Clare McCullough


Water Problems in Yunnan

Clare McCullough

Southwest China is home to many of China’s major rivers and headwaters of three other major rivers, among them the most important being the Lancang, Salween, and the Yangtze. Despite Yunnan’s name meaning south of the clouds and having the most complex water system in all of China. The province of Yunnan is experiencing a drought.[1] Floodwaters are contributed by unrestrained deforestation of the local habitats and the enormous amounts of pollutants that are emptied in all of the rivers of China. The drought is due to the disruption of natural water flows by hundreds of hydroelectric projects.

Water has always been a wild card in China’s history. When the rains fall, they fall unevenly, and when the floods hit it is a source of massive destruction.[2] In fact during imperial times, the emperor’s legitimacy was based on the occurrences of natural disasters as a sign of his Mandate of Heaven. Peasants could theoretically depose an emperor when there would be a persistent issue regarding natural disasters. Flooding has been a perpetual issue, especially in Yunnan. Although these floods bring the fertile soil necessary to develop agriculture they sweep every surrounding city away with their economically damaging waters.

The five major rivers that originate in Southwest China have more than 600 tributaries and branches. There are 221 billion cubic meters of water in Yunnan alone. Of all Chinese plant species, 60% live in Yunnan and the Salween river valley is home to the highest biodiversity concentration in the world. This river valley is home to more than 80 rare and endangered animals.[3] Despite this biodiversity, there are big problems that will not go away. The winter-spring drought has been persisting since 2009.[4] In the dry season, some areas have no drinkable water at all. The lack of drinkable water and water that can be used for agricultural purposes has had a very negative effect on the local habitat. This drought has affected three million acres of farmland and caused a substantial reduction in annual grain output. [5]

From 1950 to 1980, it is no secret that China saw a lot of change and development for better or for worse. However, Yunnan’s forests suffered the largest period of destruction in the entire history of China. While, normally the wetlands and forests would soak up the water like a sponge for the year and would make the distribution of water more even throughout the landscape, but this doesn’t seem to apply as well today due to deforestation and the clearing of land for agriculture and mining. In 1950 there were 1.4 billion cubic meters of forest coverage, and now these forests saw a reduction to only 980 million in 1981.[6] The forest coverage is getting smaller every day while the trees have been replaced by, however efficient it may be a method for fertilizing the land, destructive slash and burn agriculture. By burning the trees and planting crops instead there is less organic material to hold the soil in place. But by telling the farmers of Yunnan to stop producing would mean a substantial loss of 10 million tons of grain every year. But the fact remains that only 9% of Yunnan’s original forest cover still exists.[7] Since the 1970s, the wetland areas have decreased by more than 17 percent.[8] The impact of this fact is dramatic. The major floods have gotten more frequent as well as the mudslides that accompany them as well as destabilizing the habitat and larger biosphere. Since the 1950s the effects of flooding have taken the lives of over 5,000 people as well as displacing hundreds of thousands.[9]

Although deforestation and destruction of the wetlands plays a huge role in the exacerbation of floods, it doesn’t answer the drought question. The answer to this is that the water of Yunnan’s complex river system is being redirected into dams and utilized for these hydropower projects. China’s energy demands have grown exponentially, in the 1990s America would use as much energy in two weeks as China would use in an entire year. Since 2001, China’s energy consumption has expanded 1.5 times the rate of economic growth. The dried-up oil fields and the clouds of coal-produced air pollution that have created 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world has lead China to scramble for alternatives. It is true, there are a lot of benefits to hydropower. Hydropower projects would bring greater opportunities to the rural people by providing them with more energy, critical infrastructure such as paved road and ultimately give the local governments a larger tax base to invest back into the communities of Yunnan. The Nu Salween river project alone would increase the total energy supply by 20%, the equivalent of 50 million tons of coal. [10] Hydroelectric power is clean and renewable as well as easily controlled from Beijing with the added bonus of being politically independent from foreign oil and the forces and pressures of coal. Not to mention, hydropower is one energy that has a lot of potential. In 2004, Yunnan was only been utilizing 7% of its hydropower potential.

