Western China is Drying Up, But Is Moving Farmers to Cities the Right Answer?

grapes from turpan china photo

The Xinjiang region currently produces an agricultural surplus, but unsustainable irrigation, ongoing drought and future effects of climate change put all that into question. Photo: Clemson via flickr.
The Guardian has been running an interesting series of articles called China at the Crossroads; one of most stark pieces is on water usage in the western region of Xinjiang, where intensive irrigation for agriculture over the past five decades has utterly destroyed ecosystems. It's so bad that some officials are recommending that farmers should be paid to stop farming:96% of Water in Xinjiang Goes to Agriculture
The article quotes a government official who wished to remain anonymous as saying,
In Xinjiang, close to 96% of the water is used for agriculture. In the world, this is the highest share. This structure has already caused the destruction of the freshwater ecosystem. In some lower reaches of rivers, there is no longer any water. Some wetlands and lakes have degraded.

Given the water problem, Xinjiang should only be required to supply sufficient food for its own use. The environment is already degrading. They don't have enough water for agriculture. We found that if they go for industry, they can save water.

Climate Change = Floods First, Then Permanent Drought
If ongoing drought (the worst in 50 years) weren't bad enough, further complicating things is the effect of climate change on the region in the future. Glacial runoff supplies the region with about one quarter of its water. As glaciers retreat, this will actually increase water supplies initially (until perhaps 2020, according to the original article), but then water supplies will become even more scarce than they are already.

Pay Farmers to Move Into Industrial Activities
The proposed plan is to compensate local farmers with food for stopping cultivation and encouraging them to move into urban areas and focus on industrial activities instead. The official estimated that for each person who quit agriculture about 1,800 cubic meters of water could be saved.

Not a bad bargain—provided adequate compensation is provided and resources allocated to ensure that you're not just sending people into the cities without much hope of finding jobs, perhaps a big if given what happened with the Three Gorges Dam—but there's one line in the original article that leaves me scratching my head.

How Does Enabling More Coal and Oil Production Help?
The official told The Guardian that one of the other benefits of encouraging people to get out of agriculture in the region would be that it "will allow the region to utilize its rich coal and oil resources and improve the efficiency of water usage."

The efficiency of water usage part fits in with the ecological preservation angle, but utilizing more coal and oil? I wonder if there's not a third way here...

More: The Guardian
China, Water
Big Trouble in Leaky China
Citing Environment, China Delays World's Longest Aqueduct Project
China Suffers Worst Drought in 50 Years
As Countries Over-Pump Aquifers, Falling Water Tables Mean Falling Harvests

Related Content on Treehugger.com