Greening The Yellow River For A Beautiful China

By Dr Zhanfeng Dong 19 March, 2020

“黄河宁,天下平” (a stable Yellow River, peace in China) - Dr Dong from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning charts a path to this vision

With the Yellow River key to sustaining China’s food, energy & ecological security, President Xi has repeatedly reiterated its importance to the sustainable development of China since 2014
Although water quality improved by 5.2% in 2018, more has to be done as prolonged exploitation has caused severe environmental degradation & water scarcity; the policies needed are manifold
These include region-specific development plans for the river's 9 provinces, the legalisation of a “Yellow River Protection Law”, better water pricing, promotion of a water rights mechanism & more

The Yellow River has always been honoured as the “mother river” of the Chinese civilisation. Spanning across 9 provinces (such as Qinghai, Sichuan & Gansu) with a flow of 5,464km, the Yellow River Basin covers a basin area of 752,400 square km and is home to around 150 million people.

The Yellow River is home to around 150mn people…

… it plays an irreplaceable role in sustaining China’s food, energy & ecological security

The river itself is an important source of water in Northwest & North China regions, protecting their ecological security and stability. It also supports key agricultural production bases such as Hetao, Fenwei and Huanghuahai Plains as well as an energy base spanning across China. It is therefore not an exaggeration to say that the Yellow River plays an irreplaceable role in sustaining China’s food, energy and ecological security.

Given the importance of the river basin to the sustainable development of China, it is paramount to coordinate it with developments of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, Yangtze River Economic Belt, Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area and Yangtze River Delta.

The history of Yellow River as the country’s priority

Since the beginning of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the government has attached great importance to the protection and management of the Yellow River Basin. Chairman Mao once said: “We must do well in the Yellow River”. Following this guidance, the Communist Party of China and the State Council took advantage of the socialist system to actively manage the river.

This year, President Xi reiterated the importance of the Yellow river to the sustainable development of China

In 2014, President Xi Jinping paid a visit to the Yellow River’s Lankao Dongba head section to inspect flood prevention measures and understand the living and production conditions of people in the Yellow River beach area. In 2016, during an inspection in Ningxia, General Secretary Xi emphasised that all coastal provinces and regions should consciously assume the responsibility of protecting the Yellow River and put an end to pollution. This year, while inspecting Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Henan, President Xi reiterated the importance of the Yellow river to the sustainable development of China.

These consistent directives from the pinnacle of the party through the passage of time can testify its strong will to make the health of the Yellow River a priority.

A healthy Yellow River is the foundation of a “Beautiful China”

Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, various regions and departments have thoroughly implemented the ideas of ecological civilisation and environmental protection with manifold policies – and the results are significant.

Compared to 2015, 2018’s water quality has improved by 5.2%…

…yet, water scarcity is particularly severe because of extensive development

Compared to 2015, 2018’s water quality has improved by 5.2% and the proportion of level V (the worst water quality in the scale) water areas have decreased by 0.5% to 12.4%. The areas of forests and wetlands have also enlarged. However, the Yellow River has supported the rapid development of the basin for an extended period of time and is on the brink of collapse. Water scarcity is particularly severe due to extensive development.

As said in Chinese “黄河宁,天下平” (a stable Yellow River, peace in China).

Due to prolonged exploitation of the Yellow River, degradations in the ecosystem are still on-going which makes the task of protecting the river even more important – as said in Chinese “黄河宁,天下平” (a stable Yellow River, peace in China).

Policies to realise green development in the Yellow River

There are 4 major policy directions to protect the ecological civilisation in the Yellow River:

1. Region-based protection & restoration policies

The Yellow river spans across China and the ecological systems are vastly different between the upper, middle and lower reaches. Therefore they need to be treated individually with targeted measures.

The upper region policies will focus on improving the water-source functions and expanding the scope of ecological protection and restoration of landscapes, forests, lakes and grasses in water-source regions such as the three river sources, Qilian Mountain and the Gannan.

For the middle region, the policy focus will be on controlling water and soil erosion, implementing key national soil and water conservation projects, and launching constructions to clean small watersheds.

Finally, for the lower Delta region, policies will aim at improving the beach area, building ecological corridors and improving the ecological health of the region by enhancing biodiversity and restoring wetland systems.

2. Active exploration of high-quality development plans by the basin’s 9 provinces

As the basin’s 9 provinces have different regional characteristics, they have to tailor their development plans to make the best value out of the Yellow River while protecting it from over-exploitation.  

