Asian Waters–Nu River Development Offers Only Hard Choices.

               by David Parmer / Tokyo

China’s Nujiang or Nu River runs a course of 3200km from the Tibet plateau through Myanmar and Thailand to eventually empty into the Andaman Sea. Once outside of China, the Nu River becomes the Salween River or Thanlwin River. The Nujiang is China’s last undammed river and one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the world, and that is its blessing and its curse.

Nujiang Prefecture in China’s southwest is home to some of its poorer minorities who are isolated both physically and culturally. These are the people of the Nu minority and the Lisu minority. (Strangely, some of the Nu people were converted to Catholicism and still maintain that affiliation.) A major drawback for them is a lack of knowledge of Mandarin Chinese, the language of their central government in Beijing.

The Nu River basin is an area of immense biodiversity having an estimated 6,000 unique plant species and 47 fish and amphibian species unique to the area and 143 other species of fish and amphibians. Other wildlife includes wild Ox, small pandas, and monkeys (World Atlas). The danger to this pristine ecosystem is development–development that would bring a higher standard of living to the poor minorities but would also threaten the ecosystem of the river as it winds its way from the highlands to the sea.

A “higher standard of living” really has to do with bringing the minorities to a power grid, and that power would come from energy generated hydroelectrically. To get that kind of power dams are necessary. And just as with the Mekong River, dams bring problems of their own. The Nu River flows over several earthquake faults, and dams in these areas could cause catastrophic damage should an earthquake occur.

Moreover, damming the free-flowing river waters would also have serious side effects on the fragile ecosystem. A series of 15 dams were proposed for the Nujiang in the early 2000s, but most have been put on hold. However, China-supported dam projects in the lower Salween River in Myanmar are ongoing.

In an effort to preserve the wild Nu areas, local authorities have created two national parks: the Nujiang Gran Canyon National Park and the Dulongjiang National Park. Perhaps tourism can bring world attention to this precious resource so that it can continue to benefit the local people, the countries through which the river flows and our planet.

Photo: Axel Drainville via flickr

Asian Waters–The Frozen Songhua River

                           by David Parmer / Tokyo


Northeast China’s Songhua River, China’s most northern river system, starts in an otherworldly location called Heaven Lake on the border with North Korea. The lake is a source for three rivers, the Songhua, the Tumen and the Yalu. Flowing north, and east, it passes the city of Jilin and meanders to Harbin and then joins the mighty Amur River and rolls into Khabarovsk and then on to the sea.

The Songhua is navigable up to Harbin, but for basically half the year, from November till April it is frozen solid. In Harbin the frozen Songhua provides a venue for winter recreation and Harbin’s world-famous Ice Festival.

In history, the Songhua River has been prominent in Chinese-Russian relations and in the building of the China Eastern Railway. In 2005 a chemical spill polluted the drinking water of Harbin and Khabarovsk. Today the Songhua River is quiet, and as the days pass into autumn the water will be getting ready for its annual freeze and Harbin for its festive time.

Source of Songhua, Yalu

Changbi Waterfall, Heaven Lake (China/N. Korea border)

Photo:   Harbin Ice Festival via flickr, Jarod Carruthers

Photo: Changbai Waterfall via flickr, Joe Jiang



Asian Waters—Huang Ho, The River of Many Names

                                  by David Parmer

China’s Yellow River, the Huang Ho, is also known as The Mother River, and more-tellingly, China’s Sorrow. Massive and deadly flooding over the centuries has given it this last name. And it is called the Yellow River because of the color imparted by the Loess soil ( an estimated 1.6 billion tons annually) that it sweeps to the sea.

The Yellow River flows 5,465km from its start in the Bayan Har mountains in Qinghai Province to its terminus where it joins the busy Bohai sea below Beijing. Its route takes it from the Tibet Plateau through the Ordos Desert and the Ordos Loop to the North China plains and then to the sea.

  There are 20 dams along the course of the river, with 18 more planned by 2030. Apparently people have been damming the river since ancient times, often altering the course and causing some of the disastrous floods that history records. The yellow Loess soil is fertile, and supports the cultivation of much of China’s cotton and wheat. And historically, the Yellow river at its western end marks the start of the Silk Road, while the lower Yellow River valley is marked as the starting place for Chinese civilization.

