Human Activities Contribute to Drying Up of Major River Headwaters

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As temperatures and human pressures have increased in China’s mountainous west over the past decade, the headwaters of two major river arteries, the Yellow and the Yangtze, are drying up at an alarming rate. The Chinese government has poured in money and other resources in an attempt to reverse or mitigate this trend, but observers remain pessimistic about finding a long-term cure.

According to Xinhua News Agency, residents of Qumalai County, at the headwaters of the Yangtze River, now face the predicament of buying water for survival. All but 8 of the county’s 136 wells had dried up by 2000, leaving 80 percent of the population at the mercy of water peddlers. Eighteen local rivers, once tributaries of the Yangtze, are now identifiable only by their dried-up riverbeds.

The Yellow River faces an even more severe water shortage at its source. A recent study commissioned by the environmental group Greenpeace reports that in the past decade, no-flow events occurred more frequently and lasted much longer than in previous years. About 3,000 of 4,077 lakes in Maduo County, the first county through which the Yellow flows, have disappeared completely, depriving nearly 600 households, 3,000 people, and 119,000 cattle of easy access to water.

Both the Yangtze and Yellow rivers originate on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in western China, in a region known as Sanjiangyuan. Sanjiangyuan, which translates as “sources of three rivers,” covers 363,000 square kilometers and also harbors the headwaters of the Mekong River, which runs through Southeast Asia. Approximately one quarter of the water in the Yangtze River and half of that in the Yellow River comes from this source region; the rest is added from rainfall and tributaries downstream.

In recent years, Sanjiangyuan has witnessed unusual warming, a trend scientists suspect may be linked to global climate change. According to Greenpeace, the average temperature in the region has increased by 0.88 degrees Celsius in the past 50 years. This warming has caused glacial retreat and permafrost melting as well as drainage and degradation of numerous lakes and wetlands that feed the region’s rivers. It has also affected precipitation patterns and boosted evaporation rates, resulting in reduced flows and the disappearance of more sections of the headwaters.

The situation has been exacerbated by intensified human activities, which have stressed the already fragile landscape. The local population has more than quadrupled from 130,000 in 1949 to 610,000 in 2003. With livestock husbandry the major source of income, grasslands are supporting far more animals than they can sustain, at an overgrazing rate of over 56 percent. Insatiable resource demand and the need to feed a fast-growing population have resulted in massive grassland degradation and devastation of the ecosystem’s water-trapping capabilities. Local vegetation is further jeopardized by rampant gold mining and the intensive harvesting of rare Chinese herbs.

The direness of the situation prodded the Chinese government to set up a nature reserve in Sanjiangyuan in May 2000. Officials pledged earlier this year to inject approximately 7.5 billion RMB (US $904 million) into the reserve’s construction from 2004 through 2010, making it China’s largest environmental project ever, China News Agency reported. The money will be spent on relocating residents, conserving grasslands, and increasing precipitation through artificial rains, among other restoration measures.

Most of these government efforts are targeting local human impacts, which could be curbed effectively in the short or mid term with sufficient investment and determination. In the long run, however, hope for sound restoration of the fragile ecosystem at the headwaters of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers is minimal unless regional warming, too, can be successfully addressed. To achieve this goal, however, the resolve of one country alone may not be enough.