National Geographic : 2008 May
The proliferation of factories, farms, and cities-all products of rivers (the Yellow, the Yangtze, and the Mekong) originate. The glaciers and vast underground springs of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau-known as China's "water tower"-supply nearly 50 per cent of the Yellow River's volume. But a hotter, drier climate is sending the delicate ecosystem into shock. Average temperatures in the region are increasing, according to the Chinese weath er bureau, and could rise as much as three to five degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Already, more than 3,000 of the 4,077 lakes in Qinghai Province's Madoi County have disap peared, and the dunes of the high desert lap menacingly at those that remain. The glaciers, meanwhile, are shrinking at a rate of 7 percent a year. Melting ice may add water to the river in the short term, but scientists say the long-term consequences could be fatal to the Yellow. To save its great rivers, Beijing is performing a sort of technological rain dance, with the most ambitious cloud-seeding program in the world. During summer months, artillery and planes bombard the clouds above the Yellow River's source area with silver iodide crystals, around which moisture can collect and become heavy enough to fall as rain. In Madoi, where the thun derous explosions keep Zhuoma's family awake at night, the meteorologists staffing the weather station say the "big gun" project is increasing rainfall and helping replenish glaciers near the Yellow River's source. Local Tibetans, however, believe the rockets, by angering the gods once more, are perpetuating the drought. Like thousands of resettled Tibetan refugees across Qinghai, Zhuoma mourns the end of an ancient way of life. The family's wealth, once measured by the size of its herds, has dwindled to the few adornments she wears: three silver rings, a stone necklace, and her two gold teeth. Zhuoma has no job, and her husband, who rents a tractor to make local deliveries, earns three dollars on a good day. Not long ago the family ate meat every day; now they get by on noodles and fried dough. "We have no choice but to adjust," she says. "What else can we do?" From her concrete home, Zhuoma can still see the silvery beginnings of the Yellow River, but 156 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MAY 2008 her relationship to the water and the land-to her heritage-has been lost forever. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" the security guard demands. "Nothing," replies the stocky woman lurking outside the gates of the paper mill, tucking her secret weapon-a handheld global positioning device-under her sweater. The guard eyes her for a minute, and the woman, a 51-year-old laid-off factory worker named Jiang Lin, holds her breath. When he turns away, she pulls out the GPS and quickly locks in the paper mill's coordinates. As an employee of Green Camel Bell, an envi ronmental group in the western city of Lanzhou, Jiang is following up on a tip that the mill is dumping untreated chemical waste into a tribu tary of the Yellow River. There are hundreds of such factories around Lanzhou, a former Silk Road trading post that has morphed into a petro chemical hub. In 2006 three industrial spills here made the Yellow River run red. Another turned it white. This one is tainting the tributary a toxic shade of maroon. When Jiang gets back to the office, the GPS data will be emailed to Beijing and uploaded onto a Web-based "pol lution map" for the whole world to see. For all of Lanzhou's pride in being the first and biggest city along the Yellow River, it is bet ter known for its massive discharge of industrial and human waste. But even here there is a glim mer of hope: the first seedlings of environmental activism, which may be the only chance for the river's salvation. In the mid-1990s a mere hand ful of environmental groups existed in China. Today there are several thousand, including Green Camel Bell. Jiang Lin's 25-year-old son, Zhao Zhong, founded the group in 2004 to help clean up the city and protect the Yellow River. With only five paid staff, Green Camel Bell is a Low water exposes sandbars near the town of Qikou in Shanxi Province, and along many other stretches. With so much water diverted for irrigation and industry, the Yellow River ran dry before reaching its terminus-the Bo Hai sea-in all but one year during the 1990s.