Friday, July 30, 2004

Yellow River 'drying up'

Along the river's banks live a third of China's enormous population, more than 400 million people.

The vast plains that are irrigated by its muddy waters produce most of China's wheat, much of its maize and even some of its rice.

The Yellow River is also known as "China's sorrow". The name comes from its propensity to run wild, regularly inundating large swathes of the North China plain, and drowning tens of thousands of its inhabitants.

But today the Yellow River is more famous for the exact opposite.

For more than 200 days of the year this once mighty river no longer makes it to the sea.

It's like the Rhine petering out in central Germany, or the Nile drying up in northern Sudan.

Why? In large part humans are to blame, in particular China's communist rulers, who have long believed nature should be bent to man's will.

The river has been overused and abused. Dozens of dams block its flow, drawing off huge quantities of water to grow cotton in the desert.

In 50 years the communists have done more to destroy the river than their predecessors in the last 5,000.

Today the whole region teeters on the edge of disaster. Global warming could push it over the edge.

In the next 50 years temperatures in Northern China are expected to rise by 3 to 4C.

As they do, the already arid climate will dry further.

The drought that has afflicted the region for the last six years would become permanent. The whole Yellow River valley will dry up.

The impact on crops would be dramatic. Scientists predict yields in China's main wheat growing region could fall by 20% to 40%.

This would force China to import huge quantities of wheat, maize and even rice.


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