Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

The Yellow River basin in China – Part 4

with 17 comments

This is the fourth and final part of my 5000-word essay (researched and written in March 2011) on the water resource problems being encountered within the Yellow River catchment of northern China as a consequence of ongoing climate change. Having looked at the problems being experienced within different parts of the catchment, I now begin to consider whether and how these may be solved. (A situation update is appended after the list of References.)

Potential Solutions
The problem (of demand exceeding the capacity of the groundwater and surface water system to supply) is far from being solved. In 2009, Benewick and Donald used data supplied by the Chinese Government to conclude that 50% of China’s population lives in the arid northern half of the country but is reliant on 15% of the available water (2009: 60). They also indicated that 3 large-scale water transfer projects were either under construction or consideration; and that the first of these (from the mouth of the Yangtze to the North China Plain) should now be operational (2009: 61).

However, WANG et al have studied the Yellow River in some detail; including interviewing farmers in numerous villages throughout Hebei, Henan and Ningxia provinces (2008: 278). Although they acknowledge that the Chinese Government has considered over abstraction of groundwater as a serious problem since at least 1996 (2008: 277), along with many other analysts, they believe the water shortages in northern China are due to slow governmental policy response and/or implementation and/or enforcement (2008: 293).

Thus, WANG et al concluded that the Chinese Government…“has not created the institutions and infrastructure that will provide the incentives required to make farmers save water. We believe a sustainable environment needs to be built on effective water pricing and water rights policies… Although this is a huge job, we believe it will be more effective and much cheaper than…” the proposed south-to-north transfer projects (2008: 293). N.B. The second of these is proposed to take water 1200km from the Three Gorges Dam to Beijing by 2030; and the third to transfer water from the upper reaches of the Yangtze (Tibet Autonomous Region) to those of the Yellow River (in Qinghai Province) by 2050 (Benewick and Donald 2009: 61).

In 2008, the Communist Party of China (CPC) published its Climate Change White Paper, which included the admission that climate change “…arises out of development, and thus should be solved along with development” (CPC 2008).

Therefore, although China is no less wedded to the idea that economic growth is the best means available to eradicate poverty – and may not be much closer to decoupling economic development from environmental degradation – than the rest of us, it is determined to reduce the carbon intensity of its greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. emissions per unit GDP). In essence, faced with the fact that China must feed 20% of the world’s population using 7% of the world’s agricultural land (Benewick and Donald 2009: 43), whilst watching the latter being reduced by desertification etc., the CPC has realised that climate change is a potential threat to its own survival; and is therefore determined to pursue (as per the CCWP) both mitigation and adaptation strategies.

The Yellow River basin is the ancient birthplace of Chinese civilisation; and home to a significant proportion of the current population. It is the source of a large amount of industrial and agricultural enterprise; and the river is also used as a major source of hydroelectric power generation.

The length of the river and the size of the catchment result in a wide range of climatic and vegetation zones, ranging from the high-altitude glaciated valleys of Qinghai Province to the west, to the North China Plain; with the River passing through the very arid Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (between Yinchuan and Hohot) on its way to the sea. As such, although average rainfall across the catchment is nearly 500mm/yr, actual rainfall ranges from in excess of 750mm/yr in the south; to less than 150mm/yr in the north.

The Yellow River basin includes very significant thicknesses of sedimentary rocks and superficial deposits, which form a complex hydrogeological system capable of storing very large volumes of good quality groundwater (where it falls and can be recharged without being evaporated).

With regard to mineral resources, the Yellow River basin contains more than 25% of China’s oil and more than 50% of its coal reserves and, consequently, it is the focus of a considerable amount of industrial activity. As such, the demand for water is very high and, despite the size of the Yellow River, not all of this can be met from surface water (in part due to climatic variations along its length). Therefore, very large volumes of groundwater are also abstracted to meet the demands of both urbanised industrial and domestic water supply. Therefore, in addition to a general excess of demand over supply, pollution of both surface water and groundwater are also serious problems.

Although the Chinese Government has been aware of the problems for many years, existing policy and legislation appear to have had little positive effect. Furthermore, although very considerable sums of money have been spent on large scale water transfer projects, there remains a significant possibility that the real solution lies in better demand management, including market-based solutions to maximise the efficiency of all water use.

