Two major rivers in China are the Yellow River in the north, and the Yangtze River to the south. Most of China's water supply belongs to the drainage-basins
of these two rivers. Especially, the Yellow River, which is the second longest river in China, creates a vast agricultural farm land in the northern China,
and it is well know to have initiated the ancient civilization near the water basin. Moreover, the River has been linked with China's political, social and economic
development. Therefore, the water management programs on the Yellow River basin take a large part of the China¢®?s history. Especially, political ideology has
strongly affected the water management. In the earlier era, each government focused on planning floods. The river was and still is very prone to flood. It has
flooded 1,593 times in the last 3,000?4,000 years, while its main course changed 18 times, with at least 5 large-scale changes from 602 BC to present. Therefore
keeping it from being flooded was a very important task for the government. Later, by establishing the Grand Canal, dynasties tried to enhance the use of the river
for major transportation. Consequently, the Chinese government has altered its programs from engineering oriented management to more holistic resource
This paper focuses on the development of the management programs on the Yellow River basin. First, it introduces the change of Yellow River. It is divided into
II. History of the Changing Yellow River
The river is prone to flooding. It has flooded 1,593 times in the last 3,000-4,000 years, main course changing 18 times, large-scale changes more than 5times, from
602 B.C. to present. These changes are mainly caused by the deposits along the river's cannal. The sediments causes natural dam to slowly accrue.
II.1 Ancient Times
In the Qin Dynasty, the river flowed in a more northern part of its present course. Historical maps show that it passed Luoyang, along Shangxi and Henan provinces.
It continued along the border of Hebei and Shangdong before emptying into present day Tianjin.
Number of major floods erupted, especially in the Xin Dynasty in 11 A.D. The River then changed its course to the south of Shangdong Peninsular from north of Tianjin.
II.2 Medieval Times
Major course change was made in 1194, taking over the Huai River drainage system throughout the next 700 years. The mud in the Yellow River blocked Huai River.
II.3 Modern Times
The last change in Yellow River had occurred in 1855. Since then, it had adopted its present course. The river in present course flows through Jinan, the capital of
Shandong province and ends in the Bohai Sea. It has also been oscillating from north and south of the Shangdong peninsular over time. The consequent buildup of silt
deposits was so heavy that the Huai River was unable to flow in its historic course after the Yellow River reverted to its northerly course for the last time in 1897.
In 1887, the river flooded the North China Plain and caused 900,000 to 2,000,000 deaths. Also in 1931, another flood had occurred and killed 1,000,000 to 4,000,000.
In 1938, during the Sino-Japanese war, the Nationalist troop broke the leeves holding back the river to stop the Japanese troops. This resulted in a serious flood and
killed 500,000 to 900,000. Also, an unknown number of Japanese soldiers were killed.
III. Water Management in Early Dynasties
Water management of the Yellow River has been dated back to the 20th century BC by early historians. (2)
The early managements were mainly
focused on flood prevention and agricultural irrigation.
IV. The Zhou and Han Dynasty
China's first projects of hydraulic engineering, or a sub-discipline of civil engineering concerned with flow and conveyance of water by designing bridges, dams, channels,
and leeves, were founded during the Zhou dynasty. Ultimately to aid agricultural irrigation, the Prime Minister of Wei, Sunshu Ao, who served King Zhuang of Chu
dammed a local river basin area to create an enormous irrigation reservoir in modern-day northern Anhui province.
Before the Han Dynasty, when there had existed small regional kingdoms, water administration had been mostly local. The scope of the projects was narrow, usually
only addressing one local water issue.
In the Han Dynasty, the floods in the Yellow River led to serious social problems. The inundation of Yellow River led to widespread peasant unrest and eventually led
to upraises and the downfall of powers. The immense inundations of the Yellow River who changed its course from the north to the south and opened a second course
south of the Shandong peninsula led to the rebellions that began in the north around 11 AD. It continued in the east with the uprising of "Mother Lüthe region of
modern Shandong. The first great uprising was that of the Lüin region (modern Hubei) that caused severe damages to Wang Mang's reign from 21 AD on.
