China's Mother River Under Threat Over the centuries, the floodwaters of China's Yellow River have claimed millions of lives. Now, the problem has reversed: The river is drying up due to ecological damage, forcing nomadic Tibetans to give up their traditional way of life.
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China's Mother River Under Threat

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China's Mother River Under Threat

China's Mother River Under Threat

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

All this week, we're going on a journey with NPR's Rob Gifford through China. Rob's here with us now from London, where he's currently based.

And Rob, let's see, it's been three years since your last big trip across China.

ROB GIFFORD: It has, Robert. That was a road journey along Route 312 from Shanghai in the east right away through the Heartland to the west end border with Central Asia. This journey is a very different journey. It's a river journey down the Yellow River traveling from west to east this time.

SIEGEL: Why the Yellow River?

GIFFORD: Well, there are two main rivers in China - the Yellow and the Yangtze rivers. But it's the Yellow River that is called the Mother River, (Chinese spoken). It was along the banks of the Yellow River that Chinese civilization grew up thousands of years ago. So it's really got a very symbolic importance in Chinese history, but it's also very crucial in current China because of some of the big problems that one finds along it.

SIEGEL: Yeah. I understand that the Yellow River, in addition to being called the Mother River of China, is also called China's sorrow. Why is that?

GIFFORD: Well, that's largely because of the flooding that used to occur on the Yellow River. It claimed hundreds of thousands, more than a million lives over the years. Now, actually, the problem has been reversed, and the problem is not too much water, but too little. The Yellow River is drying up because of overuse and because of industrialization. So what I saw along the river is this problem: No longer man needing to be protected from the Yellow River, but the Yellow River needing to be protected from man.

SIEGEL: Well, Rob Gifford, thanks for that introduction to this week's five-part series on your journey along the Yellow River.

And we're now going to join Rob for the first leg high on the Tibetan plateau.

GIFFORD: Perhaps the first thing you notice is the silence that wraps itself around the sheer pristine beauty here at the source of the Yellow River. I'm walking alongside one of the two glistening lakes from which the river first flows, stretched out far into the distance in front of me, with snowcapped mountains all around rising above the grasslands that have sustained Tibetan herders for centuries.

At nearly 15,000 feet, the air is thin here, so it's not just the view that takes your breath away. But the beauty is deceptive, for all is not well at the source of the Yellow River, nor for much of its three and a half thousand mile journey eastwards towards the sea.

You'll notice the river's problems only slowly. At first, the blue sky and mountain snow dazzle. Wolves, foxes, deer run past, nervously eyeing rare human visitors. An eagle circles overhead. The water, bright and clear, defies the name of the river it's becoming as it begins to flow out from the lakes. But look closer and everywhere on the flat grasslands between the lakes and the mountains are dark hollows that scar the landscape. These used to be small, shallow lakes - some 4,000 of them. Now, three quarters of them are dry.

A young Tibetan herder wearing a traditional black and orange jacket with long sleeve guides a herd of straggly yaks across the plateau. Years gone by, this herder and others like him in this largely Tibetan area would have been walking through lush green grasslands even in the fall. Now, though, the whole ecosystem has been upset. And scientists are worried. They say there hasn't been enough rain, and so the soil is increasingly dry and barren. They say rising temperatures associated with climate change are melting the glaciers and also thawing the permafrost ground, so water is being absorbed into the soil and not reaching the river.

Finally, they say, Tibetan nomads have overgrazed the grasslands with their animals, leading to severe soil erosion that also diminishes the flow of water to the river. The government has focused on this last reason and started to force the Tibetans to give up herding and settle in one place.

Two hours drive from the Yellow River source, I'm stepping into a white cinderblock house with red roof tiles and pink trim around the windows.

This is the new home of Danma, an old Tibetan man who says he was born in a yurt, the traditional tent of Tibetan nomads, 72 years ago. There seems to be a line on his face for every one of those 72 years. Now frail and slightly deaf in both ears, he sits surrounded by family members in the main room of their new house - one of several dozens built near the small town of Madoi.

In response to the erosion of the land and its impacts on the Yellow River, the Chinese government has given Danma and other nomads a house, and a stipend in return for giving up herding. Despite his sadness, Danma, who speaks no Chinese, only Tibetan, says he understands the reasons.

DANMA (Herder): (Through translator) It's very simple. The grasslands have changed. There's no grass, no water, so all we can do is sell our animals, which makes our hearts very sad. It's all because the natural conditions here have changed.

GIFFORD: Danma's wife prepares me a cup of salty milky Tibetan tea, a welcome warm up from the encroaching winter outside. Danma's son and nephew show me around their three-room house. They furnished it with Tibetan fabrics and furniture, and a small Buddhist shrine sits in the bedroom, on which is openly displayed a photo of the Dalai Lama.

Danma's nephew, Dorje Osel, is a study(ph) in contradictions brought on by the new way of life. He's monk. He wears traditional orange robes. But he also speaks fluent Mandarin and pulls a shiny new cell phone from inside his robes whenever it rings, which it often. He says, of course, the traditional ways are being eroded just like the land itself.

Mr. DORJE OSEL: (Through translator) I have no idea what the future holds. We have no water and no grass. In 20 years time, there won't be many animals left. And there won't be many nomads either.

GIFFORD: On the street outside, music blares from the speakers of a motorbike ridden by a young Tibetan man. He and others have traded in their speeds for mechanical horsepower. Small towns with their one main street resemble the towns of the old American West. And I can't help thinking that the erosion of culture brought on by the settling of the Tibetans is reminiscent of the fate of Native Americans in the 19th century. The Chinese government says it has good cause, saving the Yellow River, and locals don't deny that. But saving the river has meant destroying a whole ancient way of life.

Rob Gifford, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And you can compare the lives and differing traditions of two Tibetan families along the Yellow River at You'll also find a preview of the rest of our series on the Yellow River.

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