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