Scholarly article on topic 'Environmental Restoration in the Shiyang River Basin, China: Conservation, Reallocation and More Efficient Use of Water'

Environmental Restoration in the Shiyang River Basin, China: Conservation, Reallocation and More Efficient Use of Water Academic research paper on "Earth and related environmental sciences"

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Aquatic Procedia
{"ecosystem restoration" / "water reallocation" / "water conservation" / "inland river basin" / "arid area"}

Abstract of research paper on Earth and related environmental sciences, author of scientific article — Q. Zhu, Y. Li

Abstract Overexploitation of water resources in the Shiyang River Basin, an inland river in Gansu, China has promoted a prosperous agricultural economy but at the same time caused downstream flows to sharply reduce and the groundwater table to fall rapidly. This has degraded local ecosystems and caused the terminal lake to completely dry up. A project for addressing these problems was initiated aimed at rescuing a downstream oasis that was at risk of being buried by the moving dunes. During the project implementation, the irrigation area has been decreased, a water conservation program introduced and water use reallocated between upstream and downstream users and between economic and ecosystem services. Positive results have started to appear. The main factors in this preliminary success are positive political will and central government support; the acceptance and wide participation by water users and the establishment of a powerful integrated water resources management organisation.

Academic research paper on topic "Environmental Restoration in the Shiyang River Basin, China: Conservation, Reallocation and More Efficient Use of Water"


World Water Week, 1-6 September 2013, Stockholm, Sweden

Environmental Restoration in the Shiyang River Basin, China: Conservation, Reallocation and more Efficient Use of Water

Q. Zhua and Y. Lib

a Room 77-403, Yijiequ, Taihuguoji Shequ, Binhu District, Wuxi 214123, China.* b Gansu Research Institute for Water Conservancy, 13, Guangchang Nanlu, Lanzhou, 730000, China.

Available online at



Aquatic Procedia 2 (2014) 24-34


Overexploitation of water resources in the Shiyang River Basin, an inland river in Gansu, China has promoted a prosperous agricultural economy but at the same time caused downstream flows to sharply reduce and the groundwater table to fall rapidly. This has degraded local ecosystems and caused the terminal lake to completely dry up. A project for addressing these problems was initiated aimed at rescuing a downstream oasis that was at risk of being buried by the moving dunes. During the project implementation, the irrigation area has been decreased, a water conservation program introduced and water use reallocated between upstream and downstream users and between economic and ecosystem services. Positive results have started to appear. The main factors in this preliminary success are positive political will and central government support; the acceptance and wide participation by water users and the establishment of a powerful integrated water resources management organisation.

© 2014 Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.Org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/).

Peer-review under responsibility of the scientific committee of Stockholm International Water Institute Keywords: ecosystem restoration; water reallocation; water conservation; inland river basin; arid area

1. Background

The Shiyang River Basin is one of the three inland river basins in the northwest of Gansu Province, China. It is located in the western part of Gansu along the Hexi Corridor and the ancient Silk Road. The Shiyang River can be divided into three parts in terms of geomorphology, namely, the rocky Qilian Range in its upper reaches where the eight tributaries of the Shiyang River originate, the Quaternary alluvial fan in the middle reaches and the alluvial plain in the lower reaches (Kang and Zhang, 2011; Ma et al., 2005a). The middle and lower reaches of the Shiyang River are important agricultural regions despite being arid with low annual precipitation and high potential evapotranspiration. The altitude, annual precipitation and evaporation of these three geomorphologic units are shown in Table 1, and a map of the Shiyang River Basin is shown in Figure 1.

* Corresponding author. Email address:

2214-241X © 2014 Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.Org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/).

