Rescuing Big Rivers Damaged in Industrial Civilization
For me, large rivers were dreamlands. In teenage and college years, I was immersed in the stories and tales about misty rivers and forests, including The Peach Blossom Spring by Tao Yuanming, Leaving the White King’s Town at Down by Li Bai, The Stone Bell Mountain by Su Shi, A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains by Wang Ximeng, Three Days Along the Yangtze River by Liu Baiyu, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and the documentary Animal World. The rivers and forests were described as appealing places where waterfalls and torrents carve through rocks, in striking contrast to quiet bays and verdant sandbars and marshlands; the ululation of apes and silvery bird singing heard, “monsters” emerging from the water; fishing boats floating, castle ruins standing along banks, villages filling with wisps of smoke, women washing clothes on river banks, and kids riding buffaloes along the river at sunset... All these fantasies beckoned me to experience and explore rivers.
With this dream, when I arrived a new city—Harbin, Zhengzhou, Wuhan, Nanjing, Chongqing, and Guangzhou; or New Orleans, Minneapolis, Delhi, Dhaka, Saigon, and Bangkok—I was eager to visit their mother rivers. However, every time upon my arrival to the riversides, I was shocked for the heavily polluted rivers that are dirty, messy, and smelling—just like invaluable silk paintings discarded in the dark and moist basements for years by their ignorant wealthy owners. Please rescue the rivers! This is a cry from my heart with all the people who admire the mother rivers.
As engineered high dikes and dams made of concrete and steels (instead of clay, for a greater height, hardness, and smoothness under construction standards to resist 50-year, 100-year, and even 500-year floods) built by cities along rivers, people are “safely protected” from floods. All these engineering giants mark the development level of a city, compromising our grandchildren’s opportunities to connect with the water.
These dams indeed lower flood risks and increase power generation efficiency, cities become “civilized” barriers cutting off the river corridors for fishes and other wildlife to reproduce and migrate.
As more highways and railways built along rivers, vehicles run at an increasingly faster speed, scaring any life who wants to or has to access the water.
Conditions of tributaries are much worse. Most of them are no longer free flow but end up as hard ditches. As domestic sewage and agricultural non-point source pollution are dumped into rivers, fishes or birds no longer home there. Globally, over 80% of wastewater is discharged to rivers and oceans without treatment, making them into garbage dumps of industrial civilization. As the industrialization process continues, forests, oases, river bends, and wetlands are being damaged and eroded.
I often ask myself that how did all these tragedies happen? It is the fear of floods which claims lives and property; it is the rapacity for energies generated by rivers and for convenient traffic to facilitate urban economic development; it is human selfishness that leads to the “Tragedy of the Commons”, whether for dike and dam construction or sewage discharge; it is the ignorance of the ecosystem services provided by rivers that ensure human well-beings; or, it is the lack of love and respect for nature that results in human’s avarice for materials in the industrial civilization and the low willingness to connect with nature.
Nevertheless, it is fortunate that ecological civilization brings hope to rescuing large rivers. The first step is to encourage people to appreciate the beauty of nature, spiritually liberating them from material desires and dispelling the long-lasting fear of floods which especially relies on the aesthetic enlightenment for children and the youth. Secondly, a thorough understanding on river ecosystems and the ecosystem services, accompanied by systematic planning and implementation of territorial ecological restoration, can propel the construction of ecological cities, sponge cities, and sustainable agriculture. This requires mindset changes towards holistic water system management of large rivers and basins. Thirdly, laws and regulations on large river management should be put in place to guarantee the equitable distribution of natural resources and water system supervision rights, and to control sewage discharge and dam construction that undermine local and community benefits. Finally, efforts should be made to break the worship of grey engineering approaches to flood control. It is expected that nature-based, resilient, and sustainable ecological approaches to flood control can be more effective to ensure water safety.
In this way, we could restore the free, fertile, vigorous, and poetic landscapes along rivers as depicted by artists, litterateurs, and adventurers. Living in the age of ecological civilization, we shoulder the responsibility to reexamine all that we have achieved in industrial civilization and dare to explore a new nature-based path.
Rivers and civilizations are closely bound up—big rivers not only nourish human civilizations, but also symbolize and reflect the prosperity or decline of civilizations. In other words, the development and promotion of ecological civilization will first manifest in the rescuing and revitalization of large rivers.
 UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme. (2017). The United Nations World Water Development Report 2017, Wastewater: The Untapped Resource. Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/water/wwap/wwdr/2017-wastewater-the-untapped-resource/
 Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162(3859), 1243-1248. doi:10.1126/science.162.3859.1243
 Yu, K. (2020). What Kind of Play Space Do Children Need in the City?. Landscape Architecture Frontiers, 8(2), 4-9. https://doi.org/10.15302/J-LAF-1-010007
 Yu, K. (2019). Large-scale Ecological Restoration: Empowering the Nature-based Solutions Inspired by Ancient Wisdom of Farming. Acta Ecologica Sinica, 39(23), 8733-8745. doi:10.5846/stxb201905311146