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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

(Soundbite of man singing)

Today, we wrap up our weeklong trip thousands of miles down China's Yellow River with NPR's Rob Gifford. The Chinese used to compare the Yellow River to a dragon. They'd say it had a head made of brass, a tail made of iron, but a waist made of tofu. Over the centuries, its wobbly banks gave way countless times, claiming millions of lives. The river earned the nickname, China's Sorrow. Nowadays, flooding is no longer a problem and many say that's due to government intervention.

In the final leg of his journey, Rob looks at just what the government's done. We catch up with him one last time in central Henan province.

(Soundbite of rushing river water)

ROB GIFFORD: We're now entering the final third of the Yellow River. And I'm standing on an island in the middle of the river, looking up at the massive Sanmenxia Dam. On it are written eight, huge Chinese characters in red. It says (Chinese spoken). It essentially means that if the Yellow River is at peace, then China is at peace.

This is drawing on a very well known legend about a Chinese leader called Yu the Great. Thousands of years ago, he was supposedly the first leader to succeed in controlling the Yellow River floods and he went on to found China's first dynasty. Yu the Great set a very important precedent of a Chinese ruler, establishing his legitimacy — his right to rule China — by bringing the Yellow River under control.

To some extent, that viewpoint still holds today, but the problem has been reversed. The river has now been tamed by dozens of dams. Now, the problem is not too much water, but too little.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language)

GIFFORD: Beside the river, not far from the ancient city of Kaifeng, a salesman on a rickety bicycle is announcing his arrival in the small village of Zhuzhuang. His cargo - smelly tofu, a local favorite. Perhaps his forefathers sold smelly tofu on the banks of the Yellow River here in Henan province. Certainly, much remains unchanged here. But one thing that has changed is the river itself.

Zhang Juwen shuffles through the piles of autumn leaves that line the dirt path outside his house. Wearing a navy blue Mao cap and sporting a sparse, grey goatee beard, Zhang, who's more than 80 years old, talks of his years as a Yellow River boatman. That was decades ago, he says, when the water level on the river was higher. Zhang used to live right on the bank of the river. His house hasn't moved, but the river has.

Mr. ZHANG JUWEN (Farmer): (Speaking in foreign language).

GIFFORD: The water level was high right up to here, says Zhang, pointing to the riverbank just yards from his house. Now, the riverbed here is dry. The water has receded to a channel along the middle of the riverbed several hundred yards away. But Zhang has no doubt about the dams upstream.

Mr. JUWEN: (Speaking in foreign language).

GIFFORD: It's great, he says, the water's controlled. Now, they just open the dams and let water out when they want it, and there are no floods. As in so many stretches of the Yellow River, concerns of people beside the river itself have been soothed by the government's insistence that all is under control.

Zhang Juwen's neighbor, Zhang Jun, joins him in his dusty courtyard.

Mr. ZHANG JUN (Zhuzhuang Resident): (Through translator) Water levels on the river are not something that we common people can do anything about. That's a government issue. And they've begun a huge project to bring water from the south. It's called the South-to-North Water Diversion Project.

(Soundbite of heavy machinery)

GIFFORD: I head along the river to see the site where the backhoes have started digging a huge channel on the outskirts of the city of Zhengzhou. The diversion project will bring billions of gallons of water from the Yangtze River in the south hundreds of miles north to Beijing and Northern China.

Zhang Tongli is the head of the Henan province section of the project. I meet him in his huge office in Zhengzhou.

Mr. ZHANG TONGLI (South-to-North Water Diversion Project): (Through translator) It's the largest water project in the world, with three different channels from Yangtze River to Northern China. The whole project will cost about $60 billion. And it won't be fully completed for at least another 30 years.

GIFFORD: The channels from the south will not feed into the Yellow River. They'll pass under the river in specially built underground channels. But the thinking is that by shipping water north, the strain of overuse on the Yellow River will be relieved. Like the Great Wall or, more recently, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, it's a classic imperial project, still possible under China's one-party system.

From Kaifeng and Zhengzhou and Luoyang, the ancient cities of Henan province with their old walls and lingering whiff of ancient civilization, I take a train east along the river as it sweeps broad and brooding into the province of Shandong. For three years in the 1990s, the river dried up completely here before reaching the sea, alerting the government to the water crisis it's now trying to address.

The river heads silently towards the coast, lacking the industrial demographic crescendo of the Yangtze River as it approaches Shanghai to the south. The Yellow River ends more with a whimper than a bang, exhausted as it reaches the sea.

And so, finally, one last trip out on to the Yellow River. You can take a small motorboat, like this one, out to the actual mouth of the river, still murky brown, but a lot wider now. I can only just see the banks on either side. Our captain says the water below us even here is only about seven or eight feet deep. Way in the distance out at sea, I can see dozens of huge container ships heading for the port about 25 miles up the coast. But here on the last stretch of the Yellow River, there are no large ships at all. Amazing really, China's mother river almost completely unnavigable.

The Yellow River has for so long been a reflection of the glories and the sorrows of China's past, and that's still true today. Even as it witnesses the renaissance of ancient cities along its banks in inland China, the river has also become a part of the environmental emergency now threatening China's growth.

It's clear that balancing the need for growth with the increasing need to protect the environment will be one of the crucial tensions inside China in the coming decades. And perhaps managing that tension will be what decides whether China's dream of greatness again can be fully realized — the country's future reflected in the muddy waters of the Yellow River.

Rob Gifford, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You can get a behind-the-scenes look at Rob's journey through his reporter's notebook, it's online at npr.org. And there you can also listen to Rob Gifford's karaoke rendition of the revolutionary classic, "The East is Red."

This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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