Oops—China Somehow Loses 27,000 Rivers

How did the most populous country misplace 27,000 rivers? Turns out, some of the waterways might never have existed in the first place.

A worker places bags filled with activated carbon as oil-absorbing materials to control diesel oil leaking from a pipeline on the Yellow River in Sanmenxia, Henan province, on January 7, 2010. (Photo: Carlf Zhang/Reuters)

May 7, 2013· 1 MIN READ
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

In the classic Paul Robeson tune, “Ol’ man river, he just keeps rollin’ along.” But not in China.

This past March, several startling reports about the country’s rivers came out one on top of another. First there were reports of over 16,000 dead pigs floating through the tributaries of the Huangpu River—a source of tap water, by the way.

Then, 1,000 duck carcases were found floating down the Nanhe River in the country’s Sichuan province.

A few days later, Chinese authorities reported that about 100 human bodies were retrieved from the Yellow River—which runs in and near Lanzhou, the capital of inland Gansu province—each year.

While this all sounds like some sort of national nightmare, there’s even more bad news: The rivers themselves are actually disappearing.

The Active Times recently reported that China has announced they’re “missing” 27,000 rivers. While one official was quoted as saying part of the problem can be attributed to old, inaccurate maps that inflated the actual number—reputed to be around 50,000—there are definite environmental factors at work as well.

Huge projects like the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze were constructed to generate power and to mitigate flooding further down the river, but at very large environmental and human costs.

And Chuck Howe, a water policy expert and emeritus professor of economics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, tells TakePart that while the North China Plain has been the breadbasket of China, it has also become increasingly dry.

“The Yellow River has delivered water from the Loess Plateau for centuries while carrying and depositing hundreds of millions of tons of sediment from the plateau—in the process building up the riverbed until it is nearly 20 meters above the plain,” says Howe. “I have the impression that the sediment problem has been mitigated to some extent but accompanied by diminished flows.”

But Howe adds that, “China has the capability to do whatever they want—technically and financially.”

Starting point: Find out what really happened to those 27,000 rivers.

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com