees of the Yellow River and purposely divert its flow. At least 200,000, maybe millions, died, millions more were made homeless and the Japanese advanced anyway.

Sometimes when the Yellow River floods it becomes like a flowing mudslide. The river normally carries an enormous amount of silt and the amount increases when it floods. During a 1958 flood sediment levels were measured at 35 pounds per square foot, causing the river surface to become “wrinkled.

Rising Yellow River and Silt: Each year 1.5 billion tons of soil flows into the Yellow River. Sometimes there is so much sediment in the river it looks like chocolate milk. Three fourths of this silt ends up in the Yellow Sea, with the remainder settling in the river beds, causing the level of the river to rise. Over the centuries the river has risen between 15 and 40 feet above the surrounding plains, in some cases with silt blocking off natural drainage channels and making areas more prone to flooding.

Technical problems posed by the large amount of silt and the rising water levels include: 1) the need to build higher and higher levees; 2) the need to continuously dredge large amounts of silt; 3) creating channels to release floods; and 4) building of dams to control floods. Dam building presents its own problems. The reservoir behind the Soviet-designed Yellow River dam built at Sanmenxia in 1960 silted up after only two years.

To hold the river back and prevent floods, the Chinese have built 800 kilometers of levees. Some of the levees are huge. Because water levels in the river rise every year, the levees also have to be raised. In many places the river has sat above the surrounding landscape for some time. The journalist Edgar Snow wrote in 1961: "The riverbed [is] twenty to twenty-five feet above the surrounding countryside. I have watched junks sail overhead at that height."

Today, the Yellow River is above the landscape for much of its last 500 miles to the sea and the river continues to rise at an alarming rate of four inches a year. If a levee breaks, larger tracts of the countryside are vulnerable to flooding.

Changing Yellow River courses

Drying Up of Yellow River The Yellow River has dried up more than 30 times since 1972, when it ran dry for the first time in recorded history. It ran dry all but one year in the 1990s. In 1994, it ran dry for 122 days along a 180-mile section in Shandong, not far from where it empties into the Yellow Sea. In 1996 it ran dry 136 days. In 1997, for 226 days, denying water to 7.4 million acres of farmland and producing a dry riverbed that stretched more than 372 miles. The outflow o the river is just 10 percent of what t was in the 1940s. Timely releases of reservoir water kept it from drying up in the 2000s.

The Yellow River wasn't always like this. A resident of one town on the river told the Los Angeles Times, "Forty years ago, their was so much water that you could sit on the embankment, wait for fish to swim by, and go down ad catch them." Now he said, "There are no fish because there's not enough water for them to grow." In some places heavy equipment mines sand from the dry river bottom for construction work.

Water levels in 2008 were 60 percent of normal. In the early months of 2008, 600 million cubic meters of water was diverted to Beijing and Hebei and Shandong Provinces to help with a drought there an ensure there were adequate water supplies for the 2008 Olympics. More than 70 million cubic meters was diverted to the city of Qingdao, where the Olympics sailing events were held.

The Yellow River’s problems begin at its source where droughts in the Tibetan plateau have reduced the amount of water flowing to the river. But the main reason the river runs dry is because between 80 to 90 percent of its water had been taken upstream for urban areas, industry and agriculture. Decline of water caused by global warming and the melting of Tibetan glaciers could make the situation worse.

Li Xiaoqiang of the Yellow River Conservancy Commission told AFP, “Everyone wants more water, the dams want water for electricity, the industries want water to increase production, the farmers want more water for irrigation and cities need water for daily living. We estimate that some provinces and regions will see rather large shortages during peak water use periods.”

A lot of water is wasted. Agriculture swallows up 65 percent of the Yellow River’s water, with more than half lost to leaky pipes and ditches, with rest swallowed up by industry and cities. Twenty major dams punctuate the Yellow River and another 18 are scheduled to be built by 2030. Dams are particularly damaging on the Yellow River because they exacerbate silting and pollution. The reduced flow cause by dams causing silt to settle and prevents the flushing out if pollutants.

