Jan. 26, 2020
Soaring Population and Desertification: 80% of Dunhuang’s Lake Water has Disappeared

Soaring Population and Desertification: 80% of Dunhuang’s Lake Water has Disappeared
Date: October 27, 2009
Source: International Finance
Editor: Huang Deli

In the Dunhuang Oasis, salt water and fresh water lakes used to cover an area of 10,000 mu each.  Today, 80% of these lakes no longer exist. Meanwhile, regional desertification is increasing by 20,000 mu annually,causing deserts to advance by 3-4 meters each year.  Natural disasters such as wind and sandstorms are worsening as well. (Note: mu is a common measurement standard for land area in China. One acre is about six mu.)

According to recent findings, the Zhong Mountain in Dunhuang has already shrunk by 40% from 2,190,000 mu to around 1,300,000 mu. The forests of diversifolious poplars have shrunk by 67% to 140,000 mu. Usable grasslands have shrunk by 77%, and the remaining grasslands have suffered from the effects of desertification and salination. Dunhuang’s wetlands are disappearing at an average annual rate of 20,000 mus. The salt water and fresh water lakes of the oasis used to cover an area of 10,000 mu each.  Today, 80% of these lakes have already disappeared. Meanwhile, desertification of the oasis is increasing at a rate of 20,000 mu per year and deserts are growing by 3-4 meters annually. Incidences of natural disasters, such as wind and sand storms, are increasing as well.

“Destructive lumbering practices in the shelter forest have changed the local climate considerably. As a result, Dunhuang had no snow this past year, its water table continues to drop annually, and its wind and sandstorms have become increasingly uncontrollable. Many worry that, at this rate, Dunhuang could become the next Lou Lan—the lost ancient city of Xinjiang,” said Yang Jianqi, the former Chairman of the Yangguan Foresty Center Trade Union in Dunhuang.

As recently as the 1960s, wetlands and marshes could be found everywhere in the Dunhuang Oasis, and dense clumps of reeds thickly covered its sandy riverbanks. Now, however, the Yueya “Crescent” Spring has become much smaller, while the Kumtag and the Taklimakan Deserts continue to gradually expand toward one other. As a result, the Dunhuang Oasis is facing a serious ecological crisis. “The big sandstorms now reach as strong as Force 10, and even the small ones reach Forces of 6 or 7. The storms overturn greenhouses, blow away melon seedlings, and cause the villagers to suffer enormous losses.” Traveling westward along the Yueya Spring Road, there is row upon row of dead and withered white poplar trees, and large swaths of the road’s surface have been covered by encroaching sand dunes.

In recent years, Dunhuang has had an average of two to three of these major sandstorms annually. As a result, local people have begun to worry that Dunhuang will become the next Lou Lan.

A trip by camel only 14 kilometers southeast from the Yueya Spring leads to the Mogao Caves. These two sites—the Mogao Caves and the Yueya Spring—are commonly referred to as the “Two wonders of Dunhuang”. The caves are considered to be a miracle of civilization, and the spring is considered to be a wonder of nature.  Both are valued as priceless sites. Worryingly, however, the water crisis at the Yueya Spring has also begun to affect the Mogao Caves as well.

President of the Dunhuang Research Institute, Fan Jinshi, said that "when the ancient people chose to settle in the Mogao Caves area, they certainly took the area’s geomancy (fengshui) into consideration. I am very worried that if the water in the Mogao Caves dries up, as has already happened in the Yueya Spring, then the  Mogao Caves might cease to exist. Before, we worked hard farming the mountainous areas around the Mogao Caves. Now, however, we no longer farm the area. Instead, we have assigned people to maintain the area’s psammophytic vegetation (sand plants). I help to protect the area’s caves, murals, and painted clay sculptures. I also try to help protect the area’s environment, including its ecological environment. "

Findings show that the deterioration of Dunhuang’s ecological environment has caused a significant reduction in its wildlife population. Much of the remaining wildlife is on the verge of disappearing as well. Many of Dunhuang’s 18 original wildlife species, including monkey, leopard, and bear species, have already disappeared, and the number of wild camels continues to decline year after year. Nationally protected migratory birds and white storks have basically become extinct as well.

Locals say that Dunhuang once had four lakes: East Lake, West Lake, South Lake and North Lake. All four lakes had considerable amounts of water. Today, East Lake exists only in name; North Lake is on the verge of disappearing (today, it looks like a six to seven meter cauldron that has nothing but some mud left at its bottom); West and South Lakes’ water surface levels have also been greatly reduced. According to a staff member at the West Lake Wetland Conservancy, South Lake and West Lake used to be connected by large areas of water and wetlands. , Now, however, they have become completely separated. Worse still, around West Lake one finds large swaths of withering and dead Diversifolious Poplars.

"The sandstorms are becoming stronger,” reports one staff member from Dunhuang City’s Weather Bureau. "In the past, the sandstorms primarily occurred in March, April, and May. Now, they occur almost every month of the year." Moreover, as one deputy of the National People’s Congress bluntly explained, "the main cause of Dunhuang’s ecological environmental degradation is man-made." Since the 1950s, there has been rapid population growth in Dunhuang, as well as in other northwestern districts of Gansu such as the Akesai (the upper reaches of the Shule River), Subei Mengguzu Autonomous County, and Yumen City, due to migration and other related factors. In the 1950s, the resident population of Dunhuang was about 36,000. Half a century later, this population has risen to 180,000. Rapid population growth and increased land cultivation has significantly strained the area’s water resources. Today, as a result, Dunhuang is facing a water crisis.

Fan Jinshi believes that the ancient Chinese people placed particular emphasis on the cultivation of a harmonious relationship between man and nature If modern man continues to blindly put demands on nature, however, it will eventually retaliate against man. "From time to time, I speak with city leadership.  I remind them that Dunhuang must not become the next Lou Lan. And since the disappearance of ancient Lou Lan was partially caused by the disappearance of its water, we must all work to protect Dunhuang’s ecological environment. Only in this way can we seek to protect international cultural and natural wonders such as the Mogao Caves and the Yueya Spring. "

Translator: Wu Fan
Proofreader:Mary O’Loughlin