Of the 45,000 large scale dams in the world, (15m or higher), half are in China. Yunnan provides 10% of all China’s hydropower.[11] Despite the benefits of Hydropower, it is massively disruptive to the natural river’s flow and the unnatural  regulation of the flood plains have resulted in disastrous consequences. The three gorges dam is a perfect example. In 1980s there was an investigation into the viability of such a large dam. This is a project that has long been pursued by the Chinese Communist Party. However, the ultimate title of their research was, “The Three Gorges Project should not go ahead in the Short Term” There were 6 reasons for their deferment. Frist, the total coast would not be the initially projected 20 billion Yuan, but 60 billion, so there would be an overspending issue, second, flood control wouldn’t be solved in the lower and middle reaches and would actually be increased in the upper reaches, fourth and most importantly, the silt and sediment buildup problems couldn’t be resolved. The fifth issue would be that it would harm the ease of navigation of the river, six, due to the sediment buildup the high cost and long construction period would produce slow output and poor results, and lastly more than a dozen cities would have to be resettled. But despite all of these impacts, in 1992 the National People’s Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of the project.[12]

The annual flow of the Yangtze is 451 billion cubic meters but the flood control capacity of the three gorges is only 22 billion cubic meters. While the water level can be adjusted to adapt to this fact, the silt and sediment buildup largely reduces its capacity to control the overflow of this massive river, leading even small floods to create large disasters. Such a disaster occurred in 1996 when a big overflow and the subsequent rising waters flooded into a nearby city and killed 170 people, leaving more than a million homeless and doing more than 30 billion yuan in damage.[13]

According to a 2004 study, a total of 16 million people have been resettled due to hydropower projects in the last 50 years. Despite promises of being compensated, 10 million of these displaced persons still live in poverty. Every year 40,000 new people need to be resettled as a direct result of this disruption in the water’s flow. This issue leads not only to economic suffering but also creates new social problems. The people who stay behind are no better off. The large reservoirs are inaccessible for drinking water and they have to rely on infrequent rains which may not come at all. The electricity towers that are hung up mark their journey eastward in reality instead of contributing to the local communities.[14]

Due to deforestation the sediment problem is only compounding the strength of the floodwaters. Without tree roots holding the earth together it gets washed into the river. But the soil isn’t the only thing getting washed into the river. The water of the lower Yangtze river is undrinkable. The garbage of the 400 million people that live on the banks gets poured or thrown into the waterway. In fact, the Yangtze gets about 6.3 billion tons of pollutants and waste from the cities, but this isn’t even including the 20 billion tons of waste that comes from its tributaries. A major tributary of the Yangtze called the Min which exists in Sichuan and flows into Yunnan has over 50 sources of pollution that release 130 million tons of waste. Zinc and lead mining have sent heavy metal concentration in the water above permitted levels.[15] But the population is growing, and water now needs to be imported.

By tightening regulation and adequately enforcing these policies and creating an appropriate waste disposal facility we can improve the quality of the water. Flood control is the major purported benefits of these dams. However, the garbage and sediment issues are big obstacles to their ability to solve this problem. By destroying the wetlands, they produced food, energy, and clothing but they also became victims of the water.

[1] Ma Jun. China’s Water Crisis, East Bridge, 2004.

[2] Fangyi, Yang, and Zhou Jiading. “Why Has Water-Rich Yunnan Become a Drought Hotspot?” Chinadialouge, 2013,

[3] Ma Jun.

[4] Fangyi, Yang, and Zhou Jiading.

[5] Badkar, Mamta. “660,000 People In China Have Been Living With Almost No Water For Four Years.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 1 Mar. 2013,

[6] Ma Jun.

[7] Fangyi, Yang, and Zhou Jiading.

[8] Cao, C. X., et al. “Wetland Changes and Droughts in Southwestern China.” Geomatics, Natural Hazards & Risk, vol. 3, no. 1, Feb. 2012, pp. 79-95. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/19475705.2011.588253.

[9] Ma Jun.

[10] Mertha, Andrew. China’s Water Warriors, Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2008.

[11] Mertha, Andrew.

[12] Ma, Jun.

[13] Ma, Jun.

[14] Mertha, Andrew.

[15] Ma, Jun.


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