Another Paradise Lost to China's Ambition

The tale of the Silk Road is one of intrigue, war and cities lost. But within this complex and quixotic tableau, it is the story of China's Tarim Basin that best echoes the age-old warning: History is doomed to repeat itself.

The ill-fated river network comprises the Kashgar, Yarkant, Hotan and Aksu rivers, which stream from the glacial and snow melt of surrounding mountaintops to converge at Aral, where they merge into the Tarim River. The waterway then flows through the Taklamakan Desert, a sea of sand in the shadow of the Tianshan Mountains and one of the driest regions in the world. The name Taklamakan means "once you enter, you don't come out" — an accurate description, not just of the experiences of hapless ancient travelers but also of the river system whose waters never escape the desert.


The remains of the lost city of Niya lie deep in the Taklamakan Desert. (International Dunhuang Project/Wikimedia Commons)

Few of the rivers that feed the Tarim flow year-round, particularly in recent decades as agriculture has strained the limited basin's supplies. But the burden farming has placed on the region's resources is hardly new. The westernmost reach of the Chinese world has long been essential to the country's aspirations of building a buffer against foreign invasion, and at the height of the Silk Road era, it provided the empire with access to lucrative trade networks that stretched across the Eurasian landmass. Sustaining the sizable populations needed to secure and defend the region naturally required funds and food, resulting in the adaptation of intensive agricultural practices and irrigation. From antiquity to modernity, this practice has caused rivers to run dry and lakes to vanish.

Even so, some areas of China have begun to make an effort to restore the vital waters. Nationwide environmental reforms, backed by growing popular support, have only bolstered this local initiative. But sprawling cotton farms, an emerging energy sector and the surrounding Xinjiang province's role as a link in Beijing's crucial Belt and Road Initiative could jeopardize the basin's nascent recovery.

By the Waters of the Taklamakan

Throughout history, the parched lands of the Taklamakan Desert have experienced some brief flashes of relief. Cities and kingdoms thrived near oases, creating stops along the Silk Road's northern branch. And where the Tarim River spilled its waters near the Kuruk-tagh ("dry mountain"), there was once a lake known by some as Lop Nur, and by others as the Puchang Sea. The body of water is estimated to have been somewhere between Lake Ontario and Lake Michigan in size, and it fed the Loulan Kingdom from 200 B.C. to 220 A.D. during the Han dynasty.

By 645, however, the settlement had been abandoned. According to recent sediment studies, its rapid collapse stemmed from the overuse of the region's water resources, which reached a level comparable to the desiccation of the Aral Sea taking place in this century. Lop Nur — and the Tarim Basin that fed it — simply wasn't up to the task of sustaining the needs of an empire. The westward expansion that the Han dynasty oversaw brought an unprecedented number of people to the region to live in fortified cities and trading posts. Large-scale irrigation emerged in the first century A.D., a novelty in a corner of the world where cultivation was confined to lands surrounding natural oases.


A satellite image shows the dried up lake of Lop Nur.

Growing Cotton in the Desert

Over a millennium later, the waters of the Tarim Basin are once again straining to meet the needs of the local population and economy. Already showing increasing levels of salinity — a sign of overuse — the waters began to face worse conditions in the latter half of the 20th century. Between 1959 and 1983, the rate of desert absorption of the Tarim Basin increased from 66 to 81 percent. Lop Nur, which had persisted in a diminished form as a "wandering lake," disappeared completely in 1964.

Many factors led to the unsustainable consumption behind these waterways' decline, but agriculture was undoubtedly the most culpable. The Chinese government has built numerous reservoirs and dams to alter the flow of the region's intermittently supplied rivers, including the Tarim, and today farming accounts for nearly half of Xinjiang's gross domestic product. Lately the region has only gotten thirstier. Throughout most of the past century, 60 to 80 percent of the land has been dedicated to growing grain, but by the 1990s the production of cash crops — primarily cotton — had skyrocketed.


Chinese farmers pick cotton in the fields in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Xinjiang's cotton industry is now caught in the middle of the tug-of-war taking place between China's geopolitical imperatives and the environment's limits. The region contributes more than 50 percent of China's total cotton production and about 10 percent of the world's supply each year — output supported by the Taklamakan Desert's water resources. At the same time, Xinjiang's population is expanding once again, and by some estimates it will maintain its double-digit growth through 2020. As a result, the pressure mounting on the Tarim Basin is unlikely to ease in the years ahead, even as the Chinese government sinks billions of yuan into restoring parts of the river.

Ironically, climate change has granted the Tarim River a temporary reprieve: Warming temperatures have accelerated the runoff from nearby glaciers, adding to its supplies in the short run. Still, this much-needed boost is finite. Current temperature projections indicate that glacial waters, which account for roughly 40 percent of the volume of rivers nearby, could permanently dry up in the long run.

Brimming With Discontent

To make matters even more complicated, the issue of water scarcity is closely intertwined with the fraught minority politics of Xinjiang — a region that China's Han majority shares with the Turkic Uighur minority. The Han control much of the area's cotton production through the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which functions as a blend of paramilitary and business units. Such bingtuan systems have deep roots: In the final centuries B.C., Han troops were responsible for implementing the region's first massive irrigation and land reclamation projects. This "Tuntian" model of military colonization was highly successful, leveraging the power of the state to see through the massive and complicated undertakings needed to ensure that agriculture flourished in Xinjiang.

The Tuntian model still exists today, though it has given rise to a glaring imbalance between large quasi-military operations and small civilian farmers. While local family plots in the region rely on public infrastructure for access to water, subjecting them to usage regulations, bigger farms can afford to install their own pumps, which aren't necessarily beholden to the same laws. Meanwhile, the runoff from agricultural pursuits pollutes what water resources are left. Each of these issues disproportionately affects native Uighurs, an ethnic group that has traditionally relied on oasis-based smallholdings and animal husbandry to survive. Alterations in the water system are deeply disruptive to this way of life, and as water scarcity worsens in Xinjiang, so, too, may the discontent simmering among its Uighur community.

Such discord could certainly throw a wrench in Beijing's plans for Xinjiang. The region is a cornerstone of China's newest Silk Road, the sprawling Belt and Road Initiative. Through Xinjiang, Beijing hopes to connect its lands westward to Europe, by way of Central Asia, and southward to the Indian Ocean, by way of Pakistan. But doing so would require maximizing Xinjiang's output — including in cotton-based textiles — for export along these trade routes.

After nearly two decades of restoration efforts in the Tarim Basin, it is still unclear whether the the region's water resources will be able to shoulder their newest burden. After all, attempts to line canals and improve irrigation efficiency can only go so far when it comes to growing cotton in the desert. If Xinjiang maintains its current level of production, it will likely come at the expense of an ecosystem that boasts one of the highest concentrations of rare vegetative species in the world. And though it won't be the first time a nation's imperatives trump environmental conservation, it could be the last in the Tarim Basin if Beijing stretches the river's resources too far.

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