However, when the Han Dynasty unified China, they initiated and formalized management patterns. They creaged the new office of Director of Water Conservancy
(Tu Shui) under the Ministry of Public Works. In the Cheng Emperor reign of Han Dynasty, it had full-time officers for river management and established river management
units at city and county levels that were located along the river. (3)
Through the offices, water managers conceived of comprehensive flood
management, starting a trend towards the basin-wide planning. Like this, the national agencies were responsible for the overall planning and coordination of the water
works projects, and controlled projects concerned with flood control and support. They designated, financed and managed the irrigational projects. These irrigational projects,
however, were labor intensive ones, requiring man-power. One of the main labor type was corvee. Directed by the central government, corvee labor required peasants to
work on water projects during the winter. (4)
Especially, the floods of the Yellow River were tamed in a large campaign during the reign period
Heping "Pacificating the River" (5)
V. The Establishment of the Grand Canal Along the Yellow River
Other than the use for agricultural irrigation of the Yellow River, the Chinese dynasties used Yellow River basin for the use of trade routes and for transportation..
Through many dynasties, governmental programs and plans established the Grand Canal along the Yellow River. The Grand Canal is the longest ancient canal or
artificial river in the world. The oldest parts of the canal date back to the 5th century BC, although the various sections were finally combined into one during the Sui
Dynasty (581-618 AD). Historically, periodic flooding of the adjacent Yellow River threatened the safety and functioning of the canal. During wartime the high dikes
of the Yellow River were sometimes deliberately broken in order to flood advancing enemy troops. This caused disaster and prolonged economic hardships. Despite
temporary periods of desolation and disuse, the Grand Canal furthered an indigenous and growing economic market of China's urban centers throughout the ages since
V.1 Spring and Autumn Period
In the late Spring and Autumn Period (722-481 BC), Fuchai, the Duke of Wu, ventured north to conquer the neighboring state of Qi. He ordered the canal to be constructed
for trading purposes as well as a means to ship ample supplies north. The canal was to be constructed for trading purposes, to ship ample supplies to the northern states of
Song and Lu. This canal was known as the Han Gou, or 'Han-country Conduit.' This is known as the second oldest section of the later Grand Canal. It linked the Yellow
River near Kaifeng to the Si and Bian rivers. It was the model of the shape of the northern Grand Canal.
V.2 The Sui Dynasty
The Sui Dynasty built the large part of what we now perceive as the Grand Canal. Due to the creation of the large part of the Grand Canal, China's core economic
and agricultural region changed to the Jiangsu provinces. The canal was mainly used to transport grain to the capital. The wide range of agricultural basin along the
Yellow River provided a large part of the grain products.
In order to regulate the water level of the canal, an early dyke was built along the Yellow River in 587. Liang Rui, an engineer of the Sui Dynasty, established the
canal lock gates. The passage of the Yellow river to the part of the canal north of this stream was difficult. Frequently the water level of the river was
either too low or the current was too strong to permit a passage. To haul boats when the difference of water levels were too great, double slipways
were installed. Between 604 to 609, the Sui Dynasty ordered a number of canals be dug in 'Y' shape, from in the south to (modern) Beijing, and in
the capital region along the Yellow River Valley.
V.3 From the Tang Dynasty to the Yuan Dynasty
With the help of the Grand Canal, the Tang Dynasty created an economic hub at YangZhou, close to the canal. They could ship southern goods and deliver them to the
north easily, especially the grain produced in Yangtze River Delta and the Yellow River basin.
After the An Shi rebellion, the economy of the northern China was greatly damaged and was never recovered due to wars and to constant flooding of the Yellow River.
In the year 858, an enormous flood along the Grand Canal inundated thousands of acres of farmland and killed tens of thousands of people in
the North China Plain.
