Xinjiang’s Capital Urumqi Faces Water Crisis Fueled by Migration

uyghur-urumqi-destroyed-homes-1000.jpg A Uyghur man and boy sit on the rubble of their destroyed homes in Urumqi in an undated photo.
Photo courtesy of an RFA listener

The capital city of northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is quickly depleting its available sources of water and faces a looming crisis made worse by a rapidly growing population and mismanaged environment, experts say.

The migration into Urumqi of large numbers of Han Chinese from China’s inner provinces has especially strained the city’s resources, Dr. Peyzulla Zeydin, a former associate professor of geography and natural resources at Xinjiang University, told RFA’s Uyghur Service.

“Following the rapid development of Urumqi, the large green zone along the Urumqi River has been destroyed, and numerous high buildings have been constructed one after another,” he said.

“No one is paying attention to the city’s damaged environment and shortage of water,” Zeydin said.

The Urumqi River, which is fed by a glacier, is among the key sources of water supply to the capital’s main reservoir.  Another is Say’opa Lake, lying to the city’s east. The section of the Urumqi River that formerly ran to the city has now dried up, sources say.

An internal government report published in Chinese in 2012 and in the Uyghur language last year estimates a future jump in Urumqi’s population from 4 million in 2015 to 5 million in 2020, with the Xinjiang region’s current total population standing at just over 20 million.

And by 2020, the needs of the city’s increased population will far exceed existing resources, according to the report, published in Xinjiang Wenshi (History and Culture of Xinjiang) by Zhang Guowen of the Office of Consultants of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Regional Government.

Resources threatened

Urumqi’s existing water resources are estimated at 1.12 billion cubic meters (39.6 billion cubic feet), according to the report. Already, Urumqi’s total annual consumption of “pure” water—1.10 billion cubic meters (38.8 billion cubic feet) in 2011—has surpassed the amount of the larger total considered fit to drink.

Additionally, natural sources of water to the Urumqi region are receding, with a glacier to the north of Urumqi losing mass each year and the freshwater Say’opa lake to the city’s east steadily shrinking in volume, according to the report.

Melting from bottom to top, the glacier has shrunk about 140 meters (460 feet) over the last 40 years, with the glacier’s total area reduced to about 40 square kilometers (15 square miles), the report said.

And the Say’opa Lake has dropped 2 meters (6.5 feet) in depth and shrunk by 10 square kilometers (4 square miles), according to the report.

Glacier No. 1, located in the Tianshan Mountains to the city’s north, “is the most important water resource for the Urumqi region,” Peyzulla Zeydin said, speaking to RFA.

“The ice cover is gradually melting due to global warming and damage to the area’s ecology, and the face of the Say’opa Lake is receding year by year,” he said.

Urumqi was formerly a “green city in which inhabitants carefully guarded water sources and planted trees and flowers in their yards,” Zeydin said.

“[Now], if the government does not invest in the protection of the ecology and water resources, Urumqi will become a cement skyscraper-covered city without flowers or trees.”

Reported by Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Eset Sulaiman. Written in English by Richard Finney.


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