Beautiful and powerful, China’s Mother River is not without her problems. Periodic flooding is caused by deforestation and the embankment of tributaries for irrigation. It has been estimated that 85% of the river’s water is unsafe for drinking. Other estimates say 1/3 of the river is un-useable dew to sewage, industrial chemicals and pesticides.

China Daily Yellow River

 Yellow River Dam Henan (China Daily)

In their paper, “Water Crisis in the Huang Ho (Yellow) River”, G. Fu and S. Chen state:

Industrialization, population growth, and other associated human activities along with global warming and the unique water characteristics and arid and semi-arid climate zone of the Yellow River basin have caused a dry up phenomena in the Yellow River basin during the last three decades.

The authors also write about possible countermeasures:

In order for changes to be made several countermeasures have been proposed. These include: water savings, water management, increased regulation, water transfer, and rational and practical groundwater use.

As we have seen in this series, Asian Waters, many of Asia’s water resources are at risk, and it is only by wise management and long-terms thinking that these resources like the great Yellow River will be preserved and continue to give their countless gifts to humankind on planet Earth.

Water Crisis in the Huang Ho

Main Photo: Global Water Partnership


Asian Waters—The Very Busy Strait of Malacca

strait.jpg    Strait of Mallaca (Photo: Maritime Trade Intelligence)

                              by David Parmer

You could argue that the Malacca strait is not just the most important waterway in Asia, but is also the most important waterway in the world. And you would be on strong ground in doing so. Just look at the facts. Every year 50-60,000 ships pass through the strait of Malacca. One-third of the world’s shipping trade and an enormous amount of crude oil (15.2m barrels a day in 2011) and petroleum products make the trip from the Andaman Sea to the South China Sea. It is the shortest sea route between the Persian Gulf and Asia, specifically resource-hungry countries like China, Japan and Korea.

 The Malacca Strait is a 550-mile-long sea route, ranging in width from a wide 155miles, to 40 miles to a very harrowing 1.7 miles wide (in the Phillips Channel of the Singapore Strait). The Malacca Strait flows between Indonesia and Malaysia and Singapore. The maritime standard for the area is Malaccamax, i.e. that it can handle vessels with a maximum draught of 82 feet. But for vessels of any size, the busy Malacca Strait is not without its dangers.


                                                           Map:Strait of Malacca (Encyclopedia of Earth)

In such a heavily trafficked area there is always danger of grounding, collision and oil spills. Sea-Seek Sailing Guide reports that there are 34 shipwrecks in the traffic separation channel. Add to this the annual appearance of serious haze from slash-and-burn agriculture on Sumatra that cuts visibility down to 200 meters. And finally, there is the scourge of mariners worldwide throughout history: piracy.

 Reports of the extent of Malacca piracy vary, some say it has decreased to almost nothing, and others say there is a sharp rise in attacks on merchant shipping. Reports from 2013 show a steady decline in attacks, while others pinpoint Malacca as a piracy hot spot comparable to the Somali coast. Increase or decrease notwithstanding, the Malacca Strait is an area where pirates abound. Malacca pirates mostly target valuables on the ships and crews’ possessions, although some more sophisticated gangs steal oil products. In 2006, due to a decreased risk, the global insurer Lloyds dropped its “war risk classification” for ships sailing the strait. 

 Decreased piracy activity is  due in part thanks to the Malacca Straits Sea Patrol, operated by Indonesia, Malaysian, Singapore and Thailand. These countries also share information and intelligence on piracy. Countries in the region also cooperate through membership in the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). In September 2014, the United States became the 20th member of ReCAAP, and sent a US Coast Guard admiral to sit on its board.

Since 2007, there has also been three-nation cooperation through the Cooperative Mechanism on Safety of Navigation and Environmental Protection in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore.

 So, is the Strait of Malacca the most important waterway in Asia and in the world? If you say “yes” you will probably be right.

 Piracy Decrease:

 Piracy Increase:

 Regional, 20-Country Anti-Piracy Organization: