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Restoring China's Tarim River Basin

May 29, 2007


Better management of water resources led to higher crop yields, diversification into higher-value crops and increased social status and employment opportunities for many women.


The 1,300-kilometer long Tarim River in China does not flow to the sea but terminates at a lake system called Lake Taitema in the poor and arid Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) – China's largest autonomous region, representing an area approximately four times the size of France. After 30 years of unsustainable water use, Lake Taitema had dried up completely.


A first project set out to increase agricultural production (and improve farmer livelihoods) through better water resource management and agricultural intensification. Building on the first project and on numerous technical innovations, the second project established China's first “basin-wide” sustainable water resource management system. At the conclusion of the two projects, the flow to the lake had been restored, and it now covers 200 square kilometers.


Better management of water resources led to higher crop yields, diversification into higher-value crops and increased social status and employment opportunities for many women. The rapid desertification of a traditionally “green corridor” was halted, then reversed.


  • Poverty reduction: Within the project area, nearly 70 percent of people were lifted out of poverty. More than 200,000 farmer households benefited directly and farmers' average income rose across the five prefectures and, most significantly, in the two poorest prefectures of Kizilsu and Hotan.
  • Water conservation: Lining canals with concrete over geo-membranes to prevent leakage increased water-conveyance efficiency from 60 percent to 95 percent and saves an estimated 600-800 million cubic meters of water each year. This water was reallocated to environmental, municipal and industrial uses and enabled the reclamation of land and the expansion of irrigation to more than 41,000 hectares of new farmland.
  • Land reclamation and low yield land improvement: From 1998 to 2003, an additional 41,460 hectares of land was reclaimed as irrigation land, while the productivity of more than 123,000 hectares of low yield irrigated land was substantially increased. This contributed to an increase in production of 220,000 tons per year of wheat, 82,000 tons of cotton and 116,000 tons of maize. Higher value crops such as fruit (apples, apricots pears and grapes), oil seeds, melons, vegetables and alfalfa were planted on about 148,000 hectares of land.
  • Institutional reforms: The projects resulted in the first fully functional integrated river basin management system in China building on initiatives that predated the projects. Institutional reforms and innovations included: strengthening a river basin commission that is trying to set annual water use quotas for each of the sub-basins; a strengthened basin management bureau that monitors water withdrawals and delivers water downstream to the green corridor; and new mechanisms in the prefectures and counties to translate water quotas into individual water allocations to farmers.
  • Environmental revitalization: Around 1.7 billion cubic meters of water was returned to the lower reaches of the River Tarim, restoring 300 kilometers of the watercourse that had run dry. Forest cover in the area increased by over 30 percent and grassland by 15 percent, which contributed to halving the socio-economic costs from wind and sandstorms.
  • Promoting Technical Innovation: The projects introduced important technical innovations that contributed significantly to the overall success. Notable among these were water and salt modeling; the use of evapo-transpiration management concepts; the use of geo-membranes to line canals and prevent leakage; the wide application of integrated pest management techniques; laser-guided grading to support water savings and increased agricultural productivity; the adoption of community-driven, “bottom-up” land and water management processes; the use of water tariffs based on volumetric water use; and the establishment of many farmers' water user associations as an integral part of the reforms.

IDA Contribution

  • The total project cost for the first Tarim Basin project was US$212 million, of which IDA provided US$125 million.
  • The total cost of the second project was US$272.6, of which IBRD provided US$90 million, IDA provided $60 million and the government provided US$122.6 million.
  • Through direct investment, policy and technical assistance, IDA helped to catalyze a fundamental change in the country's approach towards water resources management. The results demonstrate that a complex, economically and environmentally-sustainable integrated water resources management approach can be achieved, at scale, in a poor area of a developing country. The experience also shows that it takes a sustained effort to bring about genuine reforms and build partnership. In this case, it took two major DA interventions over a period of 10 years.


AusAid provided much of the technical assistance supporting the institutional reforms, based on experience from the Murray Darling Basin in Australia.

Next Steps

The principles implemented under the projects can be applied to most river basins within China and worldwide. The Tarim River Basin is a desert region bordered by Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and the approaches used so successfully in this region may be equally effective in other arid areas. A number of delegations, including one from Pakistan, have visited the Tarim Basin and are considering similar programs.