To keep the river flowing efforts are being made to distribute water more equitably and use it more efficiently. In August 2006, new laws were passed to better manage and reduce fights over the Yellow River. Beijing gave broad authority to the Water Resources Ministry to oversea management of the river in 11 provinces and municipalities and gave it a mandate to impose stiff fines and sanctions on officials that don’t comply with the rules or take more than their share of water.

Yellow River Plain in Shandong

Yellow River Pollution: The Yellow River travels through major industrial areas, China’s major coal producing region and huge population centers. By one count 4,000 of China’s 20,000 petrochemical factories are on the Yellow River and a third of all fish species found in the Yellow River have become extinct because of dams, falling water levels, pollution and over fishing.

More than 80 percent of the Hai-Huaih Yellow river basin is chronically polluted. Four billion tons of waste water---10 percent of the river’s volume---flows annually into the Yellow River. Canals that empty into it that were once filled with fish are now purple from the red waste water from chemical plants. The water is too toxic to drink or use for irrigation and kills goats that drink from it.

In October 2006, a one kilometer section of the Yellow River turned red in the city of Lanzhou in Gansu Province as result of a “red and smelly” discharge from a sewage pipe. In December 2005, six tons of diesel oil leaked into a tributary of the Yellow River from a pipe that cracked because of freezing conditions. It produced a 40 mile long slick. Sixty-three water pumps had to be shut down, including some in Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province.

Every year the Yellow River absorbs 1 million tons of untreated waste from the city of Xian alone. A report issued in November 2008, declared that two thirds of the Yellow River is heavily polluted by industrial waste and is unsafe to use. The Yellow River Conservancy Committee said that 33.8 percent of the samples taken from the river in various places registered worse than Level 5, meaning it was unfit for drinking, agriculture or industrial use. Only 16.1 percent of the samples reached Level 1 or 2---water considered safe for household use. The survey found that 73 percent of the pollutants came from industry, 23 percent came from households and 6.4 percent from “other sources.” The report did not identify specific pollutants.

Around 50 percent of the river has been designated as biologically dead. In some areas along the river there have dramatic increases in cancer, birth defects and waterborne disease, Cancer rates in some places are so high they have been designated cancer villages. Among these is Xiaojidian, a village in Shandong on tributary of the Yellow River. Water from tanneries, paper mills and factories is blamed from causing 70 people to die of stomach or esophageal cancer in five year in a village with only 1,300 people. More than a thousand other in 16 neighboring villages have also died.

Yellow River Dams

The massive $4.17 billion Yellow River Dam built near Xiaolangdi in central China is the nation's second largest dam project after the Three Gorges Dam. The main purpose of the earthen dam is to halt the rising river by flushing out the silt. This will be accomplished with 16 reinforced tunnels that cut through an adjacent mountain which allow engineers to regulate the flow of water. During the wet season water can be stored in the reservoir to prevent flooding, and during the dry season it can be released to flush out sediment as well as provide water for irrigation.

The reservoir behind the dam will be able store water until the year 2020. At the time no more water can released to flush out the sediment down river and the river and levees will once again start rising. "Our children and grandchildren will need to think of another solution to the silt problem," one engineer told Newsweek.

Work began on the Yellow River dam in 1994 with the building of huge roads for carrying out rocks and earth and the blasting of massive tunnels.

Yellow River map

The Yellow River dam will protect 120 million people from the river's notorious flooding; better allocate water so deprived farmlands get their share of irrigation water; and ensure the river doesn't dry up like it has in the past.

The dam will make 30 percent more water available for irrigation, which will reduce dependency on wells and ground water, and produce 1,800 kilowatts of electricity (valued at $170 million a year). This is only a tenth of the power produced by much swifter moving Yangtze River at the Three Gorges Dam.

Unlike the Three Gorges project, the Yellow River dam has received a favorable reception from bankers and environmentalists. Its estimated cost is only a forth of the Three Gorges Dam. The U.S Export-Import Bank and the World Bank have pledged over $1 billion in loans.