As the basin’s 9 provinces have different regional characteristics, they have to tailor their development plans

For places like Sanjiangyuan and Qilian Mountains that have high ecological importance, they should focus on creating more ecological products. For grain-producing areas such as Hetao Irrigation District and Fenwei Plain, they should raise the quality of agricultural products.

For regional centre cities and areas that have vibrant economic conditions, they should develop the economy and increase their population carrying capacities. Finally, for Huangshui, Weihe and Fenhe Rivers that host paper and coal industries, they should adhere to ecological protection redlines and monitor polluting industries.

3. Prioritisation of ecological flow protection

To protect the Yellow River, policies have to strengthen water conservation along the basin, rationally plan economic developments and curb unreasonable water demands. To multiply the conserving magnitude, these regions should intensify the development of water-saving industries and technologies, establish water-saving intensive schemes, plus strengthen water conservation in the agricultural sector. Complimentary policies should be established within the regions to ensure healthy ecological flows in the Yellow, Datong and Weihe Rivers.

4. Implementation of high-quality water and environmental protection policies

As the prolonged exploitations have created severe pollution, policies should also be directed to clean up the mess.

Centralised sewage treatment facilities in industrial areas should be constructed

They should start by constructing centralised sewage treatment facilities in industrial areas, improving urban sewage treatment and pipe networks, as well as prioritising treatments of sludge, urban black & odour water and wastes from the livestock industry.

In Fenwai plain and Hetao irrigation area, ecological risks management of the rural environment in sensitive areas such as drinking water source catchments should come first. A monitoring system for environmental emergencies in river basins should also be built in order to control ecological risks.

Finally, improvement projects for rivers and beaches can reduce the speed of sand sedimentation, thereby ensuring safety along the Yellow River.

A sustainable mechanism for Yellow River protection & management

Due to the complexity of the ecological problems, it is essential to establish a sustainable mechanism that can effectively distribute the use of water resources and coordinate the actions & ecological compensations between different regional governments.

1. Policy improvement

The government is set to initiate the legalisation of “Yellow River Protection Law” to clearly define the area of responsibilities of different regional governments and their respective ecological standards.

The government is set to initiate the legalisation of a “Yellow River Protection Law”

Besides legalisation, governments should also strengthen law enforcement and supervisions in river basins, enhance information-sharing between the upper & lower regions, as well as establishing an early warning mechanism.

Research towards the ecological environment management should also be commenced to feed into the formulation of the overall plan during the “14th Five-year Plan”, promotion of investment guarantee, and formation of an ecological environment project library.

2. Strictest water resources management system

Governments should implement rigid water resources regulation by suspending the approval of new water withdrawals in excessive-usage regions and disapproving all projects that do not meet the national and provincial water quota standards, thereby accelerating changes in economic development and water usage patterns.

The water price mechanism should also be streamlined & improved to formulate water stepped prices

The water price mechanism should also be streamlined and improved to formulate water stepped prices in order to achieve water conservation and structural changes in related industries. On the pollution front, the formation of a sewage treatment charging mechanism with a full-cost coverage can ensure all sewage facilities attain government standards.

3. Basin-wide ecological compensation mechanism

Governments should also set up a watershed ecological compensation mechanism for better cross-boundary water quality control. After carefully considering different ecological conditions between regions, the mechanism can use regions’ respective water qualities & flow, as well as their contributions to ecological services to formulate the compensation benchmarks.

Policies should also be directed to improve and promote the Yellow River water rights mechanism

Policies should also be directed to improve and promote the Yellow River water rights mechanism by setting up a trading centre and establishing the trading mechanisms.

They should also help to establish a compensation mechanism for ecological resettlement and farmland fallow in beach areas.

4. A cross-regional coordinating mechanism

A cross-departmental and regional coordinating mechanism should be established with members from the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the Ministry of Water Resources, the Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Natural Resources, the National Forestry and Grass Bureau, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, as well as the 9 governments along the Yellow River. This mechanism could coordinate on legalisation of related laws and policies, as well as ecological risk management of the river basin.

Full efforts to promote large scale ecological protection and governance

1. Ecological barriers

Adhering to the national “two screens & three belts” overall layout, priority of constructing ecological barriers should be given to water and soil conservation in the hilly and gully areas of the Loess Plateau, Yellow River’s water supply in Gannan, grassland and wetland in Ruoergai and Sanjiangyuan, mountain glacier and water conservation in Qilian, biodiversity in Qinba, and grassland in Yinshan.