Peer-review under responsibility of the scientific committee of Stockholm International Water Institute doi: 10.1016/j.aqpro.2014.07.005

Lake QingtuJ


Bare Rock Bare Soil Gobi

Sandy Desert

Cold Desert




Overflow Land Residential Area Salinized Land Water Area Woodland

Figure 1. MapofShiyangRiverBasin. Source: KangandZhang(2011)

Table 1. Elevation, annual precipitation and potential evaporation of the Shiyang River

Geomorphologie unit Elevation above sea level (m) Annual precipitation (mm) Annual potential évapotranspiration (mm)

Qilianshan Range 2000-5000 300-600 700-1200

Alluvial fan 1400-2000 150-300 1200-2000

Lower alluvial plain 1200-1400 < 150 2000-2600

The Shiyang River is fed by eight main tributaries with a total catchment area of 41,600 km2. The annual runoff of these tributaries amounts to 1.56 billion m3, which flows out from the mountains onto a vast alluvial fan composed of deep gravel and sand. The tributaries converge at the southern boundary of the downstream plain. Seepage from the canal and irrigation systems form the groundwater and spring water which, together with the flood water from the tributaries, are the main water sources feeding the downstream Minqin Basin. The total water resources of the basin amount to 1.66 billion m3, including the surface runoff and the groundwater minus overlap that is common to surface runoff and to aquifer (Zhu, 2010; Gansu Provincial Bureau of Water Resources [GPBWR] and Gansu Provincial development and Reform Commission [GPDRC], 2007).

Since the 1950s, there has been significant development ofthe water resources in the basin. By 2003, 20 reservoirs with a total capacity of 450 million m3 had been built and seven of the eight main tributaries had been dammed. The main and branch canals diverting water from the rivers to irrigated fields have a total length of 4000 km, most of which have been lined with concrete or masonry for seepage control. Additionally, 16,900 wells have been constructed, including 10,100 in the downstream Minqin Basin (Kang and Zhang, 2011; GPBWR and GPDRC, 2007).

Among the two municipalities and eight counties (districts) in the basin, Liangzhou District in the middle section and Minqin County in the lower reaches of the basin are the main agricultural water users. The population in the basin is 2.27 million in 2003, of which 68 per cent are rural. The cultivated land accounts for 371,000 ha, of which 300,000 ha is irrigated. Due to its well-developed irrigation system, the Shiyang River Basin has the most productive agriculture in the province and is one ofthe main areas of commercial grain production in Gansu (Kang and Zhang, 2011; GPBWR and GPDRC, 2007). The basin also hosts the second largest nickel refinery in the world. In 2003, the GDP per capita was 1.12 times that in the whole province ( of Gansu Province; GPBWR and GPDRC, 2007).

A unique feature of the water resources system in the basin is the complex interplay between surface and groundwater. The seepage water from irrigation systems in the upper basin recharges the groundwater in the lower parts. After use by the wells, the groundwater will flow out to reappear as springs and become a water source again for rivers downstream (Ma et al., 2005a). The total water diversion by reservoirs, canals and wells in the basin is characterised by a multiple replication of using the water resources. This amounted to 2.88 billion m3 in 2003, accounting for 173 per cent of the water resources, of which irrigation water use accounted for 86 per cent. The intense water resource development in the past now appears unsustainable as although it successfully supported the rapid economic and social development it also caused serious ecological and environmental problems. This is especially true in the downstream Minqin Basin which now faces the risk of being buried by sand dunes. This is threatening an oasis community spread over an area of 1,000 km2 that has existed for many centuries but might disappear in the near future (Kang and Zhang, 2011; GPBWR and GPDRC, 2007).

2. Problems with water resources management in the Shiyang River Basin

The significant progress in the recent social and economic development has been obtained at the cost of over use of water resources and serious degrading of ecosystems and the environment. These have been studied by many investigators (Kang and Zhang, 2011; Kang et al., 2004; Wang et al., 2002) and the GPBWR and GPDRC (2007). The main problems are listed as follows.

2.1. Unbalanced use of water resources between the middle and lower basin

In the past 50 years, the annual water consumption from the middle reaches of the Shiyang River increased from 567 million m3 in the 1950s' to 1 billion m3 in 2003, and the irrigation area increased by 70 per cent. The water flow ofthe eight main tributaries was stored in the reservoirs and/or diverted by sluices into the canal system for supplying water to Liangzhou District. Only flood water was allowed to flow to the Minqin Basin. Seepage control and groundwater exploitation in the middle parts of the basin reduced the groundwater flow to the lower basin downstream (Kang and Zhang, 2011; GPBWR and GPDRC, 2007; Ma et al., 2005a). As a result, the annual water flow downstream decreased sharply from 460 million m3 in the late 1950s' to 100 million m3 in 2003. Figure 2 shows changes in the inflow to the Hongyashan Reservoir, the only surface source in Minqin County since the 1950s (Kang and Zhang, 2011; GPBWR and GPDRC, 2007).

500 450 <| 400 tp 350

it= o c

1956-59 1960-69 1970-79 1980-89 1990-2000

Figure 2. Inflow to the Hongyashan Reservoir

2.2. Overexploitation of groundwater causing the water table to fall

Since the 1970s, along with the increase of water demand and the degrading of spring flow, wells have been built rapidly to mitigate the water shortages. In Minqin County, in particular, an enormous decrease of surface water inflows forced farmers to switch to using groundwater for irrigation, causing serious overexploitation of groundwater and a continuous decline in the water table. Furthermore, in the 1990s, driven by the economic improvements, farmers in Minqin County built numerous wells for growing seed melons, a high value crop. It is estimated that over use of the groundwater amounted to 0.43 billion m3, 26 per cent of the water resources. The water table has descended by 6-7 m in the Liangzhou Basin and 15-16 m in the lower Minqin Basin, respectively. The annual drop in the water table has been in the range of 0.3-0.6 m. The maximum drop was 25 m in the south and 20 m in the north of Minqin Basin (Kang and Zhang, 2011; GPBWR and GPDRC, 2007; Ma et al., 2005b).

2.3. Unreasonable allocation and low efficiency of water use

While irrigation water has comprised 86 per cent of the total water use in the basin, the water used by ecosystems and industry only amounted to 4.5 and 5.4 per cent, respectively. The GDP per unit of water used has been about US$0.79/m3, only 1/5 of that averaged in the state. The grain production per unit of water used has been about 0.41 kg/ m3, compared to 0.6-1.0 kg/m3 in the state (GPBWR and GPDRC, 2007).

2.4. Serious deterioration of the natural environment in the Minqin Basin

This has been highlighted by the following:

• The Minqin Basin is surrounded by the deserts to the northwest and northeast and has always been at risk of desertification and sand dune encroachment. In the past 200 years since the Qing Dynasty about 17,300 ha of cultivated land and 6,000 villages have been buried by dunes. Since the 1950s, about 870 ha of land has become desert and another 5,300 ha has been affected by the desertification. The sand dunes are encroaching at a rate of 3-4 m each year and in some locations the two deserts from west and east have alreadyjoined (Kang and Zhang, 2011; GPBWR and GPDRC, 2007).

• The rapidly descending water table has caused the death of 6,400 ha of trees and decline of 5,800 ha of forest which previously survived by tapping groundwater through its root system. Furthermore, 36,000 ha of shrubs located at the periphery ofthe Minqin Oasis have died and 40,000 ha of shrub land has suffered from desertification (Xu, 2002).

• Reduction of fresh water flowing into Minqin Basin and invasion of salty water from the north due to lowering of the water table has degraded groundwater quality. Using increasingly saline water for irrigation has further accelerated this process. In the northern part of Minqin County, the mineral content of the groundwater reached 4-10 g/L or even higher (Kang and Zhang, 2011; Wang et al., 2002), causing difficulty for drinking water supplies for about 50,000 rural inhabitants (Xu, 2002) and resulting in many farmers having to leave their land as ecological refugees.

