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Land and Resources, Rivers and Lakes

Hinggan Ling, Xi Jiang, Tai Hu, Amur River, Mongolian Steppe

All the major river systems of China, including the three longest—the Yangtze, Huang He, and Xi Jiang—flow generally west to east and drain into the Pacific Ocean. In all, about 50 percent of the total land area drains to the Pacific. About 10 percent of the country’s area drains to the Indian and Arctic oceans. The remaining 40 percent has no outlet to the sea. Instead, these areas drain to the arid basins of the west and north, where the streams evaporate or percolate to form deep underground water reserves. Principal among these rivers is the Tarim.

China’s northernmost major stream is the Amur River (Heilong Jiang), which forms most of the northeastern boundary with Russia. The Songhua (Sungari) and Liao rivers and their tributaries drain most of the Dongbei Pingyuan (Northeast China Plain) and its surrounding highlands.

The major river of North China is the Huang He (Yellow River). It rises in the marginal highlands of the Tibetan Plateau and follows a circuitous course to the Bo Hai gulf, draining an area more than twice the size of France. The Huang He is sometimes referred to as “China’s Sorrow” because throughout history it has periodically devastated large areas by flooding. The river is diked in its lower course, and silt accumulation has elevated its bed above the surrounding plain. To help control the periodic flooding, China constructed the Xiaolongdi Dam near the city of Luoyang, Henan Province.

The Yangtze River of Central China is one of the world’s greatest rivers. The longest river in Asia, it has a vast drainage basin of more than 1.8 million sq km (700,000 sq mi), about 20 percent of China’s total area. The Yangtze rises near the source of the Huang He and enters the sea at Shanghai. It is a major transportation artery. The river’s Three Gorges Dam, under construction in Hubei Province, will be the world’s largest dam when completed. As planned, this controversial project will create a reservoir approximately 650 km (approximately 400 mi) long that will submerge numerous towns and archaeological sites, requiring the relocation of more than 1 million people. Proponents of the dam claim that the hydroelectric station will reduce China’s reliance on coal burning, a more polluting source of energy. Serving the major port of Guangzhou (Canton) are the estuarine lower reaches of the Xi Jiang, the most important river system of South China.

Most of China’s important lakes (hu) lie along the middle and lower Yangtze Valley. The two largest in the middle portion are Dongting Hu and Poyang Hu. In summer, when melted snow is carried downstream from the mountains, these lakes increase significantly in area and serve as natural reservoirs for excess water. Tai Hu is the largest of several lakes in the Yangtze delta, and Hongze Hu and Gaoyou Hu lie just to the north of the delta. Many saline lakes, some of considerable size, dot the Tibetan Plateau. The largest is the marshy Qinghai Hu in the less elevated northeast, but the high plateau contains several others nearly as large. In the arid northwest and in the Mongolian Steppe are a number of large lakes, most of which are also saline; principal among these are Lop Nur and Bosten Hu east of the Tarim Pendi. Ulansuhai Nur, which is fed by the Huang He, is in Inner Mongolia; Hulun Nur lies west of the Da Hinggan Ling in Northeast China. In addition to numerous natural lakes, China has more than 2,000 reservoirs that have been constructed primarily for irrigation and flood control.

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