Facing Water Challenges in the Yellow River Basin, China: A WWDR3 Case Study

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Prolonged drought, floods and severe pollution combined with high demand from booming agricultural, industrial and urban sectors are challenging China to take remedial measures and implement a more integrated approach to managing its water resources.


Focus Areas

Water Supply and sanitation, IWRM

Geographic Scope




Background and Significance

Source:UN WWDR3

At basin level, the Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC), established in 1946, manages the water resources of the basin on behalf of the Ministry of Water Resources and the State Council. The YRCC prepares and implements the basin water development plan, decides the allocation of water resources at provincial level and is in charge of constructing and maintaining structures (except large dams) for water resource development and flood prevention.

The water allocation is based on the integrated scheme approved by the State Council in 1987 (see Box 2.1). The provinces in the middle reach of the basin are allocated 22% of the available flow. The remainder is split equally between the provinces of the upper and lower reaches. The allocation is revised annually to reflect seasonal variations in availability.

Since 2000, in line with the most recent approach adopted by the Ministry of Water Resources, water management and related development activities in the Yellow River basin have aimed to integrate the interests of all regions and sectors. Consequently, to balance available water supply and the demand of various sectors, the YRCC developed a water use plan based on medium to long term supply and demand patterns. Annual water use plans are issued to users to assure adequate supply for priority areas, especially in the case of drought. Furthermore, the YRCC established regulations encouraging household users to install water-saving devices, farmers to adopt waterefficient practices and industry to promote techniques minimizing water use and waste discharge. It also established a market pricing system.

The Experience: Challenges and Solutions

Managing Sedimentation

Managing sedimentation: The Yellow River gets its name from the colour of the heavy sediment concentration that it transports while flowing through an extensive loess plateau covering 640,000 km2. The loose soil of the plateau is easily eroded, and it is carried into the Yellow River and its tributaries in massive quantities, particularly during the intense summer rainstorms. The average sediment load that the river carries is 1.6 billion tonnes per year. Of this, only about 25% is carried to the sea, while the rest is deposited on the riverbed. Due to this sedimentation, the riverbed has risen at an average rate of 5 to 10 cm per year and the dikes have been periodically raised in response. The impact of sedimentation on channel dynamics has made management of the river difficult, especially in its lower reaches.

Meeting Environmental Water Requirements

Meeting environmental water requirements: Due to problems associated with the heavy sediment load of the river, the YRCC has made flushing out sediment its most critical environmental priority. Protecting biodiversity and sustaining the wetlands and fisheries at the mouth of the river are also important environmental concerns. The minimum flow required to flush out sediment is calculated as 14 billion m3, and an additional 5 billion m3 is necessary for other environmental requirements. With the surface water capacity almost fully used already, and with industrial, urban and agricultural demand growing as well as climatic variation putting further stress on the resource, assuring the required minimum environmental flow, which roughly equals one-third of total average annual flow, is a very difficult challenge to address.

Coping with floods and droughts

Millions of lives have been lost to floods and droughts during the long history of the Yellow River basin. From 206 BC to AD 1949, 1,092 major floods were recorded, along with 1,500 dike failures, 26 river rechannellings and 1,056 droughts. The flat North China Plain, which was formed by alluvial deposits from the Yellow River, was always prone to floods. However, following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, master planning for flood control and construction of numerous hydraulic structures significantly reduced the vulnerability and losses due to floods.

Embankments, reservoirs and flood retention areas have been established to increase flood control and enable drought management (see Box 2.1). The structural flood control system in China is designed basically for the discharge capacity of the maximum flood recorded since the 1950s for large rivers, and for five- to ten-year flood frequency for smaller rivers.

Non-structural flood control measures have been improved, mainly by developing and applying flood forecasting and warning systems, and by implementing laws, regulations, policies and economic approaches. These include managing river channels and controlling settlement in flood-prone areas. Potential flood risks are being reduced to a level which the society and economy can address, and flood management schemes have been established for extremely large floods. The YRCC and the provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Henan and Shandong have jointly set up a Yellow River flood control and drought relief headquarters, which provides crucial input to planning for such disasters and mitigating their impact.

In summary, throughout history, the Yellow River basin has been associated with floods, droughts and a rising river bed. With large population increases, combined with rapid growth in all sectors, declining water quality and quantity have had a direct impact on the sustainable socio-economic development of the basin and the health of ecosystems. The water allocation scheme introduced in 1987 and various laws and regulations enacted in the 1990s aim to address these problems while taking a holistic approach that addresses the requirements of all stakeholders. However, the need to strike a balance between water demand for various sectors, sediment management and some serious pollution issues remains the major challenge facing the Yellow River Conservancy Commission and the ministries concerned.

Results and Impact

Lessons for Replication

Testimonies and Stakeholder Perceptions


See also

Li, G.Y. 2005. Maintaining the Healthy Life of the Yellow River. Zhengzhou, China, Yellow River Conservancy Press. Xu, Z. X., Zhao, F. F. and Li, J. Y. No date. Impact of climate change on streamflow in the Yellow River Basin. http://www.ifwf2.org/addons/ download_presentation.php?fid=1077 (Accessed January 2008.) Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC). 2009. Yellow River Basin Case Study Report.

Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC). 2002. Information made available during meetings between the YRCC and the International Water Management Institute, Zhengzhou, China, September–October 2002.

Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC). 2007. Yellow River Water Resources Bulletin, March 2002. www.yrcc.gov.cn. (In Chinese; accessed December 2008.)

Zhang, Q., Xu, C.-Y., Zhang, Z., Ren, G. and Chen, Y. D. 2008. Climate change or variability? The case of Yellow river as indicated by extreme maximum and minimum air temperature during 1960–2004. Theoretical and Applied Climatology, Vol. 93, Nos 1–2.

External Resources

United Nations World Water Development Report


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