• The terminal Qintu and Baitinghai Lakes shrank, which formerly acted as barriers helping to resist the encroachment of sand dunes. The lakes had provided a northern greenbelt in the Minqin Basin and prevented the two deserts from joining together but in 1959 they completely dried up. After that, desertification in the Minqin Basin accelerated. Loss of the terminal lakes meant loss of the stability created by the Minqin Oasis and this eventually affected the stability of the whole Shiyang River system and Hexi Corridor. This threatened to badly impact not only the environment along the ancient Silk Road but potentially that of the whole northwest China (Kang and Zhang, 2011; Ma et al., 2005b). To stop this, better water management ofthe Shiyang River Basin became an urgent priority.

Box 1. Evolution ofthe terminal lake ofthe Shiyang River

The evolution of Minqin Oasis can be divided into three stages (Feng, 1963): natural drainage, semi-natural drainage and artificial drainage. The natural drainage stage occurred in the prehistoric period prior to much human activity in the basin. At this stage the maximum area of the terminal lake then named Zhuyeze occurred and was estimated at between 0.9 x 104 and 5.8 x 104 ha (Ma et al., 2005b). The terminal lake then began a continuous decline throughout the historic period. Changing climate may have had some effect on this, but more importantly it was due to increasing human activity. With the development of irrigation and agriculture since the Han Dynasty (110 BC), natural drainage gradually changed to semi-natural drainage (the main Shiyang River became a seasonal river and the main part ofthe flow was diverted into artificial canals) and was finally replaced by a completely artificial drainage (canal) system in the mid-20th century. During the process, humans consumed more and more water and as a result less water flowed into the Minqin Basin causing the water table to fall. People also cut many trees and shrubs at this time, causing sand dune encroachment. As a result, the lake split into a group of smaller lakes and then into marshes and wetlands. By the late 19th century all that remained was the small Lake Qingtu which at one stage dried up completely, reforming only after a big flood. Rapid population growth in the 20th century caused a continuous decrease of the lake area: from 120 km2 in the early part of the century, to 40 km2 by the 1940s and completely drying up from 1959 onwards (GPBWR and GPDRC, 2007). Table 2 shows the population growth and agricultural development in different historic periods and the corresponding regime ofthe lake (Zhu, 2010). Figure 3 illustrates the lake map in different periods.

Table 2. Population growth and agricultural development around the terminal lake

Period Time Population Cultivated Regime of terminal lake and the drainage system

(103) land (ha)

Pre-history Before 475 BC 20 Natural drainage system

Warring states to Han Dynasty 475 BC-111 AD 136 80,000 Very big Zhuyeze Lake, natural drainage

Han to Shui Dynasty 111 AD- 580 AD 163 133,000 Split into two mid-size lakes, semi-natural drainage

Tang to Qing Dynasty 580 AD-1840 410 133,000193,000 Split into a number of small lakes, seasonal river

Qing Dynasty to People's Republic of China 18401949 924 133,000 Only Qintuhu Lake remained, seasonal river

People's Republic of China 1990s 2200 285,000 Lake thoroughly dried up, artificial drainage

2003 2269 371,000

Figure 3. Evolution of terminal lake ofShiyang River, (a) 475 BC-111 BC, (b) 111 BC-580 AD, (c) 580 AD-1840, (d) 1840-1950

and (e) after 1959. Source: Ma et al., (2005b)

The main problem in the Shiyang River Basin has been that the development of water resources has far exceeded its carrying capacity. Water diverted and consumed amounted to 173 and 125 per cent of the water resources, respectively. Overexploitation of groundwater accounted for 25 per cent of the total water resources. Since 1980, the population, irrigated area and grain production each increased by 33, 30 and 45 per cent, respectively. At the same time the GDP

increased by 500 per cent while 77 per cent of the population continue to be engaged in agriculture (GPBWR and GPDRC, 2007). Concurrently, the water required to support the ecosystem has been seriously reduced. All this has aggravated water conflicts amongst the various sectors. In the past 50 years, the water development in Shiyang River Basin was completely unregulated. The setting up of the unified water management institution was thus an essential first step to change the problematic situation in Shiyang River Basin.