In conjunction with continuing improvements in the effectiveness/enforcement of legislation designed to encourage polluter responsibility and/or pollution prevention, it is therefore to be hoped that, in the face of continuing concern over the potential impacts of ongoing climate change, all of this may yet prevent potentially-catastrophic unsustainable use of available water resources.

Benewick, R. and Donald, S. (2009), The State of China Atlas. Berkeley CA: UCP Press.

CPC (2008), White Paper: China’s Policies and Actions on Climate Change. Available at [accessed 11/05/2011].

HAN, Zhantao et al., (2009), ‘Groundwater balance and circulation in key areas of the Yellow River basin’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.59-86.

IPCC (2007), AR4 Summary for Policymakers. Geneva: IPCC.

MATSUOKA, Norikazu et al., (2009), ‘Permafrost and hydrology in the source area of the Yellow River’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.39-57.

MENGXIONG, Chen (2000), ‘Distribution and exploitation of groundwater resources in China’, in MENGXIONG, Chen and ZUHUANG, Cai, (eds), Groundwater resources and the related environ-hydrogeologic problems in China. Beijing: Seismological Press, pp.28-37.

MENGXIONG, Chen and ZUHUANG, Cai, (2000), ‘Groundwater resources and hydro-environmental problems in China’, in MENGXIONG, Chen and ZUHUANG, Cai, (Eds), Groundwater resources and the related environ-hydrogeologic problems in China. Beijing: Seismological Press, pp.38-44.

Mori, Koji et al., (2009), ‘Large-scale and high-performance groundwater flow modelling and simulation for water resource management in the Yellow River basin’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.131-46.

Muraoka, Hirofumi et al., (2009), ‘Geological model of the Yellow River basin for the long-term groundwater simulation’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.117-30.

Parker, P. (2010), World History. London: Dorling Kindersley.

Tamanyu, Shiro et al., (2009), ‘Geological interpretation of groundwater level lowering in the North China Plain’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.105-15.

Uchida, Youhei et al., (2009), ‘Groundwater quality and stable isotope compositions in the Yellow River basin’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.87-104.

WANG, Jinxia, et al., (2008), ‘Understanding the water crisis in northern China’, in SONG, L. and Woo, China’s Dilemma: Economic Growth, the Environment and Climate Change. Canberra: ANU Press, pp.276-96.

WEN, Dongguang et al., (2009), ‘Outline of the Yellow River basin of China’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.9-18.

WWF (2007), ‘Yellow River (Huang He)’ [online], WWF. Available at: [accessed 04/04/2011].

YRCC (2007a), ‘About YR’ [online], Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC). Available at: [accessed 04/04/2011].

YRCC (2007b), ‘Strategy for Flood Control of the Yellow River’ [online], Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC). Available at: [accessed 06/04/2011].

YRCC (2007c), ‘The History and Main Achievements of Soil and Water Conservation’ [online], Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC). Available at: [accessed 08/04/2011].

YRCC (2007d), ‘Development and Utilization of Water Resources’ [online], Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC). Available at: [accessed 08/04/2011].

ZHANG, Eryong et al., (2009), ‘Regional geology and hydrogeology of the Yellow River basin’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.19-32.


Situation Update
In May 2011, the Communist Party of China (CPC) published its 12th Five Year Plan, which re-affirms the principle (first alluded to in the 2008 White Paper) that climate change “arises out of development, and should thus be solved along with development”. Therefore, after decades of insisting that economic development must not be impeded by environmental concerns, the CPC has now officially conceded that climate change is a real problem; that humans are its cause; and that doing nothing is not an option. It must be hoped that the rest of the World will soon do the same; especially since China will probably be one of the last places on Earth to actually stop burning fossil fuels. What we most certainly cannot afford to do is to continue pointing the finger at China and saying “Well if they can burn them then so will I”. Such a childish response does not help anyone; and will guarantee unintended ecocide becomes a reality. In short, it may well be humanity’s epitaph.

Written by Martin Lack

15 June 2012 at 00:02

17 Responses

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  1. Tremendous work! I will check all of the other parts, sorry I jumped in at the end. Thanks and keep pushing on with your science writing.

    Richard Nelson

    15 June 2012 at 00:26

    • Hey Richard! Thanks for the positive feedback. How come you stumbled upon Part 4 first?

      Martin Lack

      15 June 2012 at 11:04

      • I discovered the series on my Reader from exploring the science tag where your recently published part four was waiting for me to spend hours with the Yellow River. Great series!