About 170,000 people who live in the Yellow River basin will have to be resettled to higher ground. Most of the resettled population have no objections about the move. Many are leaving mud-walled homes and small plots of land for modern homes with conveniences and large parcels of land.

South-North Water Transfer Project See Nature, Environment, Water Shortages

Places on the Yellow River

Lanzhou (34 hours by train from Beijing) is the largest city on the Yellow River and one of the most polluted cities in China if not the world (See Pollution). In the old days it was regarded as one of the gateways to the Silk Road, the last major place to change to buy provisions before heading to Turkestan and Central Asia.

Today is a dirty, industrial city filled with smoke and air-borne chemicals from petrochemical factories and brickyard kilns trapped inside a long, narrow Yellow River valley, flanked by mountains. The air pollution is so bad there has some discussion about blasting a hole in the mountains to allow the dirty air to escape.


Lanzhou is home to about 2 million people. It was described The New Yorker as “an assemblage pf rusting machinery, slag heaps, and landfills; of chimneys, brick kilns, and belching thick smoke; of concrete tenements whose broken windows are held together with cellophane and old newspapers.”

Tourist Office: Lanzhou Tourism Administration, 14-1 West Xijin Rd, 730050 Langzhou, Gansu, China, tel. (0)-931-233-9473, fax: (0)- 931-233-1902 Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Map: China Map Guide China Map Guide Hotel Web Site: Sinohotel Sinohotel Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Lanzhou is accessible by air and bus and lies on the main east-west train line between Beijing and Urumqi. Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Nnnn Lonely Planet

Bingling (six hours from Lanzhou) means "thousand Buddha" in Chinese and "10,000 Buddhas” in Tibetan. Situated in Xiaoji Mountain, 20 miles southwest of Yongjing County, it is where people have been carving statues and niches into two-kilometer stretch of steep cliffs above the surging Yellow river for more than 1000 years. There are 183 caves, 694 stone statues, 82 clay figures and 900 square meters of murals preserved here. The tallest statue is 80 feet high and the smallest is 20 centimeters. Two thirds of the sculptures which are set up along four tiers were made over 1000 years ago. Web Site and Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Yinchuan (24 hours by train from Beijing) is the most important city in Ningxia, and was once the home of the mysterious Xia civilization. The main tourist sight is the Nanguan Mosque, built around 400 years ago and restored in 1981 after being damaged in the Cultural Revolution. To enter the mosque you go through a wonderful green tiled archway. The mosque itself is composed of two levels, topped by three slightly onion-shaped blue domes, the largest of which sits in the middle and is 70 feet high. The upper level contains a prayer hall with enough room for 1000 people. The bottom level houses bathing halls and residences for the imams.

Yinchuan lies on the Yellow River. The city has long depended on the river for water but these days its often little more than a narrow channel. On the northern side of Yinchuan is Haibao Pagoda, a strange, square-looking brick-and-stone structure that has 11 stories and reaches 160 feet into the air. If you feel adventurous there is a wooden ladder by which you can climb to the ninth floor. The ladder may or may not be open. Guesthouses can arrange camel rides through sand dunes and along the banks of the Yellow River.

Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Maps: China Map Guide China Map Guide Hotel Web Site: Sinohotel Sinohotel Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Yinchuan is accessible by air and bus and lies on the main east-west train line between Beijing and Urumqi. Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide

Shapotou (160 kilometers from Yinchuan on the main east-west train line and the Yellow River) boasts a camel riding farm and offers dune sledding in the dunes of the Tengger Desert. Web Site: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Yellow River at Hukou Falls in Shaanxi

Dragon's Gate is the most spectacular of a series of gorges that squeeze the languid Yellow River into a raging torrent downriver from the Shaanxi Loess Plateau . Inside this 12-mile-long gorge, the Yellow River is compressed to a width, in some places, of only 50 feet by steep cliffs that rise up on both sides of the river.