Not only because of the frequent flooding but also an incident for several years after 1128 ruin the much of the Grand Canal south of the Yellow River. Du Chong decided
to break the dykes and dams holding back the waters of the Yellow River in order to decimate the Jurchen invaders.
V.4 The Ming Dynasty Renovation
The Grand Canal was renovated almost in its entirety between 1411 and 1415, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) (7)
. However some protested
about the inefficiency of the grain transportation along several different rivers along the canal, so some transferred back onto the deep barges once the shipment of grain
met with the Yellow River.
V.5 The Qing Dynasty
In 1855, the Yellow River flooded and Changed its course, severing the course of the Canal in Shandong. A Chinese official, in 1477, had foreshadowed that the flood-prone
Yellow River made Grand Canal like a throat that could be easily strangled. Because of these difficulties in crossing the Yellow River, the dynasty developed alternative
routes for grain ships and opened the Tianjin-Pukou Railway and the Beijing-Hankou Railway. Thus, the canal languished for decades later.
VI. People's Republic of China : Early Period, 1949-1958
VI.1 Political Philosophies Involved in Water Management Programs
In 1949, Mao Zedong and the communist party formed the People's Republic of China (PRC). Because a large part of their nation was damaged by the continuous wars,
PRC tried to restore them with governmental programs. Especially, they tried to harness the Yellow River's energy and prevent disaster. This human-verses-nature philosophy
dictated much of the water resources management in the beginning of the PRC. (8)
PRC also promoted large-scale and capital intensive water projects with the help of the Soviet Union. It is not surprising that the solgan at that time was, "big diversion, big
VI.2 Water Resource Management
Much of the governmental plans were carried out in the 1950's in various conferences on soil and water conservation held by the Yellow River Conservancy Commission.
They created public awareness on the river and saw the importance of conservation in the management of the river. In 1953, they emphasized
that water and soil conservations were the key to creating Yellow River into a beneficial river.
In 1955, the Russians created the first five-year plan and decided to take permanent control and unified development of the Yellow River. The plan was entitled as "Multiple
Purpose Plan for Permanently Controlling the Yellow River and Exploiting its Water Resources. This emphasized power-generation and flood control. Resembling the earlier
corvee labor system, the government collaborated with a huge labor force to move earth for flood protection, dredge channels, and to plant trees.
Moreover, due to a relative lack of water in the Yellow River basin, the Russians declared that they need additional water to set up further cultivation and irrigation systems.
Therefore, they tried to use the ground water more efficiently, and increased water storage. This led to a better environmental basis for the Yellow River.
VII. People's Republic of China : Great Leap Forward and after 1958-1965
VII.1 Political Philosophies Involved in Water Management Programs
To achieve technical and economic accomplishments, China went through Great Leap Forward. Mao wanted to mobilize peasants in an effort to gain public support and
political strength. (11)
One of the greatest goal of this movement was attaining economic independence. Thus, Mao focused on efficient use of resources
and promotion of agricultural productions. The key solgan he asserted in the 1960s was "Agriculture is the foundation, industry the leading sector."
As this national policy shows,
agriculture along the Yellow River was very important in China's economy.
The communes, or the new socioeconomic entity rose, and those in the country side played a big role in the Yellow River Basin development. However, this Great Leap Forward
lasted for only 2 years, leaving China with social unrest and famine behind.
VII.2 Water Resource Management
As always, the flood control was the chief priority. As the failure of the dam and other water projects with Russia failed in the last phase, China changed to improve existing
water works projects. The water management strategy changed to what might be termed a fast-passed, low capital-intensive system, similar to China's traditional measure. (12)
The government started to depend on local initiative and commune self-reliance to carry out projects. The communes led out low capital projects, similar to corvee labor.
VIII. People's Republic of China : The Cultural Revolution and after 1966-1980
VIII.1 Political Philosophies Involved in Water Management Programs
Deng Xiao Peng led China in 1978 and led China's second revolution. to command market economy, commune systems were revised. Because individual harvest began to expand,
the water resource funding continued to decline.