        Richard Nelson

        15 June 2012 at 12:34

  2. I give you credit for at least one thing that people of your persuasion normally launch into and that is the false premise that melting glaciers will mean that these rivers such as the Yellow River will dry up. This is often put forth regarding the Ganges River and it would be a real revelation for these who wring their hands over this to know that glacier melt contributes no more than 5% of the water in any given river that has any glaciers at its head, note, the longest river in the world, the Nile, has no glacier’s but throughout the long recorded history of Egypt, has let the people that depend on it down on many occasions and that was before your dreaded CO2 was even known to exist.

    It is also interesting to note that for thousands of years, until some idiot like Mao came on the scene, China was able to feed itself (when 90% of the population live on 10% of the land mass of this large nation).

    Dealing with water is not a new thing for the Chinese:
    “The Grand Canal of China is the world’s oldest and longest canal, far surpassing the next two grand canals of the world: Suez and Panama Canal.
    The building of the canal began in 486 B.C. during the Wu Dynasty. It was extended during the Qi Dynasty, and later by Emperor Yangdi of Sui Dynasty during six years of furious construction from 605-610 AD
    The canal is 1,795 Km (1,114 miles) long with 24 locks and some 60 bridges.”

    If the current Chinese government felt that the climate and global warming, or what ever you call, is a problem, they certainly have the power to at least clean-up the particulates spewing from the thousands of power plants but they do NOTHING about it because they DO NOT CARE. They will always be excluded from failed Kyoto type protocols because they and India will never comply because they are more worried about their economies than their environment and the problem with this is that the actual pollutants and I’m not talking about CO2 soon are part of everyone’s air.


    16 June 2012 at 12:27

    • John/Douglas (please indicate which name you prefer or I will just address you as JDS), thank you for engaging with the actual topic at last.

      Given that you live in Thailand, I am sure I do not need to lecture you on hydrology but… All the great rivers that flow from the Himalaya or Tibetan Plateau will eventually be impacted by the disappearance of glaciers and, even if this takes centuries, this is not something that should be dismissed or ignored (if nothing else because of the projected growth in the human population living within the huge area that they collectively drain). Once the glaciers are gone, dry season flows will be very severely reduced and, in the meantime, melting permafrost and increased rainfall mean that flooding is a far greater immediate consequence of anthropogenic climate disruption (my preferred term for what is happening).

      As far as your final paragraph is concerned, you seem content to ignore my final paragraph above; and conveniently ignore the fact that China is merely a long way behind the West in implementing effective environmental regulations (and/or thankfully not seeking to repeal them).

      Your appear to be unable to refute my assertion that your position is predicated on conspiracy theory. That being the case, your persistent mockery of the consensus understanding that excess (anthropogenic) CO2 in the atmosphere is the main driver of the change now occurring is not credible. Therefore, I really do think it is time you watch-and-learn from the video of Barry Bickmore’s talk on ‘How to avoid the truth about climate change’.

      Martin Lack

      16 June 2012 at 14:51

      • Martin; I do know a good deal about the rivers in the area and have spent time on the Mekong on several occasions and since it heads in China, what they intend to do regarding dams on it concern all of those down stream such as Burma, Lao, Thailand and most of all Cambodia and also Vietnam. The annual flooding of the Mekong and it having to back up into the Tonle Sap River and Lake that produces one of the most productive fresh water lakes in the world that was in part responsible for the rise of the great Khmer Empire because of all of the fish that it produced. I have been down the Tonle Sap Lake and down the river from Siem Reap to Phnon Penh . The water is about the color of chocolate and there are many people that live on the lake year around. The big worry is that China will dam the Mekong and put an end to this great fishery and the life blood of Cambodia plus put a crimp on using the river for transportation by dropping the level so low that boats will not be able to use it.

        [Snipped – The “IPCC Glaciergate” pseudo-scandal has been rebutted many times and in many places (e.g. here). – ML]

        With regard to dire warnings regarding melting glaciers, keep in mind that Capt. George Vancouver‘s ships were wind powered; therefore he wasn’t spewing out any diesel smoke to start this massive retreat of these glaciers.

        By 1879, however, naturalist John Muir discovered that the ice had retreated more than 30 miles forming an actual bay. By 1916, the Grand Pacific Glacier – the main glacier credited with carving the bay – had melted back 60 miles to the head of what is now Tarr Inlet.