Yennan (230 kilometers north of Xian) is a shrine to Chinese Communism and place where many people still live in caves carved into the yellow cliffs. Located in the Shaanxi Loess Plateau , it was the termination point of the Long March. Mao, Zhou EnLai and others hid out in Yennan from 1937 to 1947 and regrouped and eventually launched a major offensive from that transformed China into most populous communist nation in the world.

The revolutionary museum is one of the biggest tourist attractions in China, drawing more than four million visitors a year. Visitors can check out black and white photographs of the last stages of the Long March, buy Mao memorabilia and have their picture taken in front of the caves where the top Communist leaders stayed.

The post-Long-March compound at Yangjialing is near the mouth of a dry valley, just north of town. The four-cave complex where Mao lived and worked is tunneled into the side of a hillside. The canopy bed Mao is used us theatrically littered with cigarette butts, seemingly to illustrate the midnight oil spent developing strategies to fight the Japanese and the Nationalists. A photograph of the helmsman hangs over the desk where he used to work. Most of the visitors are uniformed soldiers and Communist Party members.

Yennan (also spelled Yenan, Yan’an and Yanan) now has a population of about 340,000 and has a booming economy thanks to the recent discovery of oil in the area.

Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: is accessible by air, bus and train from Xian. Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet

Mangshan Yellow River Tourist Center (32 kilometers northwest of Zhengzhou) is a 10-square-mile area known for four things: 1) a project that diverted the Yellow River to Zhengzhou; 2) the Yueshan Temple Scenic Spot, where Zijin Tower and Iron Chain Bridge are found; 3) Luotuo Bridge and the nearby Stele Forest of the Yellow River, with 570 stone pinnacles inscribed with calligraphy; and 4) the Hanba Erwangcheng Scenic spot, which contains two Shang-era archeological sites and a mountain with a wonderful view of the Yellow River.

Yellow River Raft

Yellow River Boat Tours can be organized from Sanmenxia dam to Ruicheng. Along this 40-mile route you will see the Mausoleum for the Yellow Emperor, the Burial Ground for Carriages and Horses, the No. 1 dam on the Yellow River, the Pagoda of Baolun Temple, Shaanxian cave dwellings and hot springs. The water is calm around Sanmenxia but rough around Luoyang.

Longmen Caves (12 kilometers south of Luoyang) stretch for a 1½ kilometers along a 100-foot-high cliffside on the west bank of Yellow River. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the three great treasure houses of grotto art in China, the Buddhist caves features more than 2,345 caves and grotto niches, 43 pagodas, 3,600 tablets and 100,000 statues built over a 400 year period between A.D. 493 and 960.

The tallest is 50 feet tall and the smallest is only two centimeters. The best are comparable to the finest sculptures in the world. Others look like something a schoolchild could make.

Binyang Cave is the main cave in the group. Nearby is Thousand Buddha Cave. Fengxiansi Cave contains the largest group of images as well as some of the most expressive and expertly carved ones. Here, a 50-foot-tall Buddha stands alongside a Heavenly King crushing a demon and a 30-foot Lishi guardian with rippling muscles and fierce expressions---considered by some scholars to be finest sculptures in China. Many of the caves are filled with dripping water tainted by acid rain from produced by the nearby industrial city of Luoyang. UNESCO World Heritage Site Map: (click at the bottom): UNESCO Also try the UNESCO World Heritage Site Web site (click the site you want) World Heritage Site

Image Sources: Province maps from the Nolls China Web site. Photographs of places from 1) CNTO (China National Tourist Organization; 2) Nolls China Web site; 3) Perrochon photo site; 4); 5) tourist and government offices linked with the place shown; 6); 7) University of Washington, Purdue University, Ohio State University; 8) UNESCO; 9) Wikipedia; 10) Julie Chao photo site; 11) Yellow River Conservancy. 12 Yellow River map cropped from map from China Holiday Tours Web Site

Text Sources: CNTO, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

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