3. Addressing the problems and preliminary results

The water management problems of the Shiyang River Basin have attracted the attention of many experts since the early 1990s. However, despite a number of reports and recommendations being sent to government agencies at both the provincial and state level, practical action only began at the beginning of the new century. In 2001, a directive from the past Premier Mr. Wen Jiabao in a report, "Never let the tragedy of Lop Nor happen again in Minqin" (see Box 2), gave the first push towards improved management of the Shiyang River Basin. This started with the establishment of the Water Resources Administration of the Shiyang River Basin the same year, which is the representative of the Gansu Bureau of Water Resources and is authorised to manage overall water resources in the basin. The second step was to engage relevant institutions to formulate an integrated water resources plan for the Shiyang River Basin with the support of the State. Core to the plan was to identify significant and urgent measures for rescuing the Minqin Oasis. The harnessing of the basin was to follow the basic line of saving the Minqin Oasis, restoring ecosystems and the

environment and conserving water resources in the basin. The plan was to reallocate the water resources between various water users and between the middle and lower parts of the basin. An integrated plan for realising the goal of ecosystem restoration and sustainable development for the region was formulated. A water rights system was to be determined and managed and a water conservation society set up in the basin.

The plan was approved by the Ministry of Water Resources in 2006 and was soon after being implemented. The State approved implementation of the Shiyang River Basin Harnessing Project and provided US$776 million in financial support. Relevant government agencies at various levels have been responsible for implementation of the plan. The key activities now being implemented in the basin are outlined below, as per GPBWR and GPDRC (2007).

According to the plan, water development was to be reduced from the 2007 maximum of 2.88 billion m3 (173 per cent of total water resources) to 2.13 billion m3 (128 per cent of total water resources) in 2010 and to 1.94 billion m3 (117 per cent of water resources) by 2020. In 2010, after three years of implementation of the plan, water use of the Wuwei Municipality that occupied 80 per cent of the total water use in the Basin had been reduced from 2.326 billion m3 in 2006 to 1.612 billion m3 (Wuwei Daily, 2011), and has been furtherreducedinthe years from 2011 to2013. The fact meant that the planned 2010 target has been surpassed. This was realised through the following measures:

A series of documents for specific water management in the basin were produced outlining the plan, including the 'Regulation of water resources management in Shiyang River Basin' and the 'Implementation plan of the water allocation and distribution in Shiyang River Basin'. These documents provide a legal basis for the integrated management of water resources in the basin and were strictly followed in the allocation of water among different sectors and counties administered by government agencies at various levels.

According to the plan, the irrigated area of the basin was to be reduced from 297,000ha in year 2003 to 207,000 ha in 2020. In 2010, the irrigated area in the Wuwei Municipality, the main irrigation water user in the basin, was reduced

by 42,800 ha (Yang and Wang, 2011).

A water conservation program for the whole basin has been implemented, including enhancing the efficiency of irrigation systems, reducing the water use quota for both irrigation and industry and promoting waste water recycling. There were 824 km of irrigation canal and field distribution system, on 117,300 ha of land, upgraded for seepage control and improved efficiency (Yang and Wang, 2011).

Redistribution of water use between upstream and downstream users to ensure inflows of no less than 250 and 295 million m3 downstream by 2010 and 2020, respectively, is ongoing. In addition to reduction of the water use in the midstream Liangzhou District, a water diversion project from Xiying River in the middle part of the basin to Minqin Basin was built and 130-150 million m3 of water were transferred annually from 2010 to 2012. A further 50-80 million

m3 was also transferred from a pumping station on the neighboring Yellow River each year (Ma, 2012).