        It seems the AP heavily relied on the report from Norway Consulate George Ifft, which is shown below. See the original MWR article below and click the newsprint copy for a complete artice or see the link to the original PDF below:

        One needs to keep in mind that the glaciers were in retreat due to the last ice age ending and then expanded during the little ice age and are retreating from that time period of cold climate and humans had nothing to do with any of this, then or now. Meteorologist Mark Nolan stated:  “I’m not sure which is more arrogant; to say we caused [global warming] or that we can fix it.”

        I will deal with your last paragraph at a later time.


        17 June 2012 at 13:25

        • Dear JDS, I genuinely do appreciate your taking the time to share your local knowledge but, even so, I must ask you to try and be brief.

          I meant two things by my comment regarding glaciers: (1) we should be alarmed by the fact that they have been stable for millennia (i.e. no evidence of glaciation lower down the valleys) but have now retreated significantly in the last 100 years (see comparative photos in 1920s and post 2000); and (2) even if their demise is a distant prospect, the fact remains that glacier/permafrost melt provides baseflow in the warm and dry months of the year. I will readilly admit that the glaciers in the Himalaya are not melting as fast as those at high latitude but this is no reason for anyone to be complacent. Nevertheless, this is exactly what so-called “sceptics” do; they focus on the one piece of evidence that supports inaction and ignore the rest:
          e.g. ‘Satellites find over 500 billion tons of land ice melting worldwide every year, headlines focus on Himalayas’.
          There is also the case of Glacier National Park in Montana (where melting is progressing extremely fast), which I raised with Professor Lindzen.

          If you are going to assert that the LIA was anything other than a regional anomaly affecting Europe – and/or that Arctic glaciers advanced significantly in that time-window – I think you should provide evidence. However, for the record, nothing Michael Mann et al have done in the last 20 years has made the LIA or the MWP “disappear”; all they have done is prove that what is now happening is without precedent in millions of years. Dr Richard A Muller now accepts this; and I think it is time that you did too.

          Martin Lack

          17 June 2012 at 14:05

  3. A couple of months back I posted a link to my version of a geological time spiral. I have tried to find that comment without success so far so please use the embedded link for access to a a much updated version. Apologies for the off topic.

    Lionel A

    16 June 2012 at 15:56

  4. “Your appear to be unable to refute my assertion that your position is predicated on conspiracy theory. That being the case, your persistent mockery of the consensus understanding that excess (anthropogenic) CO2 in the atmosphere is the main driver of the change now occurring is not credible.” -Martin
    You amaze me. You say I do not stay on the topic and now you invite me to respond to this outrages statement, and that I shall do and if it takes up some space; so what, and if you redact it, GOOD BYE because I am about tired of trying to dealing with you because I certainly have better and more enjoyable pursuits to attend to. It is easy to see that you do not want to have an intelligent discussion regarding this subject.

    I am sure that you may have lunch with some of these people whose thoughts I list below that explains why I know that there is a conspiracy regarding this hoax that is called anthropogenic global warming and that is to gain control over the unwashed masses and what better way to do so than to take away their cheap and reliable energy base that is supplied by, for the most part,the use of fossil fuels.

    [Snipped – see explanation below]

    “We need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination… So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements and make little mention of any doubts… Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” – Stephen Schneider, Stanford Professor of Climatology, lead author of many IPCC reports

    “We’ve got to ride this global warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, we will be doing the right thing in terms of economic and environmental policy.” – Timothy Wirth, President of the UN Foundation

    “No matter if the science of global warming is all phony… climate change provides the greatest opportunity to bring about justice and equality in the world.” – Christine Stewart, fmr Canadian Minister of the Environment

    “The only way to get our society to truly change is to frighten people with the possibility of a catastrophe.” – emeritus professor Daniel Botkin

    “We require a central organizing principle – one agreed to voluntarily. Minor shifts in policy, moderate improvement in laws and regulations, rhetoric offered in lieu of genuine change – these are all forms of appeasement, designed to satisfy the public’s desire to believe that sacrifice, struggle and a wrenching transformation of society will not be necessary.” – Al Gore, Earth in the Balance

    [All such comments arise out of exasperation with politicians who refuse to take necessary action. Take Schneider for example: He was not proposing dishonesty; merely suggesting that the usual admission of uncertainty be avoided in an attempt to make people take notice – ML]


    18 June 2012 at 02:29

    • JDS, I am permitting this comment solely because, you are right, I asked you to stay on-topic (China) and then challenged you to refute my assertion that you are a conspiracy theorist. Oooops!

