Where China's Rivers Run Dry; Asia: The Most Dramatic National Transformation in Human History Is Being Threatened by a Lack of Water

By Schell, Orville | Newsweek, April 16, 2007 | Go to article overview

Where China's Rivers Run Dry; Asia: The Most Dramatic National Transformation in Human History Is Being Threatened by a Lack of Water


Schell, Orville, Newsweek


Byline: Orville Schell (Schell is the Arthur Ross director at the Asia Society's Center for U.S.-China Relations.)

The view from the top of the luxurious Morgan Centre (which will soon host a seven-star hotel) down onto Beijing's Olympic Green, where the 2008 Summer Games will begin in less than 500 days, is breathtaking. There, far below, lies the stunning Herzog & de Meuron-designed "bird nest" Olympic Stadium. Right next to it is the equally mesmerizing National Aquatics Center, a square structure with bubbled blue translucent walls known as the Water Cube. International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge has called this soon-to-be-completed sports complex "nothing short of staggering."

How successfully Beijing has turned the Games into a global coming-out party is--for anyone who, like me, came to know China when Mao still held sway--a mind-bending accomplishment. What has happened here in the intervening years is perhaps the most dramatic story of national transformation in human history. However, the environmental costs of China's hell-bent development have been severe. The Aquatics Center in particular poses one critical question: where will all the water to fill this bold but massive architectural masterpiece--and to supply the Games--come from? After all, Beijing sits on the parched North China Plain, one of the most densely populated regions of the world, with 65 percent of China's agriculture and only 24 percent of its water. Moreover, because only 278 of China's 661 major cities have sewage-treatment plants, 70 percent of the country's rivers are severely polluted.

One can drive a hundred miles in any direction from Beijing and never cross a healthy river. Heading north to Shanxi province, China's major producer of coal, one passes river after river that has dried up. And in 80 percent of those Shanxi rivers that are still flowing, water quality has been rated Grade V by Chinese officials, "unfit for human contact" or for agricultural or industrial use.

As you drive south across Hebei and Henan provinces, the cradle of Chinese civilization, the situation is no better. Reaching the famed Marco Polo Bridge over the Yongding River on a recent trip, we crossed our first parched riverbed. From there to the Yellow River, some 300 miles away, we traversed the Zhi, Ming, Anyang, Sha, Zhang, Huai and many other legendary rivers that show as blue lines on the map; all of them are now almost bone dry. All that remains to memorialize these watercourses are highway bridges, left behind like vestigial organs. The Yellow River itself, once known as "China's Sorrow" because of its propensity to flood, killing millions, has in Henan been reduced to a modest-size channel. At its lower reaches in Shandong, it is not uncommon for the river to cease flowing into the Bohai Sea altogether.

Locals seem pretty sure that these rivers--which have been dammed, diverted and pumped dry--may be gone forever: they've begun planting wheat and vegetables and building large polyethylene greenhouses on their flood plains. …

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