Groundwater exploitation was planned to be reduced from 1.48 billion m3 in 2003 to 690 million m3 in 2010 and 660 million m3 in 2020. In 2010, the groundwater draft reduced to 600 million m3 in the Wuwei and Minqin Basins, a reduction of 53 per cent compared to 2003. This was done by closing 3,300 wells and limiting the water exploitation in the existing wells. Intelligent water and electricity meters were installed on 13,000 existing wells for which the electricity supply will be switched off automatically stopping further irrigation when the rated water quota has been used (Ma, 2012; Yang and Wang, 2011). Strict groundwater management regulations were set up. Only the Shiyang River Water Resources Administration will have the power to approve any new well construction.

Industrial practices have been modified to ensure a higher productivity of water use, while agricultural water use will be reduced to relieve pressure on the water resources system as a whole.

The agricultural practices have started being modified, including a reduction in the planting of more water-demanding and lower-value crops and increasing water-saving and higher-value cash crops. The grain production will be mainly for domestic consumption but not for sale in the market. Promoting the use of greenhouse technology for developing high value crops, indoor cultivation and enhancing productivity in terms of 'crop per drop'. By the end of 2011, in Wuwei Municipality, 20,300 ha of greenhouses had been built and 35,200 ha of orchards for growing local special fruits had been developed. Preliminary trials showed the economic benefit of 1 ha of greenhouse was equivalent to 10 ha ofgrain crops but with only 1/5 to 1/4 ofthe water use (Yang and Wang, 2011).

With respect to industry those which are highly polluting and/or use water inefficiently have been converted to, or replaced by, cleaner, water-saving enterprises.

The water use for trees for wind breaks and commercial forests is being increased. The urban and rural domestic water supply will also be improved by enhancing the supply quota while at the same time promoting water conservation and water-saving techniques.

Around Lake Qingtu, a preserved area of 70 km2 was established. To the end of 2011, trees/shrubs were planted on 1,330 ha of sand dunes/deserts and 180 ha of land along the road. An area of 67 ha was set up as a demonstration base ofthe new technology for resisting sand encroachment (Ma, 2012).

Since 2007 a water rights system was established in the Shiyang River Basin. The water rights were clearly defined and assigned to various water use sectors including the county/district, township and village, and household levels. A market for trading of water rights has been set up and 310,600 households in the Wuwei Municipality received a certificate of water rights (Yang and Wang, 2011). This can be used to access water for irrigation and unused water rights traded for money. From 2008 to 2011, water rights trading in Wuwei amounted to 350 trades comprising 4.5 million m3 of water (Yang and Wang, 2011). The water rights system thus promotes participation ofthe whole community in managing the water resource and encourages a water-saving culture.

Five years after the start of implementation of the plan, the following positive results had been achieved and reported.

• Measurements of runoff show the surface water flow into the Minqin Basin increased to 265 million m3 in 2010 and to 295 million m3 in 2011 (Ma, 2012). The 2010 goal of increasing water flows to the Minqin Basin is being realised.

• Monitoring data indicate that overexploitation of groundwater has ceased. The groundwater table in parts of Minqin Basin has started rising. In 2011, the groundwater table around Lake Qingtu had risen by 42 cm (Ma, 2012). In Jiahe Township located adjacent to the Tenggeli Desert, seven wells which closed in 2008 now have water flowing out due to the water table rising. Land suffering from desertification before the harnessing project has had a reed marsh with area of6,670 ha re-establish. A number ofoleaster trees have revived (Wuwei Daily, 2011).

• Overexploitation of water resources has been stopped. The total water use of Wuwei Municipality (the major water user in Shiyang River Basin) has been reduced to 41 per cent of that in 2003. Water use from the mid-basin Liangzhou District has decreased 18per cent compared to2006 (Wuwei Daily, 2011).

• Water appeared again in Lake Qintu in 2010 for the first time since 1959, covering an area of 3 km2. The area was further enlarged to 10 km2 in 2011 (Figure 4). A wetland growing reeds and grasses has formed around Lake Qingtu (Ma, 2012).

