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Ecological functions to steer Yellow River development

ZHANG JIE | 2021-02-04
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Yellow River runs past the Tongguan Museum in Shaanxi Province. Photo: PROVIDED TO CSST

Yellow River basin is one of the birthplaces of Chinese civilization. For over 3,000 years, many dynasties in Chinese history built their capitals in its basin, making the region a center for politics, economy, and culture. Flowing through nine provinces and autonomous regions from west to east, the river is essential to national economic and social development. By 2019, the regions in the basin were home to over 30% of China’s population and generated roughly a quarter of the national GDP. 
The Yellow River also impacts these places ecologically. Over the past 2,500 years, the river has broken its dikes over 1,500 times and has had 26 major changes to its course in the lower reaches. In the early years of PRC, Yellow River governance focused on removing water hazards and constructing water conservancy projects. Now, governance has shifted its focus to water resource development, ecological conservation based on flood control, thus promoting high-quality development of the Yellow River basin. 
In this context, a CSST reporter had a conversation with Ren Baoping, vice president of Xi'an University of Finance and Economics. Ren suggested that regions along the river create distinct development patterns based on their respective ecological functions. 
CSST: How do you understand the strategic significance of the Yellow River basin's ecological protection and high-quality development?
Ren Baoping: The strategic significance of protecting this region can be seen from three different perspectives. The first vision prioritizes ecology. The Yellow River basin has immense ecological value. Under the guideline of high-quality development, restoration and protection of its ecological resources will support economic and social sustainability. 
The second perspective relates to the national economy. Most of the nine provinces and autonomous regions that the waterway flows through are situated in northern China. Successful coordinated development of upper and lower reaches will alleviate the widening economic gap between northern and southern China, thus fueling the national economy. The third outlook is focused on modernization. The river basin is home to a large population in relative poverty. In the future, winning the fight against poverty is pivotal to building a modern socialist country in an all-round way. 
CSST: Compared with other regions, how does the Yellow River basin differ in ecological protection and high-quality development?
Ren Baoping: Unlike the scope of national or provincial growth, high-quality development of the Yellow River is linked to multiple regions along the basin. To connect this chain, we must understand and uphold the basin's features. 
In several regions along the basin, there is a large gap in terms of economic development. The waterway flows across China's western, central, and eastern regions. Their economic conditions vary greatly. Regions in the basin’s western part lag behind economically while those located in the east and center are better off. 
The Yellow River basin has a fragile ecological environment. Most of its streamways run through arid and semi-arid areas, including northwestern and northern China where water is scarce. These regions are also home to the largest ecologically fragile area and most types of fragile ecosystems within the country. Desertification is a major ecological problem in the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River basin. Apart from natural factors, disruptive human activities have expedited the desertification process. The basin's water resource shortfall has restricted sustainable economic and social development.
A large number of ethnic minority groups and poverty-stricken areas are found along the basin. Several issues are of great significance to shielding social stability and uniting ethnic minority groups. Specifically, we should strengthen governance and protection of the basin and bolster high-quality development. Also, we should exert efforts to address security issues that people, especially ethnic minority populations are concerned about, such as flood control, drinking water, and the ecological environment.
Finally, the Yellow River basin is rich in natural, historical, and cultural resources. The hydropower resources in the upper reaches, coal resources in the middle reaches, and oil and natural gas resources in the lower reaches are abundant. Also, the Yellow River basin has a rich culture and history. The Hehuang culture in the upper reaches, the Central Plain culture in the middle reaches, and the Haidai culture in the lower reaches have left an indelible mark on the history of Chinese civilization. To promote the high-quality development of the Yellow River basin, we should tap into historical and cultural resources to drive regional economic development.
CSST: High-quality development of the Yellow River basin should prioritize ecological protection and adhere to green development. How do we make this vision a reality?
Ren Baoping: The Yellow River basin covers a large population and a wide area. Its high-quality development must realize the harmonious coexistence of natural, economic, and social systems. It deals with four underlying perspectives: green, categorized, coordinated, and interconnected development. 
Regarding green development, it is necessary to promote water and soil conservation while improving local production conditions. We need to visualize short-term and long-term benefits at the same time, and attach equal importance to economic and ecological benefits. We must consider water resources as the most rigid constraint, planning population, urban, and industrial development in a rational manner. In this process, we should eliminate unnecessary water demands, vigorously develop water-saving industries and technologies, nurture water-sufficient approaches to agriculture, and encourage water-conservation behaviors in the whole of society. In this way, extensive water use will give way to conservation and intensiveness. 
As for categorized development, the upper reaches of the Yellow River should focus on water conservation areas such as the Sanjiangyuan nature reserve, Qilian Mountains, and the upper reaches in southern Gansu Province, to expand water conservation capabilities. The middle reaches should evolve governance around water and soil conservation, as well as pollution control. The Yellow River Delta at the lower reaches must protect the ecosystem and increase biodiversity. Central cities and other areas with favorable conditions for economic development should promote intensive development and enhance the carrying capacity for both the economy and populations. Poverty-stricken areas should upgrade infrastructure and public services, to ensure improvement of people’s livelihoods.
To achieve coordinated development, the provinces and autonomous regions in the basin should be taken as an organic whole. We should establish regional logistics hubs by using the convenience of Yellow River streamways, general aviation, as well as the new infrastructure represented by the internet and the Internet of Things. Consumption upgrading provides an opportunity for setting up an open and unified market, thus leveraging high-quality and coordinated development.
Interconnected development refers to two strategies. First, regions in the basin should kick-start efforts to promote the integration of industry, market, and infrastructure. Also, it is necessary to strengthen their links with areas beyond the basin, so that they can enhance the Yellow River’s role in opening up and attracting globally advanced production, enterprises, and industries. On this basis, the basin can support export-oriented industries and form industrial clusters, thus boosting the quality of development.
CSST: The Yellow River basin has a fragile ecological environment and its regions vary remarkably in terms of economic development. How should the basin build a high-quality development model?
Ren Baoping: First, we should establish a mechanism for implementing functional zones along the waterway. The division of functional zones should consider multiple factors such as natural ecological conditions, water and soil resource carrying capacity, environmental capacity, current development density, economic structure characteristics, population distribution, and participation in the international division of labor. Meanwhile, we should select different development methods and tasks in accordance with the natural environment, resource conditions, and economic development levels.
Also, we should establish and optimize a Yellow River water trading market. Improvement in the water resource carrying capacity requires policymakers to optimize the water price formation mechanism and strengthen water rights management along the basin. Water resources are the most rigid constraint for the basin’s economic and social development. The coordination and cooperation of various functional departments should expand to achieve this goal.
Finally, a diversified fiscal transfer payment system is a necessity. We can implement pilot projects by encouraging governments at different levels to provide different types of public goods, thereby establishing a diversified fiscal transfer payment system. Governments at all levels should be creative and frame a system with clarified rights and responsibilities.
Edited by MA YUHONG