      However, cutting and pasting quotations from all manner of people who accept the reality of climate change and/or limits to growth does not explain why the majority of climate scientists think we have a problem (as per my quote from Monbiot); it merely confirms that you are a conspiracy theorist.

      If you repeat yourself further on this here, your comments will be deleted. If you wish to continue to argue, please find a post on my blog where I discuss the reality of the scientific consensus, such as:
      To all who say AGW is junk science (4 October 2011); or
      The greatest lie ever told? (9 April 2012).

      Martin Lack

      18 June 2012 at 08:57

  5. [Snipped – unintelligible waffle]

    You said: “If you are going to assert that the LIA was anything other than a regional anomaly affecting Europe and/or that Arctic glaciers advanced significantly in that time-window, I think you should provide evidence.”
    “The scientists studied ikaite crystals from sediment cores drilled off the coast of Antarctica. The sediment layers were deposited over 2,000 years. The scientists were particularly interested in crystals found in layers deposited during the “Little Ice Age,” approximately 300 to 500 years ago, and during the “Medieval Warm Period,” approximately 500 to 1,000 years ago. Both climate events have been documented in Northern Europe, but studies have been inconclusive as to whether the conditions in Northern Europe extended to Antarctica.
    Ikaite crystals incorporate ocean bottom water into their structure as they form. During cooling periods, when ice sheets are expanding, ocean bottom water accumulates heavy oxygen isotopes (oxygen 18). When glaciers melt, fresh water, enriched in light oxygen isotopes (oxygen 16), mixes with the bottom water. The scientists analyzed the ratio of the oxygen isotopes in the hydration water and in the calcium carbonate. They compared the results with climate conditions established in Northern Europe across a 2,000-year time frame. They found a direct correlation between the rise and fall of oxygen 18 in the crystals and the documented warming and cooling periods.”


    18 June 2012 at 04:22

  6. “I really do think it is time you watch-and-learn from the video of Barry Bickmore’s talk on ‘How to avoid the truth about climate change’.”
    Martin, I did waste my time watching ‘How to avoid the truth about climate change’ and I discovered yet another individual who, if he knows what the truth is (and I do believe that he does), is as deceptive and as untruthful as most of the fools in the anthropogenic global warming crowd… A number that has declined, as I saw just yesterday while watching Al Jazeera TV, to only 35% that now believe that there is anthropogenic climate change (or whatever you call it).

    [90% snipped – Sorry for any time you wasted ranting on about your conspiracy theory, but, like I said, if you want to debate the validity of the scientific consensus, do so on a post where that is the subject. However, I suspect that you will not do this: Despite the fact that you have very clearly and repeatedly ignored my instructions and/or reminders about ‘house rules’, you will almost certainly feign indignation at ‘excessive censorship’… and disappear. – ML]


    19 June 2012 at 04:09

  7. […] Professor of Geological Sciences, Barry Bickmore, from a recent visitor to this blog – John Douglas Swallow: “Martin, I did waste my time watching ‘How to avoid the truth about climate change’ and […]

    • Martin. It would appear that you are so afraid of the truth, even though you seldom bother yourself by getting caught up in what is true; but seem to believe that lies are more appropriate. As witnessed by your, “I blew my chance to ask a question. However, Prof. Lindzen kindly invited me to email them to him instead.”

      [Snipped – You are repeating yourself (again). You and everyone on Judith Curry’s Climate etc blog were engaging in a pedantic debate about whether or not I was allowed to ask a question… I never did get to ask a question because I tried to address Lindzen’s failure to mention relevant facts… Yet again you are attacking me because you cannot falsify the logical, historical, and scientific basis of the consensus understanding of anthropogenic climate change reality. – ML]

      I will never reply directly to your irrelevant blog again but, if, when going around the internet, I happen to encounter you, I will make sure that I appraise everyone on the thread of the type of low-life, lying dud that you are. Good Bye. John D. Swallow

      [You are then, by your own confession, a shameless troll (probably the kind that sends climate scientists hateful emails). I have pointed-out to you the flaws in your ad hominem attacks on me and yet, here you are, promising to repeat them. These comments of yours will remain here as testament to the unpleasant and unreasonable person that you are. – ML]


      20 June 2012 at 06:03

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