The Songhuajiang, Harbin
Much of the blame for the flooding, both here and further south on the Yangtze, was laid squarely on poor environmental management that over decades has removed much of the forest cover in the floodplain and on the slopes of the Dahingganshan mountains further west: where the trees have gone, the water runs off the land and into the streams and rivers far more quickly, and so the Songhua rises that much faster.
Yet just five years later, the level in the Songhuajiang hit record lows, in early July 2003, reducing the 1km wide river to just 300 metres, and river traffic was suspended.
Over the years, 13,000 kilometres of levees and dikes have been built to protect farmland and the cities of Harbin, Qiqihaer, Daqing and Jiamusi.
Now, in 2005, the effects of the management project can be seen everywhere. Great forests have been planted and are being planted. Actually this is best seen not on the Songhua but on the outskirts of Wuhan on the Yangtze from the train: the northern side of the river has a fringe of forest several kilometres deep. In Harbin, reforestation is also extensive, especially to the west and north of the city.
While protection of the riverbanks continues, regrettably the water quality remains very poor, with extremely high levels of pollutants in the water. It really is not recommended to join the brave Harbin winter swimmers while they take a dip in the river!
The feats and bravery of the people who saved Harbin, not just in 1998 but also in the earlier floods of 1932 and 1957, are commemorated at the Flood Control Monument on the riverbank at the entrance to Stalin Park in Harbin.
Although less well-known than the Yangtze, Yellow or Pearl Rivers, the Songhuajiang is one of China's great navigable rivers and the fourth longest, at 2308km. It rises in the Dahingganshan mountains and drains into the Heilongjiang river at Tongjiao on the Russian border, having removed water from half-a-million square kilometres of north-eastern China. The Songhua is also prone to devastating floods. In 1932, 560 square kilometres of land was flooded and Harbin was badly damaged by the waters. In 1998, when the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers both flooded, so did the Songhuajiang - on August 20th - with great loss of life. The city of Harbin was saved only by an exercise in human mobilisation almost unparalleled in modern history. Four hundred thousand soldiers, workers, students and ordinary people stood shoulder to shoulder along the dike and scooped the water back into the fast-flowing river. Working through several days and nights, the people of Harbin literally saved themselves from disaster, but others, including villages on the north bank of the river just outside Harbin were not so lucky.
Sadly, the rising waters flooded many other areas, affecting 16 million people over 85,000 square kilometres and leaving 1.8 million people in poverty through Heilongjiang. In 1999, a US$54 million project, The Songhua River Flood Wetland and Biodiversity Management Project was initiated to prevent a recurrence. It also helps to ensure sufficient water flowing into the Sanjiang wetlands in the very far north-eastern corner of Heilongjiang, on the border betwen Russia and China.