• A state-wide investigation into desertification found that the forest coverage in Minqin increased from 7.8 to 11.8 per cent between 2006 and 2010 due to extensive tree planting. Along the periphery of the Minqin Oasis, desert shrubs (Haloxylon ammodendron, Chinese tamarisk) have been widely planted and numerous sand dunes have been fixed by planting shrubs in the pattern of 1m x 1m2 (Figure 5).

Figure 4. Qintuhe Lake in2012

Figure 5. Desert shrubs to fix sand dunes

• With adopting water-saving irrigation techniques, building greenhouses subsidised by the government and planting fruit trees, the farmers increased their incomes, although their irrigated area was reduced. In 2011, the added value of agriculture and the rural net income per capita in Wuwei Municipality increased by 6.2 and 23.6 per cent compared

to 2010, respectively (Ma, 2012).

4. Factors behind achievements to date and remaining challenges

In the five years since the operation to 'Rescue the Minqin Oasis' began some preliminary successes have been achieved. The eco-environment of Shiyang River Basin has started to be managed in a sustainable way that integrates the restoration of the ecosystem with advancing social and economic progress. In addition to having a better water resources management plan, the factors that have promoted this successful process are listed as follows.

The political will and support from the government, especially from the central government, has been the most essential factor for successful implementation of the Shiyang River Basin Harnessing Project. The previous Premier Mr. Wen Jiabao gave several specific directives and pointed out that "The Minqin should definitely never be the second Lop Nor" (see Box 2). The Premier's decision reflects an important strategic change in state policy in recent years that has put ecological issues as one of the top priorities. It was summed up in the keynote presentation at the opening ceremony of the 18th National Congress of Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2013 by Hu Jintao, General Secretary of the Central Committee of CPC and Chinese President, which emphasised the need to make "great efforts to promote ecological progress". Hu pointed out, "We must give high priority to making ecological progress and incorporate it into all aspects of advancing economic, political, cultural, and social progress, and work hard to build a beautiful country and achieve lasting and sustainable development for the Chinese nation." This strategic change has certainly affected all kinds of practices in China. The Premier's support has played a decisive role in making the change in water resources management of the Shiyang River Basin. Without support from the central government, the local authority would find it difficult to raise enough funds and could not make the change so rapidly. Great importance has been focused on realising the goal of the project by the authorities at all levels including the central government, the Gansu provincial government and the relevant local government agencies.

Box 2. Disappearance of Lop Nor

Lop Nor was an ancient lake and the second largest salt water body in China with maximum area of more than 10,000 km2, located at the lower end of the Tarim and Kongqi Rivers. In early times the abundant water resources of Lop Nor supported the Lou Lan (Kroraina) Kingdom from 176 BC to 630 AD. The kingdom had been an important trading and transportation hub along the Silk Road. The city was prosperous with an area of 108,000 m2 and population reaching 14,000. However, by the 7th century the kingdom was in decline and finally fell into ruins. The green forests around the city were buried by the desert. There were many reasons for the decline of the Lou Lan Kingdom including change of climate, changing river courses, frequent wars and disease. But the impact of human activity was one of the most important factors. Archaeologists have found that the houses in Lou Lan City were all made of wood, indicating that people had had to cut many trees (Euphrates poplar) for their buildings and as a result lost the water sources conserved by the forests. After the disappearance of the Lou Lan Kingdom, Lop Nor survived for another 1,300 years. As recently as 1942 the lake still had an area of 3000 km2 but owing to the large scale reclamation and over use of water resources of the Tarim, Kongqi and other rivers after the 1950s, the area of Lop Nor decreased to 660 km2 in 1962. Finally in the 1970s it completely dried up and became a desert. The 1,300-km Tarim River also lost a section of 300 km in its lower reaches which ceased to flow causing the death of the poplar trees along its banks. Since the late 1990s a water transfer program for supplementing the Tarim River and rescuing the ecosystem in South Xinjiang has begun. As a result one of the downstream lakes along the Tarim River, Taitema Lake, has recovered its water.

