Yellow River at Risk

Climate change could cut off China’s mother river at source

Press release - 2005-10-10
Scientists say a catalogue of environmental damage linked to climate change is pushing the Yellow River source region into an ecological breakdown, in a new survey commissioned by Greenpeace.

This desert did not exist 2-3 years ago and has already encroached around 8 kilometres into previously lush grassland.

This desert did not exist 2-3 years ago and has already encroached around 8 kilometres into previously lush grassland.

Yak and sheep bathing at Eling Lake. The water level of Eling Lake has been reduced to a record low. In the past 50 years, the water level was reduced by 3-4 years. The wetlands along the lakes are seriously deteriorating.

A saline deposit is the only evidence left of a small lake in the Star Sea Lake area which completely dried up only 4 years ago in 2001. Greenpeace believes the burning of fossil fuels has contributed to global warming and rapid lake water reduction.

A comparison of Halong Glacier between 1981 and 2005. According to the analysis done by the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences, the glacier retreated by over 400 metres between 1966 and 2000.

The study 'Yellow River at Risk', written by an Institute within the Chinese Academy of Sciences describes a chain reaction of environmental impacts, driven by increased temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau, which threaten the source of the Yellow River (1). It concludes that the widespread environmental decline is ultimately destroying the river basin's water holding capacity, drying out the region and cutting off the lifeblood of the river.

Professor Liu Shiyin, the leading author of the report, said: "Climate change is at the root of the problem. Higher temperatures and drier climate due to global warming are melting the glaciers and permafrost, draining the lakes and leading to land degradation; from here it is a domino effect that harms the flora, fauna, landscape and people of the Yellow River source region - and ultimately the river itself."

Greenpeace China Climate Change Researcher, Li Mo Xuan said: "Climate change is wreaking havoc at the birthplace of the China's mother river. The plight of the Yellow River is a grave warning. Millions of people are at risk from climate change and the world must act now to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, there is not a moment to lose."

In the last 30 years, the region has lost 17% of its glaciers and the rate of melting ice is now 10 times faster than it has been for the previous 300 years. The Greenpeace study identifies further problems linked to climate change including: dried lakes, advancing deserts, subsidence from melted permafrost, soil erosion and threatened species such as the Tibetan Lynx and Snow Leopard.

Due to its particular hydrology, the Yellow River is very sensitive to even small changes in its water supply. Over 120 million people rely on the Yellow River 's water for domestic as well as agricultural and industrial uses. The river's source region plays the major role in supplying the whole river basin, providing 55.6% of the water for the length of the river above the city of Lanzhou, about 550 km from the Yellow River's source.

Professor Liu said, "Water shortage and reduced runoff at the source will have far-reaching impacts upon the economy, society and people's life, not only in the source region, but in the middle and low reaches of the Yellow River."

Other contacts:

Li Mo Xuan, Climate Change Impacts Campaigner 86 10 65546931-121
Natalia Truchi, International Media Officer 86 10 65546931-153


(1) In June 2005, Greenpeace led an expedition to the Tibetan Plateau to document the climate change impacts identified in the study. This qualitative investigation reinforced the scientists’ findings with extensive documentary evidence.