The Yellow River has traditionally been called "China's sorrow" and for Li Xiaoqiang, the grief strikes particularly close to home.
As a senior official with the Yellow River Conservancy Commission, Li observes -- up close and on a daily basis -- the gradual deterioration of China's second-largest waterway.
Advertisement"The Yellow River is still in a pretty bad state," he told AFP, sitting in his sparsely furnished office in Zhengzhou, a major central Chinese industrial city on the river.
"The water levels are going down and water usage is going up, pollution is very serious, so it is a very difficult task to return the river to health."
Li explained how rampant overuse was leading the river to dry up and how 400 million Chinese who live along its banks foul the waterway with pollution despite their huge dependency on its waters.
"The river is very polluted, it goes through major industrial areas and China's coal production region, there is a huge population that lives near the river, all are emitting serious pollution," Li said.
"We are only beginning to tackle this issue in a comprehensive way."
Only weeks earlier, the commission, which is tasked with administrating the river's entire 5,464 kilometre (3,398 miles) length, announced that water levels in 2008 are expected to be only 60 percent of normal volume.
The main reasons, it said, included over-use and ongoing drought in northern China.
"Everyone wants more water, the dams want water for electricity, the industries want water to increase production, the farmers want water for irrigation and cities need water for daily living," Li said.
"We estimate that some provinces and regions will see rather large shortages during peak water use periods, the situation concerning the water volume on the Yellow River isn't good."
Li's comments came as the government announced that more than 600 million cubic metres (17.5 billion cubic feet) of Yellow River water would be diverted to Hebei province near Beijing and to Shandong province to the east in the first months of 2008.
The projects are geared to help the region overcome nearly a decade of drought and to ensure water supplies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, press reports said.
"The diversion was supposed to begin on January 22, but it has been postponed so we are awaiting orders from the water ministry," said an official at the Shandong provincial Yellow River Conservancy Bureau in Liaocheng city where the diversion will begin.
Up to 500 million cubic metres of water will be diverted at Liaocheng which would result in about 1.5 million cubic metres reaching Lake Baiyangdian about 400 kilometres (247 miles) away and near Beijing, he said.
According to Shandong's Dazhong Daily, the other project to supply 70 million cubic metres of water to Qingdao city, where the Olympic sailing events will take place, was completed on January 14.
"This is a huge amount of water to be diverting from the Yellow River, which already is facing a huge water shortage," said Dai Qing, a leading Beijing-based political activist and environmentalist.
"Every year the Yellow River is drying up in its lower reaches, yet these projects are approved because the officials benefit from them even though people are harmed," she said.
"These officials cling to the old Maoist philosophy that 'man can conquer nature,' but in the end no one knows what kind of disasters result from this kind of thinking."
Traditionally the problem with the Yellow River has been that huge amounts of silt clogged up the riverbed, leading to massive flooding that over the centuries has led to some of China's biggest tragedies.
But in the 1990s, when drought hit and water demand began to boom, the riverbed in the lower reaches dried up regularly, resulting in China's "mother river" failing to reach the sea for a record 227 days in 1997.
The Yellow River's deterioration comes as China is in the process of building three massive canal projects to transfer water from the Yangtze river in the south to alleviate chronic water shortages plaguing northern areas around Beijing.
Eastern and middle canal routes are currently under construction in the 60-billion-dollar project that could eventually divert northward an amount of water almost equal to the normal annual flow of the Yellow River.
The western route, still unapproved, could eventually channel the headwaters of the Yangtze into the source region of the Yellow, both of which are located on the remote Tibet Plateau.
Environmentalist Dai is adamantly opposed to all diversion projects, some of which have failed in places like Spain and California.
China needs desperately to improve water-use efficiency and quickly adjust its development model of growth, she argued.
For spokesman Li, the completion of the western route could be the saving grace for the troubled Yellow River.
"If the western route is finally built, we think this will be a significant step in bringing the Yellow River back to health," he said.
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