Acceptance of the plan and participation by the water users was a key condition to ensuring success of the project. Reallocation of water resources among various water users was central to sharing the benefits among them. Both the irrigated area and irrigation quota of the households in the Shiyang River Basin has been reduced and there is less water available for everyone. In the beginning of the project implementation, many farmers did not accept the harnessing plan, and some even resented the project implementation, especially when their irrigated area was reduced and wells closed (Ma, 2012). A series of measures therefore had to be taken to ensure the benefits to the water users could be maintained or even increased after reduction of their water allocations.

To maintain or even increase the households' income after the implementation of the Shiyang River Basin Project, the following measures have been undertaken:

• The government has provided subsidies to farmers for building greenhouses to develop vegetable production and indoor husbandry for increasing their income.

• The government has also provided support to farmers to buy water-saving irrigation equipment like drip and low-pressure pipe irrigation. The technical service and dissemination of market information also follows to help the farmers master the new techniques and sell their products.

• The government has also provided assistance to surplus rural labour to findjobs in the cities.

After adopting the measures outlined above, many farmers in the basin started to change their attitude once they realised that the reduction of their water allocation did not have a significant impact on their incomes. Furthermore the water rights system enabled them to have greater control over their own water use.

To establish a water rights system and strengthen community awareness and capacity building, the following were carried out:

• The water rights system has clearly been determined for each farmer based on their share of irrigated land and their irrigation water quota. Every farmer knows how much water they can use and that any unused water can be traded and sold on the open market for money.

• There have been 816 water users' associations established in various irrigation districts. All water users have the right to be informed and to participate in all aspects of local water management initiatives. For the water-related affairs such as reducing the irrigated area, closure of wells, greenhouse construction or migration agreements will be signed between township/village and the farmers (Wuwei Daily, 2011).

• The awareness and capacity building was strengthened for all participating water users involved in implementing the Shiyang Basin Harnessing Project.

A powerful authority for overseeing the implementation of the plan is the institutional guarantee for ensuring the success of the Shiyang River Basin Harnessing Project. The Water Resources Administration of Shiyang River Basin is the organisation managing the administrative affairs in the basin. After its establishment a number of rules and regulations were formulated with technical and legal input by many relevant institutions and adopted and enshrined by the provincial government. With these rules and regulations the total amount of water use (surface and groundwater) in the basin could be controlled, water use quotas for domestic, agricultural and industrial users determined and water rights assigned.

The current changes in Shiyang River Basin are aimed towards initiating an improved integrated water resources management approach. To completely restore the ecosystem in the Minqin Basin requires a massive sustained effort for a very long period. The current goal of the Shiyang River Basin Harnessing Project is to 'Rescue the Minqin Oasis' but not to completely harness the water resources system of the basin.

There are many issues the project does not address that need to be further studied. What will be the ultimate goal of the harnessing of the basin and what would be the appropriate water distribution between ecosystem restoration and economic and social development? Since the evaporation is high, what would be the optimum surface area of the terminal lake to meet the demand of resisting the encroaching desert on two sides? Furthermore to what extent should the groundwater table in the Minqin Basin be recovered to ensure that desert plants grow? Finally, how can water be used even more efficiently to promote social and economic development as well as the natural environment in an integrated way? All these challenges can only be solved through improved practices over the very long term.

The Shiyang River Basin Harnessing Project represents a strategic change in approach to water resources management: from pursuing immediate economic interest only to achieving a long-term, integrated and sustainable benefit. A temporary reduction of production benefits results from a reduction of water use and irrigated land; however, this can be compensated by such factors as adopting water-saving techniques and structural change of water use. The long-term benefit of the change is to avoid loss of an ancient oasis and negative environmental impacts in the whole northwest China. This change can be replicated in areas with similar conditions. For instance, in the neighbouring Heihe River Basin, water transfer from the middle reach has been carried out to recharge two downstream terminal lakes that disappeared in the 1970s and to save the Euphrates poplar forests. Another example is the water transfer scheme in the Tarim River Basin operating since the late 1990s (see Box 2).


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