VIII.2 Water Resource Management
Village based water management systems started to form in this decade, as the communes were disbanded. These systems dealt with canal maintenance and water allocation
between the villages. (13)
As little information was shared with the outside world at this time, little is known to the outer world about the changes in water allocation.
IX. People's Republic of China : The 1980s
IX.1 Political Philosophies Involved in Water Management Programs
Reforms against the Cultural revolution swept China throughout the 1980's. Because legalism was the trend, China introduced a new constitution and it created a new legal approach
to decision making.
As industries grew, the demand for water supply from the industrail and domestic sector increased. Meeting these demand was the problem of Yellow River in the 1980's.
IX.2 Water Resource Management
The Yellow River Conservancy Commission which was established earlier in the Mao's days was developed into a vice-ministry level, under the Ministry of Water Resources. Thus,
there was more power and control over Yellow River.
Also, laws and plans were enacted. As the new constitution was passed in 1982, the state regained the ownership of all the water resources. In 1984, the Second Yellow River Basin
Plan was made and controlled the silt erosion to look over flood and power generation.
The government and the central departments monitored the water use and allocated it using market considerations.
X. People's Republic of China : Current
By the mid 1980's, China started allowing private industries to operate. (14)
They led China's industrial growth in the 90's. The economic system changed
and each economic sectors demanded water resources. Agricultural water used was increased also. (15)
However, the Yellow water went dry frequently.
and could not meet all the demands.
There was also a drought in the Northern Plains, exacerbating water shortage. For the first time in history, drought, not flood was the main issue of Yellow River water management.
Local governments controlled their own engineering projects, however, little concern for the ecology was made. Later in 90's, the public started to realize the water in ecosystem.
The Ministry of the Water Resources introduced the resource water conservancy program. This was to make new criteria for measuring water resources. This included protection,
conservation, ecology benefit, and public health. This was to make a holistic view of the Yellow River Basin.
The Yellow River, from the start of the ancient civilization, influenced a large part people's everyday life in China. Even called as the 'mother river', it has provided enough water for
agriculture and later, for industrial growth. However, because of it's constant flooding, governments through centuries had to deal with the problems. First, for the irrigation for agriculture,
they started to build dams and even established governmental offices to look over floods. Not only for the agricultural means, but also the transportation means of Yellow River was
important. By building the Grand Canal along, they managed to transport goods to the northern part of China. However, nothing changed a lot through dynasties.
Establishing the PRC (People's Republic of China), change in political philosophies and major governmental agendas changed the water management. One of the main characteristic
was that it allocated more water for industries rather than agricultural means.
Figure 1 Wikipedia: "Major rivers in China"
Figure 2 Wikipedia: "Grand Canal in Sui Dynasty"
(1) Liang 2005
(2) Liang 2005
(4) Liang 2005
(5) China Knowledge
(8) Liang 2005
(9) Liang 2005
(11) Liang 2005
(12) Liang 2005
(13) Liang 2005
(14) Liang 2005
(15) Giordano 2007
Note : websites quoted below were visited in May 2008.
1. Greer, Charles. Water Management in the Yellow River Basin of China. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979.
2. Zhao, Songqiao, Geography of China: Environment, Resources, Population, and Development. New York: John Wiley & Sons 1994.
3. Zhen, Sun, editor. The Grand Canal of China. Hong Kong: New China News 1984
Water Management and Allocation of the Yellow River Basin
Agricultural Water Policy in China: Challenges, issues, and options
6. James E. Nickum. Water Management Organization in the People's Republic of China
7. Vaclav Smil. China's Past, China's Future
8. Article : Grand Canal, from Wikipedia
9. Article : Yellow River, from Wikipedia
10. Yellow River Conservancy Commission
11. Grand Canal of China"
12. Chinese History - Han Dynasty event history, from
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