28,000 Rivers Disappear from Chinese Map

A popular Chinese folk song tells of “a wide river with strong waves, where the wind blows the fragrance of paddy fields to the banks.”

But such idyllic rivers in China may soon become a thing of the past. As public frustration brews over the country’s many polluted waterways, a recent nationwide water census seemed to reveal that some 28,000 rivers previously recorded in the government database have vanished.

The survey, released on March 26, 2013, is the country’s first conducted over the course of three years from 2010-2012. According to the census, the number of rivers covering an area of 100 square kilometers in the country currently stands at 22,909, a stark contrast to the 50,000 rivers claimed to exist in the 1990s.

Screen capture of CCTV's report on a dried river in Guizhou.

Screen capture of CCTV's report on a dried river in Guizhou.

The water census comes only weeks after the newly installed Chinese leadership vowed to tackle the country’s deteriorating environment. Such a declining rate has riveted many, including one Chinese prominent environmentalist Ma Jun. In an interview given to the Times of England, he attributed the disappearing rivers to the over-exploitation of river resources.

Ma also added that large hydroelectric projects like the Three Gorges Dam might also have played a role.

However, the government blamed the lower figure largely on different research methods and climate change. Jiao Yong, China's deputy minister of water resources, noted that the old data of 50,000 was not accurate because cartographers in the past used traditional ways to locate rivers. He said [zh] to state-run broadcaster China Central Television:


In the 1990s, our experts depended on the old maps, old materials to calculate, but this time, we used the newest maps with the national standard of 1/50000 ratio, plus the remote sensing image equipment, we calculated rivers one by one, so its degree of accuracy should be higher.

Many Web users appeared to be unconvinced of the official explanation. Yami Laoliu [zh] from Beijing wrote on the popular microblogging site Sina Weibo:


I am surprised to learn that 28,000 rivers have already disappeared in the map. Is it natural disaster? Or man-made mistake? I think both played a role, and it was mainly a man-made mistake, there are many examples to illustrate the situation. The remaining water and underground water are worrisome….Our food and energy now largely depend on imports, could it mean that future generations will need to import their drinking water?

Wang Xuming, former spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, offered [zh] some words of wisdom to Chinese President Xi  Jinping on Weibo:

#给习总提建议#有 消息说中国流域面积100平方公里以上河流30年来少了2•7万条。口袋里的钱愈来愈多,身边的水却愈来愈少。2013年中国环保投入将比去年增加 18•8%是经济增幅两倍多。建议各地立即减缓发展速度,切实把环保作为第一大事抓,否则不予重用。真的把富有中国变成美丽中国!

Suggestions for boss Xi: Word has it that the number of rivers covering an area of 100 square kilometers has reduced 27,000 over the last 30 years. There is more money in our pockets, while water around us has become less and less. The investment China has made in environmental protection has increased 18.8 percent, twice the rate of the nation's economic growth [China's GDP is around 8%]. I suggest (government) at all levels immediately slow down their economic development, and make environmental protection their first priority, otherwise, officials shall not be valued. To make a rich China into a beautiful China.

Pan Wenda, who is from Shenyang city in China’s northeast province Liaoning, made an appeal [zh] to people asking them to leave comments about the status of rivers in their hometowns:


The passing rivers in our country, some 27,000 rivers have disappeared within 20 years, this is a horrific number and phenomenon, water is the source of life, without water, all life will be gone! To reduce and prevent the disappearance of rivers caused by humans, to ensure the continuing health of our children, let’s raise concerns so relevant parties can pay attention. Everyone, please leave your comments below explaining the state of the rivers in your country.

Even the state-backed tabloid newspaper Global Times let out a sigh [zh] this time on its Chinese editorial Weibo page:

据说中国每年消失上万条河流,想起去云南曾看到整片树被砍伐,山若斑秃;在西双版纳,山上原生树全被换成 橡胶树,同质化对树林生态伤害很大。发展一旦启动,其狰狞的一面也渐显露,它还会不断自我加速。但谁又能指责人们改善生活的努力呢?十亿计只想发展没有信仰缺少敬畏的人,是一股多么可怕的力量!

It’s said that some tens of thousands of rivers disappear every year in China. It calls to mind the forest being chopped down in Yunan last year, bare mountains: In Xishuangbanna, the original trees on the mountain were all moved to plant rubber trees, homogenization is very harmful to the ecology of forests. One development is activated, its ugly side will gradually show, and it will accelerate. But who can blame human efforts to make quality of life better? (If) a billion development-obsessed people lack faith and fear of nature, what a horrible force it would be!


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