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People's Republic of China Water Action: New Irrigation Technology Helps Korla City Battle Desert Storms

People's Republic of China Water Action: New Irrigation Technology Helps Korla City Battle Desert Storms

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Published by: adbwaterforall on Oct 18, 2012
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Country water actions are stories that showcase water reforms undertaken by individuals,communities, organizations, and governments in Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere.
Country Water ActionsPeople’s Republic of China: New Irrigation Technology Helps Korla City BattleDesert Storms
January 2006
 When the city of Korla rose from the Taklamakan desert inthe 1950s, it was hailed as a triumph of human willpowerover adverse nature. Since then, however, the city has hadto wage war against the encroaching desert and itsferocious sandstorms. Can Korla’s new irrigation technologysustain the trees that were planted to combat desertificationand protect the oil-rich city?
Hilly Korla City in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC)Xinjiang province began to emerge as an oasis in theTaklamakan desert in the 1950s. Thousands of soldiers sentby the Chinese Communist Party dug more than 600kilometers of channels to tap groundwater for largecollective farms.Half a century of industrialization and much ecologicaldegradation later, Korla’s battle with desert storms rageson. Sentries of trees were planted to stop the encroachingsands. Afforestation was the city’s key strategy, but theregion’s geography made it difficult for vegetation to besustained. The city continues to fight for every drop of water for its tree protectors.A sophisticated solution came in 2001 in the shape of a “drip line irrigation technology” to conserve the city’s waterresources. Introduced by Israel-based Eisenberg Agri Co.Ltd., the technology uses a pressurized system of severalmain pipes and hundreds of drip lines that can carry wateruphill and deliver it to the roots of every tree throughsprinklers. “The brilliant thing about this technology is that the waterpressure and volume are the same on top of the mountainand at the bottom of it,” gushes Korla’s vice mayor QuSihao. “It really works here because all we have are hills.” 
While the gleaming modern center of today’s Korla is a farcry from the cluster of shacks it used to be half a centuryago, the enormous efforts to build and maintain it haveexhausted local ecology.The economic magnet of this rugged place, though, is theabundance of oil in the Taklamakan desert. “If it wasn’t forthe oil in the desert, this place wouldn’t have survived,” says Tian Yugang, who works on the city’s afforestationproject. Like many other settlers in Korla, Tian comes from inlandPRC. His parents, members of PRC’s paramilitary corps or “Bing Tuan,” were sent to isolated Xinjiang by ChairmanMao Zedong in the 1950s to open up new land and buildnew cities. It was the “Bing Tuan” too that set in motion thebackbreaking work of introducing farming in this arid land.Today, Korla is headquarters to the Tarim Oilfield Company,a unit of the state oil giant PetroChina, and receives throngsof visitors from foreign firms interested in the desert’s oiland gas reserves. Karaoke bars, oversized departmentstores, and a neon-lit promenade along the man-madePeacock river make the small city seem a replica of boomingmetropolises like Shanghai.
Being only 70 kilometers from the desert, Korla is plaguedby fierce desert storms that ravage fragile vegetation andblanket the skies for days in the spring.It also rains so little that locals remember the exact days of the year when rains do come. The drought sucks all themoisture from the soil, making the city easy prey forstorms. Encircled by dry mountains from all sides, Korla getswhipped by sandstorms some 40 days every year.In a desperate attempt, local officials in the 1990s tried tolevel off some of the surrounding hills by blowing them up. “We thought it would decrease the sand carried by the windand would help us irrigate the land better,” recalls ZhangYizhi, vice director of Korla’s Afforestation Bureau. Butblowing up a few of the hills encircling the city did notproduce the result city leaders had hoped for. It wasimpossible to entirely alter the vast stretches of theTaklamakan desert.At the time, Beijinghad declared anationwide battle onencroaching desertsby erecting enormous “Great Green Walls” in areas worst hit bydesertification. Korlahad its share—amassive tree-plantingscheme on some13,000 hectares of land allocated by the central government. But while Korlacould plant the trees, it could not irrigate them properlybecause of its hilly terrain—until the drip line irrigationtechnology arrived. 

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