Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Water Crisis in Xinjiang

China 's efforts to “Develop the West” are likely to strain Xinjiang's water resources and necessitate conservation measures, Dr. Stanley Toops, Associate Professor of Geography and International Studies, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, said at the March 28 W.P. Carey Forum.

Toops, Associate Professor of Geography and International Studies at Miami University in Oxford , Ohio , spoke on “The Water Crisis in Xinjiang.” An expert on Xinjiang, Toops was a contributor to the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute's recent volume, “Xinjiang: China 's Muslim Borderland,” edited by S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the institute.

The region's heavily agricultural economy depends on water, but water resources have been strained by extensive in-migration, economic development and the legacy of communist irrigation techniques.

Stoops said that the level of water usage per-capita is growing, residential use is increasing, industrial use is increasing, and construction projects and oil use are requiring more and more water. The local population has always dealt with water scarcity, but “I think it's kind of stretching the capabilities” of the region, Toops said.
“The big push is to develop the West, not to make the West an ecological paradise,” he said.

Toops outlined Xinjiang's regional divisions. The province has three major geographical regions — south, center and north — each with its own distinctive ecological character.

The southern region, comprising about half of Xinjiang's total area, surrounds the Tarim River Basin . The northern boundary of this region is the Tian Shan, or “ Heavenly Mountains .” The region is extremely dry. Its economy includes little industry, focusing mostly on agriculture in oases such as Kashgar and Hotan. Rivers and runoff coming from the mountains enable these regions to support fruits and vegetables, as well as cotton at Kashgar. Cotton production is very water-intensive.

Xinjiang's center region lies in a fork of the Tian Shan range. As in the southern region, runoff from the mountains supports oases such as Turpan and Hami, with their grape and cotton crops. For thousands of years, irrigation has consisted of the karez system of underground canals linking the oases and the mountains. Today, agricultural producers must dig deep wells to reach the underlying aquifer.

The northern region comprises the Zungharian Basin and the Ili River valley, surrounded by the Altay Shan mountains and the Tian Shan . The Gurbantangut Desert is cold and dry year-round, but the Ili River valley is well-watered and drains into the Seven River region of Kazakhstan .

In the Tarim Basin , the rail link from Turpan west to Kashgar was completed in 1999. In his academic work, Toops has shown that population movements in Xinjiang have followed expanded transport routes. However, more than a decade before this rail link to the west was completed, the Tarim River , known in Uyghur history as the mother river, had ceased to flow from Kashgar east to Lop Nur .

This area has seen a large push for agricultural expansion. More and more people have moved to the area, but there are no new sources of water. Water has been taken from Bagrash Lake , but that will only last for so long, Toops said. “There are limits to the amount of people the area can support,” he said.

In modern times, the Tarim River has been over-utilized for irrigation. As a result, water has been wasted and more land has become salinized. During the 20 th century, according to studies, humans were more important than climate in the degradation of the Tarim Basin oases.

The cities of Urumqi and Turpan, in the central region, have different characteristics from the southern region.

In contrast with Kashgar, which is heavily agricultural, Urumqi has the largest urban concentration in Xinjiang and is the focus of the province's heavy and light industry, petrochemicals, iron, steel and textiles. As such, water usage is high. Toops compared Urumqi to Phoenix , saying both are sizable cities in arid environments. Urumqi gets its water from the Tian Shan , including a large glacier.

Turpan, meanwhile, has no rivers and so must rely on tube wells and karez. But as the karez have been replaced by motor-pumped tube wells, the water levels have fallen, and many of the karez have dried up.

Toops said a moderate-sized aquifer in Turpan and a large one in Tarim have supplied those wells and allowed the region to delay the day of water reckoning.

“If there were no aquifers, it would be quite problematic indeed,” he said. There is no way to tell, Toops said, whether those aquifers will last for 30, 50 or perhaps 100 more years.

Oil also makes the region an important focus of concern. Last year China opened a gas pipeline from the Tarim Basin to Shanghai and has plans to extend it to Kazakhstan .

In response to a question, Toops said he did not believe desalinization would be an effective solution because that process is expensive and Xinjiang is poor.

Toops acknowledged that solutions are difficult to come by. He said Xinjiang will probably have to focus on conservation, possibly imposing water usage controls.

One European proposal was to charge for water from the Tarim, but that is a difficult sell for the people of Xinjiang, who are loath to pay for water from the “mother river.”

In the meantime, Toops said, the migration into Xinjiang is not likely to slow down. The result, he wrote in a paper distributed at the forum, is that Xinjiang will be “the locus of a collision between local forces and national policies.”
source here


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