The proliferation of electric water pumps for large-scale farming and oil exploration in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region has all but dried up an elaborate set of wells used by the Uyghur residents of Turfan prefecture, according to local authorities.
The karez water system in Turfan consists of some 1,100 wells linked by hand-dug underground canals that have irrigated local agriculture for 2,000 years and once provided an important oasis for merchant caravans traveling the Silk Route through the Taklamakan desert between China and the West.
Gravity pulls glacial melt water along canals accessed by the wells at several points before it is distributed through networks of dams and channels to produce an annual runoff of some 300 million cubic meters (10.6 billion cubic feet)—or about 30 percent of the total irrigated areas in Turfan.
The Karez Wells—which are being considered for designation as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)—are still in use today, supplying irrigation to local vineyards that account for 80 percent of China’s annual grape production, despite the area’s arid climate.
But after centuries of supplying local residents with the water they need to eke out an existence in the harsh desert environment, nearly 90 percent of Turfan’s wells have run dry as large-scale farmers extract water and petroleum companies drill at an increasingly rapid rate, local police officers told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
A Uyghur police officer from Karaghoja township in Turfan city said that the last well in his area dried up between 15 and 20 years ago, and that water from wells in neighboring towns is “receding day by day.”
“We used to have more than 1,000 karez in Turfan during the 1950s, but these days there are only 20- 30 of them left containing water,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“From what I can see, the total number of karez left in Turfan is not more than 50.”
By official estimates, underground water levels in Turfan are dropping at a rate of three million cubic meters (106 million cubic feet) per year.
In 2008, the government of Xinjiang announced that U.S. $182 million—around U.S. $100 million of which was loaned by the World Bank—had been earmarked to protect and restore the well system, but residents say it is unclear how much of the money was used for the project.
The Karaghoja officer said that authorities have done little to mitigate the problem, adding that “the interests of the small have been sacrificed for the interests of the big.”
“Subsidies provided by the government for irrigation and water projects were directed to operators of the electric water pumps, and since they are pumping out underground water day and night, how can one expect there would be any water left for the karez,” he asked.
“Irregular oil exploration [contaminating the wells and lowering the water table] is likely responsible for 20-30 percent of the problem, electric water pumps for 60 percent, and climate change and global warming [affected the glacial feed] for 10 to 15 percent.”
Another Uyghur police officer from Turfan city’s Aydingkol township, who also asked not to be named, told RFA that more than 90 percent of his local karez had dried up, and that none of those remaining were used for drinking water.
“Ten to 15 years ago, water could be accessed underground by digging 20-25 meters (65-80 feet), but these days, wells for water pumps have to be drilled more than 100 meters (330 feet) deep,” said the officer, echoing similar concerns from sources in neighboring townships.
“From what I know, there is no single karez left in Aydingkol used for drinking water. And while there are some left that are used for farming, they are also in dire condition and worsening.”
The Aydingol officer said that due to the loss of karez, residents are abandoning traditional viniculture in favor of raising livestock, and now “we are witnessing fights between farmers over water.”
Even oil producers at a petroleum field near the town have ceased operations because of the receding water levels, he added.
Along with the loss of a valuable resource for the region, the officer said that many residents are saddened by the effect on the local culture, as the karez have long stood as a symbol of the achievements of the Uyghur civilization.
“When we were kids, our elders used to tell us fairytales, legends and folktales while we sat atop the karez in the evening,” he said.
“Those kinds of beautiful nights have become a thing of the past.”
When contacted, UNESCO said it was reserving any immediate comment until it verifies the information obtained by RFA.
“At the moment, I am sorry, without verifying the information, we cannot provide any comment,” said a spokesman from the UNESCO office in Paris.
Reported by Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.