October 30, 2006

China: Irrigation Speeds March of the Taklamakan Desert

By Antoaneta Bezlova - Asia Water Wire*

HOTAN, Oct. 30, 2006 (IPS/GIN) -- It takes two people to keep watch on the desert road which emerges from the sands and disappears back into the sands. The roadside cabin where they live -- the sole dwelling visible -- is a well station, identified only as 'No. 27.'

"Life in the desert is too lonely for a single man," explains Gong Kailong, who despite his weather-beaten looks is not a desert native but hails from Gansu in inland China. He is posted here together with his wife. Besides a brood of chickens, sheltered from the heat in the highway toilet, there are no other living creatures in sight.

Their job is simple enough -- to look after the well, which feeds hundreds of snake-like pipes irrigating the vegetation belt that helps keep the sands from burying the road. But what make this posting a challenge are the surroundings. They are in the middle of one of the most inhospitable deserts on earth -- the Taklamakan Desert in China's far west Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, whose name means "you can go in but never come out."

The cross-desert highway itself is nothing short of a technological miracle -- by far China's most audacious attempt to conquer Taklamakan, the world's second largest desert, after Africa's Sahara.

It was built in the mid-1990s to help in the extraction of oil underneath the sands and stretches more than 500 kilometers from north to south across the desert. The famed Silk Road trade, which dates back some 2,000 years, went around Taklamakan, following routes with oases stops on the northern and southern fringes of the desert.

Yet, to build a modern highway in a sea of sands was not enough. The road needed protection against the shifting desert that threatened to engulf it bit by bit.

A green belt of anti-desertification plant species such as Chinese tamarisk, honey tree and sacsaoul was planted in 2003 all along the road to hold off the sands.

The water to irrigate the plants was drawn from underground and pumped through a web of pipes that run for kilometers along the green belt. Some 114 well stations were built to extract the water. And daring couples had to be found to do the caretaker work.

The pay is 600 yuan (76 U.S. dollars) per month, says Long Fen, 48, who inhabits well station No. 96 farther south on the desert highway. It is still more than what she would normally earn in her native province of Sichuan in central China.

Yet the feeling of being totally cut off is sometimes too much even for two people to bear. Long Fen and her husband do not own a vehicle and have to wait for a truck to deliver fresh produce and daily necessities. During summer the ground temperature soars to 75 degrees Celsius (167 degrees Fahrenheit) and one can allegedly cook an egg in the scorching sand.

The only company the couple occasionally have are the employees of PetroChina, the state oil giant that operates the oil fields in the middle of the desert. They stop by the station to stretch out and have a chat. But while the oil drilling teams do only 15-day shifts in the desert and go back to recuperate at Korla, the nearest city, Long Fen and her husband are here for longer spells.

"A year, or two, who knows?" says Long. "We will stay as long as we can."

Their daily fight against the desert mirrors that of thousands of people in Xinjiang region, which is home to China's Uygur Muslim population. The arid areas of Xinjiang account for about 60 percent of the desert that chokes China's land. More than a quarter of Xinjiang is covered in desert.

An ever-rising tide of sand is threatening to accelerate the spread of barren wasteland to the heart of China. Some 3,900 square kilometers of land turn to sand each year. Nearly all of northern China, including the capital Beijing, is at risk.

Local government leaders say the harvesting of desert plants is the main reason for the unstoppable march of the sands.

"In the past, peasants used to uproot the desert vegetation and burn it as firewood during the winter months," says Zhang Tao, deputy director of the afforestation department of Bazhou prefecture, which includes the desert highway.

Plants like rose willow that can resist drought and contain the march of the shifting sands were all harvested. Another anti- desertification vegetation, Populus euphratica (Indian poplar), which grew in thick clusters along the Tarim River, was also cut down by farmers and burned for heating and cooking.

The cutting and harvesting has been particularly severe in southwestern areas like Hotan and Kashgar where there is no coal. China relies on coal for more than 70 percent of its energy needs.

Ironically, Xinjiang has one of the richest oil and gas reserves in China. The Karamay and Tarim basins have been supplying inland China with oil and gas since the 1980s. A huge pipeline, China's biggest, was completed in early 2004 to transport natural gas from the Tarim basin in Taklamakan Desert through six inland provinces to Shanghai, Beijing and other cities on the east coast.

Only now is some of the generated gas being channeled to the local population for use. "We hope this would put a stop (to) the harvesting and cutting," says Zhang Tao.

The Indian poplar, now near extinction, has been designated a national protection species and the government has spearheaded a campaign for the restoration of poplar forests along the Tarim. Over the last decade the river, which is known as the mother river of Xinjiang, has had lengthy periods of running dry -- a trend the government hopes to reverse.

Many of the initiated measures might be coming too late to save Xinjiang ecology. A lot has been destroyed already because of the government-led campaign in the 1950s and 1960s to cultivate and irrigate huge swathes of land in Xinjiang.

In a traditionally arid area where the annual rainfall is just 58 centimeters, huge collective farms were established and tunnels dug to bring underground water. With the available water resources monopolized for farming, nearly all other land became desert.

"We face an adverse battle in fighting the deserts," admitted Wang Lequan, party chief of the autonomous region in an interview in the region's capital Urumqi in October.

Despite the water challenge, regional leaders have ambitious plans for the future development of Xinjiang as China's biggest petrochemical center. Because of its location, which positions it as the natural route of any pipeline from the Central Asian states, Xinjiang would transport and process a sizable chunk of any imported crude.

Plans for at least three oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia and Russia crossing Xinjiang have been announced as China intensifies its quest to secure and diversify energy supplies for its fast growing economy.

But Kazakh ecologists are warning that China's unbridled consumption of water could have serious consequences for both Kazakhstan and Russia. If water is drawn off from the shared rivers Ili and Irtysh at the present rate to feed Xinjiang's burgeoning economy, parts of Kazakhstan could face an environmental disaster, and Lake Balkhash could turn into a second Aral Sea, which has shrunk to one-fourth its original size. (*Asia Water Wire, coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific, is a series of features on water and development in the Asia-Pacific.)

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