Beijing Water


(June 8, 2011) A brief reminiscence of a once free-flowing and bountiful river from the author’s youth is now a tragedy writ large: a microcosm of the woes – many of which are preventable – that currently beset China’s waterways.

By Yang Furui

Yang Furui

Zhanghe is a river wandering through Huabei Plain, where my hometown is. When I was a child, the Zhanghe gave me much happiness. My cousins and I often caught fish there, although I preferred lying in the river’s shallows, enjoying the strange pleasure of small fish biting every inch of my skin!

Our farmland is beside the Zhanghe. My father drew on underground water, replenished every year by the Zhanghe, to irrigate our fields.

But the Zhanghe has been dry for four years, now. The Huabei Plain has been thirsty for even longer and most of the rivers that run through it are also dry.

To make things worse, the Yuecheng reservoir built on the upstream of the Zhanghe, designed to reduce the flooding the Zhanghe produced throughout the 1950s, eventually created more harm than benefit.

The Yuecheng reservoir, with a capacity of around 100 million cubic meters, withheld so
much water that, downstream, the Zhanghe was dry for all but two months of the year.
People downstream had to pay to use the Zhanghe’s water, despite the fact they had been
obliged to pitch in and build the dam that created the reservoir, dozens of years ago.

In August, 1996, the Yuecheng reservoir – which stored a great deal of water during
the rainy season – could not contain the unusually heavy precipitation that year. Only at
the last moment, when the flood waters could be withheld no longer, was the reservoir
forced to open its sluicegate. All of the flood water rushed out at once and overwhelmed
the surrounding downstream rural area. It ranks as the only ‘flood’ I know of in my
hometown. Fortunately, my village survived this disaster but many of our neighbouring
communities lost their homes and their belongings.

Droughts in North China are increasingly more and more severe. Without the
replenishing benefits of rivers, underground water – now the main source of irrigation for
farmers – is at an unprecedented low level. And if the trend of water shortages continues,
there will come a day when there is no water at all for the people of Huabei Plain.
Perhaps the area will become a large desert in the future?

The tragedy of the Zhanghe is a microcosm of the ‘natural’ disasters unknowingly
created by our own hands that currently beset China. Only when we learn to respect
nature, will the pace of disaster halt.

Yang Furui is a researcher with the Transition Institute, an independent think-tank
based in Beijing. Yang focuses on issues related to peasants, villages, and agriculture.
Currently, he is researching the results of the New Rural Cooperative Medical Scheme.
He also conducts research on the development of democratic institutions and the rule
of law. He has translated two books: Damming the Three Gorges and The Victory of
Democracy in Spain. He can be reached at

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