go to home page
go to home page

The Yellow River

(See page 184)

(Extract from a letter written by the author to Mr. Oudendijk,
the Minister for Holland at Peking in 1906)

I SAW, during my Yellow river trip, a great deal of the river officials — probably more than any one else has done. Their desire for the right thing is undoubted; they have no illusions concerning their own methods; and they look forward eagerly to the adoption of some comprehensive scheme.

Two things are required before anything can be done. The first is a general administrative reform. Until this is effected no such huge scheme as Yellow river work would have a chance of success. The second is the formulation of an engineering scheme of such a nature as will convince the Chinese of its practicability. And this, I take it, is the part which interests you specially in order that your own people may have a chance of being concerned in the work. Regarding this I will express to you the following opinion:—

The Yellow river is entirely different from any other in the world.

However eminent an engineer may be, his experience in river work is limited to the particular rivers he has worked at or studied, and his dictum based on generalizations from other rivers carries no great weight with me. I am referring to no one in particular, but I include in my mind even my dear old friend Mr. de Rijke, than whom no sounder engineer exists.

In all other rivers in the world — even in the Mississippi, which is perhaps the one most resembling the Yellow river — the problem is to get such silt, as must be borne by the river, down to the sea, and to preserve it as navigable channel. In the case of the Yellow river I am absolutely convinced that it is impossible to get the silt, which the river must carry, down to the sea.

Again, in most cases the problem is a navigation problem.

In some cases, generally small ones, the problem is a drainage one. When the problem is a drainage one, i.e. the getting away of water, it is almost always the case that drainage and navigation are opposed to one another. What is good for one is bad for the other. The Yellow river problem is a drainage one, pure and simple, not a navigation one. But above all it is a sedimentation problem, and as such is perhaps unique.

The function of the Yellow river in nature is the formation and raising of the Great Plain. In other great rivers of an alluvial nature their plains are comparatively restricted, the raising of them is partly completed down to the sea, and their principal function is the extension of the plain seaward. But in the case of the Yellow river conditions are entirely different. Its plain is incomparably greater than that of any other river in the world, and it has not nearly yet completed its raising. Notwithstanding all the works to confine the river to a definite bed, I believe that not more than 10 per cent. of the silt borne by it reaches the sea. The remaining 90 per cent. is deposited in accordance with nature's intention, and no efforts of men will ever prevent this action taking place. But what can be done is to guide nature's forces and control the sedimentation, which must take place, by an ever-continual system of depositing areas.

Academic schemes such as have been proposed — construction of reservoirs in the mountain valleys, the afforestation of drainage areas, the protection of loess cliffs, the obtaining of an ideal section for the river, dredging work, etc. — are no solutions. Such merely go, as it were, to the skin of the problem and do not get at its heart.

And such can never be acceptable to the Chinese, who, although they have no technical knowledge of a comprehensive kind about river engineering, yet seem to have an intuition in this respect. This I think is the view which may interest you.

I believe the problem can be properly tackled only by a clever engineer, who divests himself of all preconceived ideas about rivers generally and who immerses himself — soaks — in the drainage conditions of the Great Plain as a whole.

On this matter my interest is so keen that I feel almost prophetic.

I see raised areas bordering the Yellow river in parts safe against all inundation. The river with the greater part of its load removed has now its bed below the plain and is easily controlled. The present devastated low lands are fertilized by suitable flooding and are rich with crops.

Not only the Yellow river but the rivers draining the Shansi hills are also bordered with lands of great fertility and free from the swamps and morasses now existing. The rivers are now looked upon as friends instead of as enemies. And all is peace and plenty!

Of course before any definite scheme is formulated surveys must be made, observations taken and all details closely studied. But I believe the general nature of the problem and the general nature of the solution can be arrived at without elaborate surveys; and in fact that such an indication of a solution of a more definite and promising kind than has as yet been forthcoming is a necessary preliminary.

I have frequently discussed the Yellow river problem with de Rijke and he accords entirely with the view I have expressed in this letter.