China's Disappearing Rivers: Is Climate Change to Blame?

The government says global warming dried up its rivers. But they've ignored the impact of their giant dams and diversion channels.

China's recently published "water census" shows that as many as 28,000 rivers have vanished from the country since the 1990s. It's a trend, the report suggests, that's likely to continue. But the causes of this problem are a little murkier. The "census" offers no reason for the disappearance of so many water sources.

In some places, like Minqin, where the Shiyang River has run dry, Beijing insists that climate change is to blame. Residents disagree. The government built a sizable upstream reservoir nearby two decades ago to irrigate a large farm. That cut off the water supply for residents.


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Regions like Gansu, where Minqin is located, are some of the country's driest. And the government tends to rely on big projects like giant dams and diversion channels to address its water problems. Desperate for growth, officials are, in some cases, choosing between water and electricity.

"China is looking always at mega-projects rather than addressing the root causes," Zhou Lei, a fellow at Nanjing University who studies the affects of industry on the environment, tells Reuters. "They experiment with technologies to treat the problem, like the water transfer projects being done right now, but they are draining resources in a very wrong way."

According to Reuters, China's water resources per person stands at 2,100 cubic meters, just 28 percent of the global average. Beijing says it will spend trillions of yuan to clean the country's rivers, increase water supply, and protect water tables. Meanwhile, in Minqin, the damage has already been done. Below, images of a town deprived of its river.

A truck drives along a road near the dried up Shiyang river on the outskirts of Minqin town, Gansu province September 19, 2013. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Water diverted from the Shiyang river is seen at the construction site of an artificial lake in Wuwei, Gansu province September 21, 2013. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)
Visitors look at the Hongyashan water reservoir on the outskirts of Minqin town, Gansu province September 20, 2013. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria) 
Farmers remove a dead tree from a field near the dried up Shiyang river on the outskirts of Minqin town, Gansu province September 18, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Barria 
Remains of an abandon farm stand near the dried up Shiyang river on the outskirts of Minqin town, Gansu province September 19, 2013. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria) 
A section of the Shiyang river is seen next to a coal thermoelectric plant in Wuwei, Gansu province September 21, 2013. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria) 
An irrigation canal is seen near the dried up Shiyang river on the outskirts of Minqin town, Gansu province September 18, 2013. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria) 
A general view of Hongyashan reservoir near Minqin town, Gansu province September 20, 2013. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)
A farmer drives an electric tricycle across an irrigation canal near the dried up Shiyang river on the outskirts of Minqin town, Gansu province September 18, 2013. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria) 
A vendor sits at a local market in Minqin town, Gansu province September 18, 2013. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)
Remains of an abandon farm stand near the dried up Shiyang river on the outskirts of Minqin town, Gansu province September 19, 2013. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)
An animal skull lies on the ground at an abandon farm, near the dried up Shiyang river on the outskirts of Minqin town, Gansu province September 20, 2013. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria) 
Old luggage lies on the ground at an abandon farm, near the dried up Shiyang river on the outskirts of Minqin town, Gansu province September 20, 2013. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)
A dry plant stump is seen an abandon farm, near the dried up Shiyang river on the outskirts of Minqin town, Gansu province September 20, 2013. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

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