I’ve lived beside four rivers in my life. As a youngster, Wellington’s mighty Hutt River was my favourite spot for sitting in inner tubes and doing ‘bombs’ into. Then there was Dublin’s River Liffey, the resting place of more pint glasses than any other river in the world. Preparing for our paddle down the Blue Nile, I lived in Khartoum, Sudan where the Blue Nile and White Nile meet. It was there I caught the bug for the world’s longest river.
Since moving to Shanghai on banks of the Yangtze River Delta, my fascination with rivers hasn’t tempered and I’ve become curious about how two of the world’s greatest rivers compare.
The much loved River Nile
Almost every kid has read a book or done a school project on the River Nile. The pyramids and temples that line her banks are what many children’s fantasies are made of and have long been associated with legendary explorers, exotic travel and world wonders.
Every month there are more than 4,000,000 Google searches in English for ‘Nile’. The ‘Yangtze’ cruises in at just 165,000 – 4% of the African river. But don’t be fooled. Just because the Nile creams the Yangtze in popularity contests, it’s only 6% shorter and is by no means any less of a river. As China becomes increasingly relevant to the world, it’s a sure thing that we’ll start paying a little more interest to Asia’s longest river, the Yangtze.
Yangtze River – the China divider
From the highlands of Tibet, the Yangtze River flows 6,300km / 3,915 miles east to the China Sea cutting a prominent divide between North and South China. Since ancient times, the difficulty of crossing the river has made the regions to the north and south of the river culturally distinct.
The native language north of the Yangtze is Mandarin. South are the dissimilar Sinitic languages. Traditionally those to the north are taller, fairer, smaller-eyed noodle and dumpling eaters, those in the south eat rice. If you get a northerner talking about a southerner he’ll blurt all sorts of profanities. Have the same conversation in the south, and you may learn a few Chinese swear words.
North and south aside, the Yangtze is hugely significant to China, draining one-fifth of China’s land area and home to one-third of its population. But just how do the facts stack up against the great River Nile?
|Average Discharge||2,830 m3/s
(99,941 cu ft/s)
(1,065,302 cu ft/s)
(1,256,705 sq mi)
(698,266 sq mi)
|River Flow||South – North||West – East|
|Highest Point||2,744 metres (9,003 ft) Gish Abbai, Ethiopian Highlands||5,042 m (16,542 ft) Tanggula Mountains, Qinghai, Tibet|
|Countries||11: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo||1: China|
|Population||360 million (2005)||430 million (2003)|
|GDP||$356 billion||$2 trillion|
|Riverside cities with populations larger than New Zealand (>4.5 million people)||2: Cairo, Khartoum||18: Anqing, Chaohu, Chongqing, Chuzhou, Hefei, Huanggang, Jingzhou, Jiujiang, Luzhou, Nanjing, Nantong, Shanghai, Taizhou, Wuhan, Yangzhou, Yibin, Yichang, Yueyang|
|Unesco World Heritage Sites in River Basin
||7: Egypt- Abu Mena, Ancient Thebes, Historic Cairo, Memphis and Necropolis (Pyramids from Gizato Dahshur), Nubian Monuments Abu Simbel to Philae. Sudan- Meroe, Jebel Barkal/Napatan Region sites.||11: Suzhou Gardens, Dazu Rock Carvings, Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic area, Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan, Lijiang Old Town, Danxia, Jiuzhaigou Valley Scenic and Historic Area, Huanglong Scenic and Historic Area, Panda Sanctuaries, Mount Qingcheng and the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, Mount Emei Scenic Area Leshan Giant Buddha|
|First Signs of Human Activity||700,000 years ago – Neloithic and Paleolithic man||27,000 years ago|
|River Floods||Essential to life in Egypt and Sudan||Have taken more than 1 million lives in the last 100 years alone|
|Animals living near the river that can eat you, rip you apart or do serious damage||Crocodiles, hippos, baboons, elephants, scorpions, hyenas, lions, leopards, snakes, mosquito||Chinese Alligator (critically endangered)|
|Google English Searches||4,000,000 / month||165,000 / month|
|Key Threat According to WWF||Pollution (sedimentation + industrial, agricultural and domestic waste)||Climate Change|
With so much of the world concerned with cold hard cash, the economics of the two rivers deserves a mention. Unfortunately for the Nile-dwellers, seven of the 11 Nile Basin countries are among the world’s poorest, with a GDP of less than $300 per capita. The total GDP for all of the Nile Basin countries, including large areas independent of the Nile River is $356 billion.
The Yangtze River flows gold by comparison. More than 40% of China’s GDP, or $2 trillion, comes from the Yangtze River basin. Half of that can be tributed to the Yangtze Delta, with the rest coming from smog-choked factory towns upstream such as Chongqing (population: 31.44 million), the world’s largest city that most people haven’t heard of outside of China.
Damming the World’s Great Rivers
1976 saw the completion of Egypt’s Aswan Dam project and subsequent super-reservoir, Lake Nasser. The world’s largest manmade lake at the time swallowed up much of Nubia, forcing 120,000 Sudanese and Egyptians to be resettled while drowning countless ancient artefacts. Since I paddled down the Nile in 2004/2005, the River has been changed forever with completion of the Merowe Dam in Northern Sudan, and three more built or under construction upstream in Ethiopia. As significant as the Nile damming is, it is pale in comparison to the Chinese damming of the Yangtze.
This year marks the completion of the US$23 billion Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangzte River; China’s biggest engineering project since the Great Wall and the world’s biggest Hydroelectric dam. 1.24 million Chinese were resettled and 1,300 archaeological sites were flooded to make way for the world’s largest hydro electric power station. The structural integrity has been questioned following the discovery of 80 hairline cracks just after the reservoir was filled. And although silt will further test its sturdiness, the Chinese Government assure us that the dam is structurally sound – I’m sure the hundreds of millions downstream are sleeping easy.
In addition to the Three Gorges Dam, 20 other dams spanning the Yangtze and its tributaries are either built or under construction.
Places of Interest
Although the Yellow River is often considered the cradle of Chinese civilisation, signs of ancient human life and significant historic sites would indicate the Yangtze has played a big part in building the world’s longest lasting civilisation. The Yangtze Basin, like the Nile, is full of historic and scenic must-sees. Although the Yangtze River leads the Nile 11:7 on UNESCO World Heritage stakes, there is no substituting the ancient wonders that flank the River Nile. They are all within spitting distance of the river, are easily accessible and are of a scale and age that will leave you with bruises from excessive self-pinching. Most of the Yangtze basin’s UNESCO listings relate to locations on tributary rivers or surrounding mountains, and visiting those sites requires detours from the main Yangtze flow. But it should demonstrate the cultural significance of China’s amazing Yangtze River.
The Money or the Memories? The Yangtze and Nile River Facts Compared
The Nile may be longer, have a larger basin and more wild animals, but the Yangtze starts higher, has a larger discharge, feeds more people and has a much larger economic influence on the world. The analyst would probably favour the Yangtze, the romantic, the Nile. The marketer would declare the Yangtze has a branding issue.
But it’s not just being the world’s longest that makes the River Nile magical. Since time immemorial the Nile has brought life to the world’s largest desert, which would be nothing but sand were it not for the river. One thing I can say for sure, is that I want to see a lot more of the Yangtze. Now you have the river facts, I’m sure you’ve got your own opinion. Regardless of who’s best, it’s fair to conclude that the Yangtze deserves a lot more kudos and interest than it currently gets.
For some really interesting photos and info about rivers, I’d strongly recommend taking a look at the Nile River paddle.