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According to Yellow River Conservancy Commission, the Yellow River can be divided into three parts: Upper Reaches, Middle Reaches and Lower Reaches by Hekou Town, Inner Mongolia and Taohuayu Valley, Zhengzhou.

 Upper Reaches

The Upper Reaches of the Yellow River extend from the headstream to Hekou Town, a distance of 3,472 km. (2,157 miles). It covers a drainage area of 386 thousand sq km. (149 thousand sq miles), 51.3% of the whole area and winds in an 'S' shape around several mountain which block its path. This section joins together 43 large branch rivers and, and with little mud or sand, it is the main source of fresh water for the Yellow River. It is also rich in water resources, with a total of 28 gorges and many hydropower stations. These gorges are mainly concentrated in the section between Longyangxia Gorge  and Qingtongxia Gorge. Downstream of Qingtongxia the water becomes calmer and benefits many well-known irrigation plains: Yinchuan Plain and Hetao Plain, within Ningxia and Inner Mongolia.

 Middle Reaches

The section between Hekou and Taohuayu constitutes the Middle Reaches. It extends 1, 204 km. (748 miles) and runs through an area of 344 thousand sq km. (133 thousand sq miles), 45.7% of the whole area. This section has 30 large branches and two gorges and is the second base of the hydro-electric power of Yellow River. Most of the branch rivers here pass through the mountain and ravine area of Loess Plateau, the main source of mud and sand in Yellow River.

 Lower Reaches

The section downstream of Taohuayu is the Lower Reaches of Yellow River. It is only 786 km. (488 miles) long and 23 thousand sq km. (9 thousand) large, 3% of the whole. Due to the huge amount of mud and sand accumulated on the riverbed, the Yellow River is known as 'River above the Ground'. With few hills, this part of river mainly relies on artificial dikes to prevent floods. Apart from the summer flood season, the dikes may easily burst during the spring melting ice flood season, leading to the construction of new dikes and further changes to the route of the river. The historical records note that, up till 1946, the Yellow River has suffered floods almost 1,600 times and altered routes 26 times.