Managing the Yellow River: Questions of Borders, Boundaries and Access

Michael Webber
Jon Barnett
Brian Finlayson
Mark Wang


The Yellow River basin is the site of myriad water resource problems. The Yellow River has natural geomorphological characteristics that include seasonally variable flow, very high sediment load, and the capacity to flood with devastating effect. However, people have long sought to harness the water of the Yellow River to their own industrial and agricultural ends, so as to attain the things that they value, like good health, economic growth, and employment. Intensive human use of the basin now poses new managerial problems.

The Yellow River’s problems thus now include water scarcity, pollution, and flood risk. In 1997 there were 226 ‘no flow’ days, when the River failed to reach the sea; the dry point started up to 700km inland (Jun 2004). This is not part of the natural flow regime of the Yellow River, which rarely ceased to flow before 1992. The Yellow River is also one of China’s most polluted rivers. While a major breach of the levees has been averted since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949, there is each year significant flooding in the Yellow River basin. The threat of a major levee failure is real and millions of lives and vast sums of capital investment will be lost in such an event, or if one of the many dams along its length fails.

In this paper, we characterise the problems of the Yellow River in order to assess the significance of borders, boundaries and access in understanding the management of water. Events and conditions in particular localities have local causes; and in this sense the bounding of regions is significant. Yet borders and boundaries are permeable, permitting causes also to derive from conditions in neighbouring and distant regions. Furthermore, places have causes at a larger scale, such as the nation, since borders, like the regions they bound, are hierarchical and scaled.

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