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    New Dam in NW China Aims to Restore Flow to Parched Heihe River

    A sharp decline in the Heihe River’s water levels in recent weeks now threatens regional agriculture and the ecosystem, prompting urgent responses from local governments.

    To address long-standing issues relating to water supply and demand in the Heihe River Basin, the Huangzangsi Dam started water storage operations on Monday in northwestern China. The major water conservation project on the country’s second-largest inland river is expected to significantly ease the impact of the river drying up in the upper reaches this year. 

    The state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that the dam, controlling 80% of the river’s flow, is part of a comprehensive strategy to manage the basin’s water resources. Launched in 2016, the project — including a barrage and power station — represents an investment of over 2.8 billion yuan ($394 million).

    Spanning 928 kilometers, the Heihe River, often referred to as the mother river of northwest China, originates in the Qilian Mountains and traverses Qinghai province, Gansu province, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Its central reaches support Gansu’s extensive cornfields, making it the nation’s leading corn production area. Further downstream, the river is adjacent to China’s sole manned space launch facility and a renowned natural oasis.

    In early November, the regional water resources authority expressed concerns over the Heihe experiencing its first significant water shortage in 21 years. Officials from affected provinces convened in Lanzhou, Gansu’s provincial capital, to address the potential long-term consequences of the river’s dwindling flow.

    Officials in Inner Mongolia, located downstream from the river, confirmed that multiple hydrological stations in the basin recorded a significant decline in water levels in 2023 compared to last year. Of these, the Yingluoxia station — marking the divide between the river’s upper and middle sections — documented a decrease of 26.91%. 

    Since 2005, the Heihe River has experienced a period of high water levels, with the inflow peaking in 2017 at Yingluoxia. However, the past two years have seen a downturn in water from the upper reaches, leading to a notably drier year in 2023.

    According to financial news outlet Caixin, the sharp decrease in water levels poses a threat to the cultivation of corn in Zhangye City, located in the river’s middle reaches, and to the ecological health of the Ejina Oasis downstream.

    The Ejina Oasis serves as a crucial ecological shield against sandstorms. Due to the Heihe River’s water scarcity since the 1950s, the oasis has undergone significant desertification. The region endured eight severe sandstorms in the early 2000s, which also affected northern China, prompting government intervention to regulate the distribution of the river’s water with the aim of revitalizing the parched areas.

    “However, that’s just a stopgap measure. For long-term stability, we still need to build a leading reservoir upstream and store water in abundance to offset dry periods,” Tang Deshan, a professor at Hohai University’s College of Water Conservancy and Hydropower Engineering, told Sixth Tone. 

    Tang, who has researched the Heihe River Basin for a number of years, explained that the Huangzangsi Dam’s operation will enhance water utilization across the basin and benefit the ecological environment in the long term. The dam is expected to bolster soil and water conservation efforts in the upper reaches and reduce silt in the river after mudslides. Additionally, it will help save water in the middle reaches and prevent uncontrolled flooding downstream.

    “The water project will ensure that the Heihe River keeps flowing. As long as the river flows, it remains healthy, leading to overall improvements in climate and the environment,” said Tang.

    Editor: Apurva. 

    (Header image: Water flows into the Huangzangsi Dam along the Heihe River, Nov. 20, 2023. From @中国水利 on Weibo)