URUMQI, Nov. 3 (Xinhua) -- A salt lake in China's far west Gobi region has been shrinking by 40 square km a year as desertification worsens despite local government efforts to restore the area's ecosystem, local officials have told Xinhua.
The dried-up lake bed will border and become part of Mutetar Desert in no more than four years if effective measures are not applied soon, said Gao Xiang, head of the Lake Aibi Wetland National Nature Reserve Administration. "In the case of climate change, serious natural disasters will be inevitable in the area," Gao warned.
The nature reserve chief said the local government and the reserve's administration have been carrying out pilot projects for 10 years but seen little improvement in the ecosystem.
Lake Aibi sits in an internally draining, salt-rich basin near the border of China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and Kazakstan. It is the largest salt lake in the region.
The dry earth left on the lake bed is frequently whipped up into sandstorms that have been plaguing China's northern regions for years.
CAUSES AND EFFECTS OF DESERTIFICATION
The Lake Aibi Wetland National Nature Reserve covers an area of 2670 square km.
Some 385 species of wildlife used to live in and around the body of water, but 2012 statistics show only 322 species of plants and 111 species of birds can still be found there.
Today, the lake is reduced to less than 500 square km in size, with more than 1,500 square km having been dried up in recent years, according to officials.
The increasingly serious desertification and the sandstorm it causes have disrupted local people's lives and the normal production of agriculture and industry.
Based on experts' calculation, 5 million tonnes of sand and salt dust is blown away each year and spread thousands of km to reach the regional capital of Urumqi and even the city of Beijing.
"I once drove from Jinghe county to Urumqi on a business trip, and the sandstorm chased us all the way. It was more horrible than what we see in the movies," said Haiming, a member of staff at a local publicity office.
Jinghe County is 35 km south of Lake Aibi. As the ecosystem worsens, the county now suffers 180 days of sandstorm each year, 13 times the number it did in the 1960s.
Salt dust drops on transmission lines and causes power failure in neighboring counties about 200 times on average every year. Jinghe alone suffers more than 50 million yuan (about 8 million U.S. dollars) in direct financial losses, and hundreds of millions in indirect losses.
The course of the 312 national highway that runs past Lake Aibi has been changed three times as sandstorm erode and bury the road.
The grassland produces only half of the grass it did a decade ago. Thirteen percent of cattle die from diseases each year while in 1980s the figure was only 4.6 percent.
Excessive land reclamation and flood irrigation are accelerating the lake's desertification.
"Ten years ago, we could get a water well by digging several meters underground, now we have to dig more than 100 meters," said Huang Faxin, deputy head of the Lake Aibi Wetland National Nature Reserve Administration.
He said only two out of 11 rivers that used to feed into the lake continue to provide it with water.
A large area of land is being reclaimed around the reserve and at the upstream of the rivers. As a result, the flow of water into Lake Aibi is slowing dramatically.
Farmers are using more water than they need in choosing flood irrigation instead of water-saving trickle irrigation, because the latter measure is more expensive.
"For every hectare of land reclaimed, the lake will shrink 2.25 square km," said Huang. "In another 10 years, the eight farms scattered around the lake basin and hundreds of thousands of hectares of land will no longer exist and more than 300,000 people have to leave their homeland."
ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION MEASURES
Local authorities built 12 cofferdams in the region in 2007 to gather water from surrounding areas. Some 15,000 mu (1000 hectares) of dry earth is now covered with vegetation.
Water conservation projects have been applied to the Jinghe and Daheyanzi rivers, along with tree and grass planting initiatives in their lower reaches.
Digging cistanche and desert plants has been seriously prohibited. Those who are caught selling the shrubs are fined as much as 50,000 yuan (8,010 U.S. dollars).
In December last year, a four-year project with funding of 12.18 million U.S. dollars was launched. It looks scientifically at the causes of the problem affecting Lake Aibi, and seeks to restore the area's ecosystem through piloting various solutions.
As a result, birds that migrate to the lake have increased from 1.1 million to 1.4 million and from 111 kinds to 135 kinds.
However, the biggest problem, desertification, is not being properly addressed, in the view of Gao Xiang. He said no studies on controlling desertification have carried out so far.
Little improvement has been achieved despite all the efforts. The lake continues to shrink while Jinghe River and Bortala River reduce to mere brooks. "Should drought come, the two rivers will stop flowing into Lake Aibi at any time," said Huang Faxin.
Experts agree that more effective measures are urgently needed.
Utilizing water resources is the top priority. Three counties and the eight farms near the lake should plan their water usage together, said Li Chengyi, director of the nature reserve and wetland administrative office at the Forestry Department of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
Li said the counties should promote water-saving trickle irrigation by providing subsidies to farmers.
Moreover, instead of developing water-intensive industries, the counties should work on third-tier industries including tourism that need less water and can bring more income to local residents, urged Li.
Another priority is to channel more water to the Lake Aibi. The routes of Yili River tributaries can be altered to flow into the lake. With more economic use of upstream waters, the once cut-off rivers and underground water will be able to replenish themselves and feed into Lake Aibi, explained Huang.
Li believes the nature reserve administration may also draw experience from water conservation projects on Xinjiang's Bosten Lake and Tarim River, the country's largest inland freshwater lake and longest inland river respectively. Both are seeing a slowly improving ecological environment.
According to a survey on China's water quality, water volume and biological resource by Chinese Academy of Sciences, 243 lakes have disappeared in the past 50 years, one fourth of them located in Xinjiang.
Currently, Xinjiang has 114 lakes of more than one square km. They add up to 6,400 square km, which account for about 7.7 percent of the total lake area of the whole country.