Preservation gives China’s ‘mother river’ new lease of life

Rigorous work returns birds, creates welcoming spaces for people and animals alike

Migratory birds in the Yellow River Delta National Nature Reserve in Dongying, Shandong province, in November. (ZHOU GUANGXUE / FOR CHINA DAIL)

From Qinghai province in the country's far west, to the Ningxia Hui autonomous region in Northwest China, to Shandong province where the Yellow River empties into the Bohai Sea, many of the wetlands in the basin of China's "mother river" have been rejuvenated in recent years, attracting increasingly diversified species of birds.

Sensitive to environmental changes, the birds are witness to the significant improvement that has happened in the basin as a result of the great attention paid by central authorities to its preservation.

Over the past few years, President Xi Jinping, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, has visited all nine provincial regions along the river. He has presided over two symposiums on the basin's protection and development.

Sunday marked the third anniversary of the first symposium. The protection of the Yellow River is critical to the great rejuvenation and sustainable development of the Chinese nation, Xi said in 2019 in Zhengzhou, Henan province, adding that it is a major national strategy.

Addressing another symposium in Jinan, Shandong province in October 2021, Xi called for unremitting efforts to ensure that the Yellow River always benefits China, stressing that regions along the river should continue to put the environment first and remain committed to green development.

The Yellow River Wetland Park in Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia, was once a salty river flat, with hardly any grass and raw sewage pouring into it from drains.

"The water stank, it was full of dirty bubbles. Even animals wouldn't drink from it. Crops withered after being irrigated," recalled Gu Jincheng, an elderly resident from nearby Hetan village.

Today, in stark contrast, the park and many other wetlands along the river in Ningxia, have become a popular destination for photographers taking pictures of migratory birds following the area's enormous environmental improvement.

"With the growing area of wetlands and the improving environment, suitable habitats for migratory birds are on the rise," said Li Zhijun, secretary-general of Ningxia's Bird Observation Association.

Many migratory birds have changed course to Ningxia, expanding the varieties of migratory birds in the region, he added.

The photographer's narrative is endorsed by official figures. Currently, about 240 species of birds come to nest in the park during spring and fall, compared with the 169 species recorded before 2018.

Ningxia is not alone in reporting larger flocks of sheltering birds.

Based on a five-day bird monitoring operation in May, for example, staff at the natural reserve administration of Qinghai Lake, China's largest inland saltwater lake, logged 44,000 water birds from 42 species, 8,000 more than during the same period in 2021.

In February, some 1,500 Baer's pochard ducks, a species of diving duck under first-class State protection, were spotted in Dongping Lake and on the Dawen River in Tai'an in Shandong, which was more than the total number of duck sightings recorded across the entire country in 2020.

In the Yellow River Delta National Nature Reserve in the estuary in Shandong's Dongying city, the number of bird species now stands at 371, compared with 187 in 1992 when the reserve was first created, said Zhao Yajie, a senior expert on the reserve management committee.

The positive changes have happened thanks to a series of measures rolled out in the basin, the country's political, economic, and cultural center for as long as 3,000 of its 5,000-year history, after the 2019 symposium,

Stretching for 5,464 kilometers, the Yellow River currently feeds 12 percent of China's population, irrigates 17 percent of its arable land, and supplies water to more than 50 large and medium-sized cities.

As one of those measures, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment launched a campaign in March 2021 to enhance the management of drains, vowing to locate all sewage draining exits that empty into the trunk of the Yellow River and its major tributaries in a two-year period, and properly regulate them before 2025.

To date, some 17,000 such drains have been registered in the upper reaches of the river and its key tributaries.

In another campaign to eliminate environmental hazards from illegally dumped solid waste, local authorities in the basin removed over 8.8 million metric tons of rubbish in 2021.

According to the national environmental watchdog, the basin has undergone consistent improvement in its water quality.

Last year, 81.9 percent of the 265 national monitoring stations in the basin reported a water quality at or above Grade III, up by 2 percentage points year-on-year.

China has a five-tier water quality system for surface water, with Grade I the best. Grade III is the threshold level for drinking water.

Despite significant progress, a further series of actions are on the way in the wake of the recent introduction of government documents on conserving the river.

Twelve central government bodies, including the Ministry of Water Resources, unveiled ambitious action plans in August, with forest remediation, desertification control and sewage disposal key concerns.

For instance, the ministry has vowed to restore 700,000 hectares of degraded natural forest and treat almost 1.4 million hectares of land suffering from desertification by 2025.

By then, all industrial parks in the basin will have facilities for the concentrated disposal of sewage, and at least 90 percent of black and odorous bodies of water in urban areas in county-level cities are projected to have been eliminated.

Also in August, the Ministry of Finance published a plan to strengthen financial and tax support for environmental conservation and high-quality development in the basin, pledging to mobilize loans from international financial institutions and foreign governments to support the region's environmental remediation, agricultural development and desertification control.

Xinhua contributed to this story.