The second longest river in China after the Yangtze, the Yellow River and its basin (YRB) is the breadbasket of China and the cradle of Chinese civilization. With only 2 percent of national water resources, the basin generated 14 percent of Chinese grain production and 14 percent of the country’s GDP in 2000.
The YRB is characterized by severe water scarcity. The surface water withdrawal to resource ratio, at 64 percent in 2008, is among the highest in the world. Although climate in the basin has become drier, total water demand has increased from 35 km3 in the 1980s to about 50 km3 in recent years. This has produced a shift in weather-related hazards from flooding events to droughts, which have plagued the basin in the last two decades. The most striking evidence of excess water withdrawal and consumption has been the flow cutoffs experienced in the main channel near the river mouth for 22 years during the period of 1972–1998. Flow was cut off every year between 1990 and 1998, with the duration of drying-up, and the distance from the river mouth both increasing. In 1997, there was no flow out of the basin for 226 days, and the river dried up to Kaifeng, 600 km from the river mouth. Finally, both groundwater overdraft in parts of the basin and rapid water quality deterioration are adversely affecting both humans and basin ecosystems.
This note summarizes a study that assesses factors affecting both water supply and demand in the YRB over the next 10–20 years and recommends solutions to increase water use efficiency and water savings across all water-using sectors.