October 21: The Yellow River has been called the cradle of the Chinese civilisation, just as the Indus River made it possible for the ancient Indian civilisation of Harappa and Mohenjodaro to flourish, the Tigris and Euphrates gave birth to the Mesopotamian civilisation (now in Iraq), and the Nile gave birth to the Egyptian civilisation more than 4000 years ago.

The magnificent river runs 4345 km, and is second only to the Yangtse river. Called China’s sorrow because of its tendency to overflow and change its course, till date it has overflowed 1600 times and changed its course 26 times, affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

The Yellow River
The Yellow River [Illustration by Sudheer Nath]
That same Yellow River is dying because the harmful effects of unreflective human decisions are now piling up. These include deforestation, wasteful use of water and drought conditions. Cao Mingming, professor of environmental geography at Xibei University, in China, has pointed this out, says an Agence France Presse report in ‘The Indian Express’.

The level of desperation is so high that experts have even pondered over the possibility of diverting water from the Yangtse to the Yellow river.

The water levels have decreased drastically. It is three times less than it was 50 years ago, says Yu Leping, professor of geology at Xibei University.

Many reasons have been put forward for this state of affairs. One, of course, is the massive deforestation that has occurred to create living space for the huge population. In the last 50 years, the loosened soil and silt that has accumulated in the riverbed, is enormous. The riverbed has been rising by 10 cm every year.

The construction of dams on rivers changes the character of the river substantially. The once fast flowing waters are now stagnant and they affect the entire riverine ecosystem.

Professor Cao Mingming calls the building of so many dams upstream as an “exploitative” activity, because it is done without the realisation that the water levels downstream have been reduced drastically. The reduction in water levels is also because of wasteful use of water, it has been pointed out.

For instance, small farmers in the northern province of Ningxia use five times the amount of water for irrigation than the small farmers in the southern provinces. Similarly, factories that have come up in the last 50 years also take up a lot of water.

The fact that northern China has been affected by drought in the last several years has further worsened the situation by reducing the water levels. From 634 millimetres of rain in the 1970s and 594 millimetres in the 1980s, the rainfall was reduced to 561 millimetres in the 1990s.

If the wastage of water can be cut down by 40 per cent and a reforestation drive launched, matters could improve point out the experts.

But then, for the Yellow River to get back its depth, flow and purity, there has to be major change in the attitudes of people. They must stop looking at the river as a resource to be exploited and realise that the river, too, needs to regenerate.

The ancients understood the complex relationship of a river ecosystem to the lives of the people and the ways in which it sustains an unbroken link between humans, land, flora, fauna and weather and climate. They grasped that natural resources were meant for collective good and as per need, not for the greed of individuals or communities.

And, realising the powers of nature, they were respectful of it. That is the lesson present-day humans, feeling on top of the world in their technological world, must relearn.

For, what is happening to the Yellow River is no an isolated instance. The rivers of ancient civilisation the world over are dying. And that is a worrying sign.