arrow-downarrow-leftarrow-rightarrow-upchevron-upchevron-leftchevron-rightchevron-upclosecomment-newemail-newfullscreen-closefullscreen-opengallerygridheadphones-newheart-filledheart-openmap-geolocatormap-pushpinArtboard 1Artboard 1Artboard 1minusng-borderpauseplayplusprintreplayscreensharefacebookgithubArtboard 1Artboard 1linkedinlinkedin_inpinterestpinterest_psnapchatsnapchat_2tumblrtwittervimeovinewhatsappspeakerstar-filledstar-openzoom-in-newzoom-out-new

What’s Killing the Yellow River?

Rapid development is fueling China’s rise. The cost may be one of the country’s most vital natural resources.

View Images
View Images

Officials in Qinghai Province say rising levels in Ngoring Lake (top), in the Yellow River Basin, prove that environmental efforts are working. But scientists say the effects of climate change—thawing permafrost, more rain and snow—are more likely responsible. In a nature reserve in Dongying, near the mouth of the Yellow River, an aviary (bottom) sits silent and empty. The ecology of this region—a critical refueling stop for migratory birds along the East Asia-Australasia flyway—has been damaged by development, including a nearby oil field.

This story appears in the July 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

When we look at a landscape, we tend to think of it as a static space. But it’s always changing. This is especially true on the North China Plain. From imperial times to the Maoist period to the recent reform phase, humans have tried to control the environment. The landscape retains traces of this struggle, making it a register of the past.

The first part of this ongoing project looked at China’s coal industry and the effect it’s had on the country. Since 2011 I’ve been working on the second part: following the Yellow River across northern China, documenting the roles that economic, political, and environmental policies play in this ever evolving story.

Russia

Asia

mongolia

Beijing

Baiyin

Bohai

Bay

Linfen

Lanzhou

Dongying

Hejin

Ngoring

Lake

East

China

Sea

China

INDIA

Taiwan

South

China

Sea

600 mi

600 km

NGM MAPS

Russia

kazakhstan

Asia

mongolia

Beijing

Baiyin

Bohai Bay

Linfen

Lanzhou

Dongying

Hejin

Ngoring

Lake

East

China

Sea

China

INDIA

Taiwan

South

China

Sea

Pacific

Ocean

600 mi

600 km

NGM MAPS

A sizable portion of China’s population and heavy industry—and about 40 percent of its farmland—are on the North China Plain. Yet the region has less than 10 percent of the country’s water. The control of water is a key part of governance; policy has a real impact on Chinese land and lives, but due to the country’s size, what happens here will have consequences globally as well.

View Images
View Images
On the outskirts of Hejin, one of the last undeveloped sections of the Yellow River offers visitors a bucolic respite (top). One reason water is such a vital resource in China is its relative scarcity: The country has less than the United States, but its population is over four times greater. And much of the water it does have is unusable. Lanzhou (bottom)—the first big city near the river’s headwaters, downstream from coal mining and processing operations—may have some of the most polluted water in China.
View Images
View Images
Near a factory on the outskirts of Linfen, at the edge of farmland, bricks dry (top) and a stream (bottom) flows from the local reservoir toward huts used by farmers to store wood. Decades ago this city—now filled with factories, mines, and coal-fired power plants—was known as the Modern Fruit and Flower Town.

China has plenty of environmental regulations, but they’re seldom prioritized or enforced. Officials are rewarded for economically advancing the areas they represent, so they have plenty of incentives to put short-term economic gains ahead of longer term environmental goals.

To depict this landscape panoramically—in the spirit of classical Chinese landscape paintings—I use a large-format lens and medium-format film. I want to convey the river’s vital place in culture and history and, in a dreamlike way, show why it’s a base of economic power. It’s been a source of life for thousands of years, and today it sustains some 200 million people on the North China Plain. But its degradation exposes the dark side of China’s rise.

By focusing on the dissonance in this fragile landscape, I hope to show that the price of our material desires comes at a great environmental cost.

View Images
View Images

In Linfen, a city on a tributary of the Yellow River, a residential development (top)—built to serve a robust mining industry—rises near farmland. In the 1970s this city was known for its clean water; by 2006 one study deemed it among the 10 most polluted cities in the world. Many miles upstream in Baiyin (bottom), a temple is visible above a limestone quarry. The previously rural area is now home to coal-fired power stations and plants that process nonferrous metals and chemicals.

View Images
View Images

In Shandong Province, on the lower reaches of the Yellow River, pumping jacks and a fish farm (top) sit perilously close together. Heavy industry can kill vegetation, pollute soil and water, and release contaminants. But that’s not the only story here. Nearby (bottom), locals walk past the shadow of a wind turbine on the shore of Bohai Bay. China is the top producer of wind and photovoltaic power, as well as smart-grid technology. It generates more alternative energy than France and Germany combined.



Events

Hear live stories from explorers and photographers around the country.

See Locations Near You

Exhibits

Enjoy a variety of exhibitions that reflect the richness and diversity of our world.

Buy Tickets

Follow Us