Country Water Actions

Country water actions are stories that showcase water reforms undertaken by individuals, communities, organizations, and governments in Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere.

People’s Republic of China: New Irrigation Technology Helps Korla City Battle Desert Storms
January 2006

When the city of Korla rose from the Taklamakan desert in the 1950s, it was hailed as a triumph of human willpower over adverse nature. Since then, however, the city has had to wage war against the encroaching desert and its ferocious sandstorms. Can Korla’s new irrigation technology sustain the trees that were planted to combat desertification and protect the oil-rich city? SOPHISTICATED TECHNOLOGY Hilly Korla City in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Xinjiang province began to emerge as an oasis in the Taklamakan desert in the 1950s. Thousands of soldiers sent by the Chinese Communist Party dug more than 600 kilometers of channels to tap groundwater for large collective farms. Half a century of industrialization and much ecological degradation later, Korla’s battle with desert storms rages on. Sentries of trees were planted to stop the encroaching sands. Afforestation was the city’s key strategy, but the region’s geography made it difficult for vegetation to be sustained. 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 water resources. Introduced by Israel-based Eisenberg Agri Co. Ltd., the technology uses a pressurized system of several main pipes and hundreds of drip lines that can carry water uphill and deliver it to the roots of every tree through sprinklers. “The brilliant thing about this technology is that the water pressure and volume are the same on top of the mountain and at the bottom of it,” gushes Korla’s vice mayor Qu Sihao. “It really works here because all we have are hills.” KORLA THROUGH THE YEARS While the gleaming modern center of today’s Korla is a far cry from the cluster of shacks it used to be half a century ago, the enormous efforts to build and maintain it have exhausted local ecology. The economic magnet of this rugged place, though, is the abundance of oil in the Taklamakan desert. “If it wasn’t for the oil in the desert, this place wouldn’t have survived,” says Tian Yugang, who works on the city’s afforestation project.

Like many other settlers in Korla, Tian comes from inland PRC. His parents, members of PRC’s paramilitary corps or “Bing Tuan,” were sent to isolated Xinjiang by Chairman Mao Zedong in the 1950s to open up new land and build new cities. It was the “Bing Tuan” too that set in motion the backbreaking 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 throngs of visitors from foreign firms interested in the desert’s oil and gas reserves. Karaoke bars, oversized department stores, and a neon-lit promenade along the man-made Peacock river make the small city seem a replica of booming metropolises like Shanghai. AFFORESTATION IN KORLA Being only 70 kilometers from the desert, Korla is plagued by fierce desert storms that ravage fragile vegetation and blanket 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 the moisture from the soil, making the city easy prey for storms. Encircled by dry mountains from all sides, Korla gets whipped by sandstorms some 40 days every year. In a desperate attempt, local officials in the 1990s tried to level off some of the surrounding hills by blowing them up. “We thought it would decrease the sand carried by the wind and would help us irrigate the land better,” recalls Zhang Yizhi, vice director of Korla’s Afforestation Bureau. But blowing up a few of the hills encircling the city did not produce the result city leaders had hoped for. It was impossible to entirely alter the vast stretches of the Taklamakan desert. At the time, Beijing had declared a nationwide battle on encroaching deserts by erecting enormous “Great Green Walls” in areas worst hit by desertification. Korla had its share—a massive tree-planting scheme on some 13,000 hectares of land allocated by the central government. But while Korla could plant the trees, it could not irrigate them properly because of its hilly terrain—until the drip line irrigation technology arrived.

In the past, it used to take 800 to 1000 cubic meters of water to irrigate one mu (0.067 hectare) of land. Now, Korla saves 75 percent of the water. Since the technology was introduced in 2001, more than 3,000 hectares have been successfully planted with trees. Every year on March 12—Tree Planting Day—local government leaders join thousands of people take up shovels in a mass campaign to plant more trees. MORE STORMS IN THE DESERT Zhang believes the strategy and the technology is paying off. In the past five years, desert storms have decreased by six to seven days and Korla’s summer temperature is slightly lower. This year, PRC claimed victory in slowing the spread of deserts, saying the rate at which the desert is eating up farm and other land has slowed from 10,400 to about 3,000 square kilometers annually. Still, the gains are tiny compared with the environmental losses during the past five decades of water overuse and excessive farming. Korla is still continuously dry and the trees seem a small, green dot in an ocean of sand. Xinjiang Province, which is covered in sand, faces an uphill battle in reversing the tide of ecological degradation because its scarce water resources are mostly from glaciers and concentrated in two to three months in the summer. The battle against desertification may have been won at Korla, but the war is still being waged in almost a quarter of Xinjiang’s desert territory.

_______________________________ Based on the article of Antoaneta Bezlova, Asia Water Wire journalist The views expressed in this article are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), or its Board of Governors, or the governments they represent. ADB does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this paper and accepts no responsibility for any consequence of their use. Terminology used may not necessarily be consistent with ADB official terms. *This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in January 2006: http://www.adb.org/Water/Actions/prc/new-irrigation.asp. The Country Water Action series was developed to showcase reforms and good practices in the water sector undertaken by ADB’s member countries. It offers a mix of experience and insights from projects funded by ADB and those undertaken directly by civil society, local governments, the private sector, media, and the academe. The Country Water Actions are regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.