LANZHOU, Nov. 30 (Xinhua) -- More than 737,000 nomads have been resettled out of the headwaters region of the Yellow River over the past five years as part of efforts to protect China's "mother river" from over-grazing, according to newly revealed figures.
The nomads, all ethnic Tibetans, now live in new settlement communities set up away from the threatened prairie and wetlands in the southern tip of Gansu Province in northwest China. Their herds were moved with them.
"We want to give the grassland a break," Wang Hongwei, a senior development planning official of Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Gannan, told Xinhua on Friday.
He said about 1 million heads of cattle were moved away from the more than 774,600 hectares of grassland covered by the settlement scheme.
The counties of Maqu and Luqu in Gannan are primarily composed of grassland and wetlands caused by flows of melt-water from the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. This relative trickle develops into the headwaters of the Yellow River that runs 5,464 km across China form west to east before entering the Pacific.
But over the years, the wetlands have shrunk, sands encroaching on the prairie, raising fears that the "mother river" that has sustained China throughout its thousands of years of civilization might dry up some day in the future.
Climate change, over-grazing and burrowing by booming numbers of rats are to blame, according to Chinese experts.
Land erosion has affected over 90 percent of Maqu's 12.88 million mu (858,667 hectares) of grassland, according to a survey by the county's animal husbandry and veterinary bureau last year.
The nomad settlement is part of a package of measures to protect the ecology of the headwaters region of the Yellow River. The package, with an estimated investment of 4.45 billion yuan (700 million U.S. dollars), was launched in 2007.
"Harmony between man and nature" is a major theme in ancient Chinese philosophy, but it has been challenged by the country's robust economic expansion since the late 1970s. Factories have spawned across the land, the air has been polluted, rivers and underground water have been drained for industry.
The authorities in recent years have been working to reverse the trend. In its recently closed national congress, the ruling Communist Party of China advocated "ecological progress" as one of the country's top development priorities.
China is faced with "increasing resource constraints, severe environmental pollution and a deteriorating ecosystem," Hu Jintao said in his report to the congress.
Across the country, the government has taken restricting herding as a key measure to preserve grassland. Herding was banned in areas affected by deteriorating ecology in a nation-wide policy issued last year. Herders received compensation from the state.
For nomads in Gansu, settlement also means a great leap toward modern-day living.
"Settled nomads have much easier access to public services like education, medical care, cultural facilities and daily utilities," according to Wang.
In Luqu, each of the more than 2,300 settled nomad households has access to water and electricity. And nearby there are roads, a school, a clinic and a community recreation center.
Settler Gongpo, 72, is particularly impressed by the neighborhood clinic.
"Now, I can just walk five minutes from home to ask for medicine," he said, after living as a nomad for more than six decades before. "We used to spend half a day on horseback to do that."
Wang said the government is now working to settle the rest of the prefecture's 19,000 nomads in the coming few years.