As for existing restoration sites, governments should continue launching new ecological restoration pilot projects to improve the environment.

2. Water & soil conservation

In focus areas such as Yellow River’s sandy areas and Ganqingning’s hilly & gully areas, governments should initiate small watersheds management, the top ten holes in the Inner Mongolia section of the Yellow River’s comprehensive management, and “gully protection” in the hilly & gully areas.

The aims of the above are to reduce the amount of sediments and improve the risk management of silt dams.

3. Ecological protection of important rivers, lakes & ground waters

First, policies should be aimed at improve the quality of rivers by strengthening the supervision of rivers/lakes’ ecological flow with a particular focus on Yellow River, Weihe and Daitong rivers. They should also promote the rivers and lakes chef system to better control rivers’ respective shorelines.

Second, to restore ecologically fragile and impaired areas, governments should take river basins as unit and focus on key areas such as Weihe River, Fenhe River, Wuliangsuhai Lake, Erhai Lake, Hulun Lake, and Hongjianyu to carry out ecological restoration and protection. The area of natural wetlands should also be restored.

4. Protection of drinking water sources

To ensure the safety of citizens, sources of drinking waters should be better safeguarded by formulating the standards for constructions in water source cities, ensuring these projects will not impair the water quality. In addition, governments should strengthen the delineation of water source protection zones, erect land signs and improve the environments surrounding the water sources. As well, the establishment of a storage mechanism for key drinking water source protection projects can provide more flexibility.

5. Water pollution mitigation

Policies should be focused on eradicating level-V sections by targeting black and odorous water bodies, industrial wastewater, urban sewage, rural drainage, and farmland water pollution. Structural changes are also needed in polluting industries, such as coal and chemicals.

Further Reading

  • Yangtze River: Actions Toward Ecological Compensation – With RMB5bn already allocated to supporting ecological compensation along the Yangtze River, what’s next? Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning’s Dr Zhanfeng Dong highlights what needs improving
  • China’s River Chiefs: Who Are They? –  River chiefs were first implemented in 2007 following a pollution incident. Now, by 2018 all of China’s rivers/lakes will have river chiefs. How will this work & what do they do? China Water Risk’s Yuanchao Xu expands
  • Yellow River Changing Course -Prof. Vivian Forbes at Wuhan University provides a detailed overview of the Yellow River’s 5,500km long journey from source to delta and shares how & why the alignment of the river’s mouth has changed over the centuries
  • Water-Energy-Food Security Nexus In Asia’s Large River Basins – The water-energy-food security nexus is complicated but as Maija Taka, Marko Keskinen & Olli Varis show, the tensions can be alleviated. Plus, they share 3 WEF cases in Asia’s largest river basins
  • Managing China’s Water Stress Drop By Drop – What are the trends in managing China’s water stress? WRI’s Dr Jiao Wang finds that while there is good and bad news, the Three Red Line regulations and local policies seem to have overall positive impacts

More on Latest

Dr Zhanfeng Dong
Author: Dr Zhanfeng Dong
Dr. Dong Zhanfeng is currently working at the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning (CAEP) directly under the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), acted as the associate director of the Environmental Policy Institute (EPI). He is mainly engaged in SDGs, ecological and environmental policy. He served as editor-in-chief of Progress in Environmental Economics Research and served as editorial board of some academic journals such as Ecological Economics. He also serves as the senior environmental policy consultant experts for UNEP, UNDP, ADB, GEF and other international agencies. He acted as the core expert of China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) in 2016. He has presided over about 60 international cooperation and domestic research projects in recent 10 years. The international cooperation projects were mainly funded by UNEP, ADB, GEF, etc. Domestic scientific research projects were mainly funded by the National People's Congress (NPC), the State Council, MEE, Ministry of Science and Technology(MOST), Ministry of Finance(MOF), the National Natural Science Foundation(NNSF), etc. He has made several recommendations on environmental policy to the National People’s Congress (NPC), State Council, MEE, National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), MOF, State Administration of Taxation (SAT) in China, and were adopted by the relevant ministries and commissions. He has published more than 150 papers in academic journals, authored 9 monographs and 20 books.
Read more from Dr Zhanfeng Dong →