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The Yellow River

Between you and I

With a total length of 5,464 km, I am the China’s second longest river after the Yangtze and the 6th longest in the world. My watershed is the home of more than 100 million people and some of China’s oldest cities, so that I am the cradle of northern Chinese civilisation and “the mother river”. In Mandarin, I am “Huang He”, which means the Yellow River. My name stems from the alluvium (silt, mud, sand, etc.) freed from the erosion of soil which give me a muddy colour.

My source lies in the Qinhai-Tibetan plateau. It is there that three of China’s largest rivers spring: the Changjiang River, the Mekong and I. I run through northern and central China before draining into the Bo Hai Sea.

I am faced with many problems: drought, floods, pollution, demographic pressure, the degradation of ecosystems, etc. My protection and the fate of its population depend on the good management of me and my watershed.


The Yellow River’s vital statistics

  • Source: Qinhai-Tibetan plateau
  • Mouth: Bo Hai Sea
  • Average discharge: 2,571m3/s but with considerable variations within the year, with a low discharge from March to June and 60% of annual rainfall from June to September
  • Total length: 5,464 km
  • Watershed: 795,000 km²
  • Main tributaries: Fen He and Wei He

A little history

I was the cradle of the ancient Chinese civilisations of the Xia (2100-1600 BC) and Shang (1600-1046 BC) eras. Agriculture began on the Loess plateau, as the earth there is very fertile due to the silt I carry.

I am one of the most dangerous rivers in the world. Ever since historians have kept registers, from around 602 BC, I have changed course 26 times and caused more than 1,000 major floods, causing the death of millions of people.

The phenomenon of drought is also present during my long history and became more important with the increasingly larger withdrawals of water to irrigate farmland, and to supply urban areas and industry.

Scarcer water resources

China lacks water. The country only has 7% of the planet’s freshwater resources, whereas its population represents 21% of the world’s population and its water resources are unequally distributed. Northern China has less than 15% of available water resources for 45% of the population. A Chinese living in the South has 3.352 m3 of water a year, when in the North, his compatriot must be satisfied with only 1.127 m3.

To overcome this chronic lack of water, China has decided to build a titanic project in order to transfer water from the south to the north.

Despite this project, the situation could get worse in my watershed; with the impacts of climate change on the availability of my resource and the growing demand of water. The overexploitation of groundwater inevitably led to land subsidence and represents a new threat, as the pollution of water. Facing water scarcity is now the number one priority for the Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC) which is responsible for my management.

My main uses

Hydraulic safety and energy production

 In the past, I have breached the dikes that were built to contain my flow. As from the 1950s, the Chinese government decided to reinforce the safety of dwellings and prevent floods. To achieve this, they adopted a development plan with the construction of 46 dams on my main course and a 800km long high quality standardized embankments /groynes system along the two banks of my lower course.

In 2000, there were over 10,000 reservoirs in operation, with total storage capacity of more than 60 billion m3; 23 involve large dams. Hydropower production amounts to an average of 40 TWh per year.

Xiaolangdi: a multipurpose mega-dam

Located in Henan, it’s one of the largest dam in China, after that of the Three Gorges. Completed in 2001, this mega-dam satisfies several objectives:

  • Managing floods and controlling the sedimentation of the Yellow River
  • Producing hydroelectricity with an installed capacity of 1,836 MW
  • Providing water for irrigation
  • Ensuring water supplies for industry and the cities situated downstream.

A better management of the irrigation

Agriculture in China is a sector of major economic importance (15% of the country’s GDP and more than 300 million people earn their living from farming). But it is also the foremost consumer of water in China.

The great plain of northern China is one of the country’s largest agricultural regions. It produces about 40% of Chinese cereals (wheat, maize and sorghum). The importance of withdrawals for irrigation downstream (75,000 km2 of irrigated area) provide a partial explanation for the drying of the delta. To avoid wastage of the resource, programms to develop the best irrigation techniques were implemented in the 2000s.

Polluting industry!

Coal mining and chemical plants are present in the autonomous region of Mongolia (provinces of Ningxia and Xinjiang) and in the province of Shanxi. Although essential to the basin’s economy, these industries emit pollution and account for an important part of the total water consumption. Moreover, large quantities of non- or poorly treated industrial wastewater and urban effluents are discharged into the river.


billion tonnes of sediment transported on average a year


increase of water withdrawals between 2007 and 2014


increase of revegetated areas on the Loess plateau

What river for tomorrow?

Biodiversity in danger

My basin is rich in fish but, due to pollution, overfishing, the dams and lower discharges, a third of the fish species present in the river have now disappeared. In order to limit overfishing, in 2018 the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture announced the banning of fishing in my waters from 1 April to 30 June.

Preservation of wetlands

My delta is an important wetland ecosystem. In 1992, China became a member of the RAMSAR Convention on the conservation of wetlands. The same year, the national nature reserve of the Yellow River delta was created. It is the home of more than 1,500 wild animals, 265 bird species and 400 plant species. It provides a habitat for the reproduction and migration of birds.

Persistant deforestation and soil erosion

In the northwest, the forest in the mountains that surround me has disappeared to make way for cultivated plots. However, without the forests, the soil no longer retains the water, a function that reduces the impact of floods and helps to maintain a healthy discharge during dry periods. Since the 2000s, the Chinese government has made great efforts to replant forests to promote the infiltration of runoff water into the soil.

Water pollution

I crosses large cities, industrial zones including petrochemical installations, farmland and the largest coal bearing region of China (Inner Mongolia). This has generated heavy pollution of the water due to the use of agricultural pesticides, the lack of treatment of residual waters, and industrial pollution.

Double bend of the Yellow River, Laoniuwan, Shanxi

In 2015, China implemented an action plan called ”Water 10” that set out a route plan to prevent water pollution. From now to 2020, it aims to ensure that 70% of the country’s hydrographic basins will reach good status.

Know more about me

Travel on the river

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