China: Restoring Lake Aibi

April 5, 2016

  • Lake Aibi has been shrinking, threatening globally significant biodiversity
  • Water scarcity is causing the saltwater lake’s shrinkage
  • A project with World Bank and Global Environment Facility support helped

Lake Aibi is shrinking.

The largest saltwater lake in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is less than half of its size of just 60 years ago.

Located in an internally draining, salt-rich basin in Bortala Prefecture near the border with Kazakhstan, the lake experiences severe salinization and desertification.

Strong winds from the Alataw Mountain Pass turn the dry lake bed into a major source of dust storms that plague China’s northern regions.

“Green labyrinth”

Such drastic change threatens the rich biodiversity comprising 422 species of animals and plants at Lake Aibi, also an important stopover for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that use its wetlands as resting, feeding and breeding grounds.

Local wildlife expert Hai Ying recalled how Lake Aibi was called a “green labyrinth” when he first came to the area in the 1970s.

“There were very few people and livestock. Vegetation was well kept, with no human disturbance. Animals were abundant,” said Hai, a professor. “It was a paradise for animals and unique plant species such as the Euphrates poplar, saxaul shrub and Tamarix chinensis.”

Water is the key

Now, water sources have been depleted, including three of the five rivers that once fed the lake.

With large-scale land reclamation around the lake since the 1950s, many reservoirs and canals were built in upstream areas to divert water for irrigation, drying up the three former river sources in the 1970s.

With only two rivers feeding the lake, its size has dropped from 1,200 square kilometers in the 1950s to 500 square kilometers today. Around its shores, deforestation and overgrazing accelerated land degradation and desertification.

Climate change brings a decrease in annual precipitation in a region of hot, dry summers with 10 hours of sunshine a day. Lake Aibi’s shallow depth, averaging 1.5 meters, means evaporation far exceeds precipitation.

" It used to take several people to irrigate the fields. Now one person is enough. "

Cheng Qianjin

Head, Water-Users Association

World Bank’s role

In 2011, a $2.98 million grant by Global Environment Facility grant helped launch a project implemented by the World Bank to restore Lake Aibi and its ecosystems.

As the implementing agency, the World Bank worked with the Bortala Prefecture Government to improve water resources management, with a goal of increasing water inflows to Lake Aibi while strengthening management of the Lake Aibi Wetland Nature Reserve.

“This project sought to control the consumption of water, particularly in the upstream areas, to prevent a decrease in water inflow and thereby ensure adequate water supply into Lake Aibi to protect its biodiversity,” said Liping Jiang, a World Bank Senior Water Resources Specialist and project team leader.

The project used advanced remote sensing technologies to assess the total water resources available, as well as the amount needed for maintaining ecosystems and agricultural production. 

For Qian Longxing, director of the Bortala water resources department, the project meant valuable advice on “how to best allocate water resources, improve watershed management and increase efficiency of water use.”

Reducing water use in agriculture

According Qian’s department, agriculture accounts for about 63.5 percent of the total water consumption in Bortala. Water-saving irrigation practices, particularly drip irrigation under plastic mulch, were introduced to replace flood irrigation in the late 1990s. Today, drip irrigation is used on about 60 percent of farmland in Bortala.

The project also formed four pilot water-users associations to make farmers responsible for managing irrigation water. The enhanced role motivated them to use water more productively and ensure that field irrigation infrastructure was well maintained.

At the Bortala irrigation experiment station, the 83 farm households comprising the water users association formerly used flood irrigation for their cotton and wolf berry crops. Now drip irrigation has been adopted in all the fields.

“It used to take several people to irrigate the fields. Now one person is enough,” said Cheng Qianjin, the association head. Members noted drip irrigation also costs less because less water gets used.

Devices including soil moisture sensor have been installed in the fields to measure soil-water content and help guide watering practices.

Local communities benefit

Measures have been taken to strengthen management of Lake Aibi Wetland Reserve.

Public awareness campaigns educated local communities on conserving wetlands and biodiversity, while the creation of 14 protection stations with trained full-time patrollers prevents poaching, illegal logging and digging herbs. The introduction of controlled and rotational grazing has reduced pressure on wetland vegetation.

In Kekebasitao, a village in the Lake Aibi Wetland Reserve, the project helped improve living conditions for the 51 ethnic Kazakh herder families who settled with their livestock in recent decades after arriving in search of pasture.

Every family received a television set and a solar panel. The open water well got sheltered, and a road was built from the village to the highway to ease travel to work or markets.

Herders become protectors

In addition, skill training courses helped Kazakh herders learn alternative livelihood skills to reduce their reliance on livestock herding, with four men getting forklift driver licenses.

Another four young men joined the wetland reserve patrollers last year, including 29-year-old Hu’ati, who registers vehicles entering and leaving the area and also does patrol duty.

To Gulinur, the longtime village midwife who raises livestock with her husband to support their four children at college and schools in cities, the project brought government funding for medicine for the small clinic she operates as Kekebasitao’s doctor.

The Bortala Prefecture Government was fully committed to the project and provided strong leadership and support. Mahemutijiang, a deputy prefecture governor, said World Bank experts “gave us very good advice that opened our mind and helped us develop sustainable conservation goals.”

The challenge persists

However, restoration of Lake Aibi remains a major challenge.

According to project estimates, 512 million cubic meters of water a year will be needed to maintain the lake’s current surface at 500 square kilometers, while 813 million cubic meters a year would restore lake surface to 800 square kilometers. Achieving those levels requires an annual reduction of water consumption of 235 million cubic meters or 536 million cubic meters. 

The prefecture’s water-saving potential from improved irrigation practices is estimated at 11 million cubic meters a year, far from meeting the demand. A fundamental solution recommended by the project is to gradually take significant amounts of farmland out of production to reduce water consumption.

For now, the Bortala Prefecture Government is incorporating the recommandations into its next five-year plan while continuing to strengthen water resources management, promote water saving practices, increase water efficiency and carry out water pricing reform.