Yellow River dam debate rekindled

In late January, the governor of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region announced the province would strive to develop the Heishanxia (Black Mountain Gorge) stretch of the Yellow River “as soon as possible” – rekindling a debate that has lasted for 70 years.

The 31.5 km gorge, located at the northeast edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and on the border of Gansu province to the west and Ningxia to the east, is the last free-flowing stretch of the river suitable for building a tall dam. Such a barrier would supposedly bring vast hydrological potentials, including securing water supply, generating electricity and intercepting silt that would otherwise raise the river bed and increase flood risk.

Since 1952, the two neighbouring provinces have contested the dam, arguing particularly over its exact location (with implications for who shoulders the cost of inundation) and whether to build one big or multiple small dams. 

Last year, the two provinces finally settled on a single tall dam in the Ningxia part of the gorge. As well as a proper benefit-sharing arrangement between the two, the project is believed to have been given a boost by the increased likelihood that the western route of the South–North Water Diversion project will be built. Last year, a commission of the National Political Consultative Conference said they hope construction of the route would start by 2025.

Significant opposition to the Heishanxia dam remains. Some experts argue there are already too many dams across the Yellow River, which together can hold more water than the entire annual runoff into the river. This means any benefits of the dam would come at the expense of other projects and other regions in the basin. These include inundation of fertile low-lying agriculture belts, displacement of communities, and damage to natural and cultural heritages. Concerns have also been raised over possible damage to the last habitat of endangered river species. Moreover, Ningxia’s argument of silt interception and flood mitigation is countered by existing similar projects that have exacerbated sediment accumulation.

The biggest question is if such a project is consistent with the state’s grand plan for the Yellow River – with the section on the river in the 14th FYP explicitly calling for greater water-saving efforts and reduced hydrological development in the basin.

Read our report from 2020 on the South–North Water Diversion western route.