The Yellow River basin has been part of China virtually since the inception of the Chinese nation. Designated as “the cradle of Chinese Civilization,” the basin has played a key role not only in the country’s economic development but also in the historic and cultural identity of the Chinese people. Perhaps, ironically, the Yellow River is also known as “China’s Sorrow,” because the soils which have fostered human development are also associated with frequent, sometimes catastrophic, floods. The devastation brought by these floods, often at scales unimaginable in the West, makes it easy to understand why successive Chinese administrations from the legendary Xia Dynasty (ca. 2000 B.C.) through the 20th century made flood control the number one priority of Yellow River management.
While the possibility of flooding is ever present and remains a key issue in basin management, major achievements have been made in flood control since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. As a result of this success and the rapid economic and social changes which have taken place over the past few decades, new issues such as water scarcity, overuse of resources and environmental degradation are now rising to the top position of the water management agenda. In essence, a transition in river management is now taking place in which focus is shifting from prevention of the river doing harm to people to preventing people from doing harm to the river.
Significant institutional, policy and legal reforms are required to successfully bring about such a fundamental transition in a river management system that has evolved over two millennia. This report has been produced as a background to assist researchers and policy makers in informing the debate surrounding that reform. The report is divided into three primary sections. The first discusses the background to the Yellow River basin and its management including the basic geography of the basin, the role of the basin in Chinese history, and the historic development of basin water resources management and water resources.
The second discusses the key critical issues now being faced by basin residents and managers, including water scarcity, flood control, and land and other environmental degradation. The report concludes with some reflections on promising areas for future research and analysis, including intersectoral allocation, water saving, pollution abatement, data issues and institutional gaps.
Most descriptions of the Yellow River’s geography commence with a recitation of facts. For example, the Yellow River begins in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau of Qinghai province from whence it flows across 8 other provinces and autonomous regions before emptying into the Yellow Sea north of the Shandong peninsula. With a length of over 5,400 km, the Yellow River is the second longest in China and the 10th longest in the world and drains an area larger than France.
The basin contains approximately 9 percent of China’s population and 17 percent of its agricultural area. While such static figures may be of passing interest, it is a deeper understanding of variation in the Yellow River basin’s physical geography that is necessary if one wishes to understand the issues which both the Chinese government and basin residents face in their daily efforts to use, manage and protect the river. To accomplish this formidable task, the river is often divided into its three main reaches for analysis.