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Cotton Farms and China: Water Depletion Causes Severe Ecological Problems

Sep 11, 2015 05:47 PM EDT
Tarim Basin
The Tarim basin in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China is experiencing deforestation, water depletion and extremely dry temperatures. Researchers suggest a series of recommendations to preserve this unique desert.
(Photo : Technical University of Munich)

Did you know that 10 percent of the world's cotton is produced in Xinjiang, China, in a very arid climate? However, we might have to sacrifice certain kinds of clothing in order to preserve the local environment. Researchers recently reported in the journal Water that irrigating cotton fields is causing significant ecological problems.

"The natural land and water resources in this unique landscape have been ruthlessly exploited over the past 50 years. This has severely damaged the soils and the quality of water in the region," Markus Disse, a professor at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), said in a news release.

According to the release, the Tarim basin in Xinjiang is an extremely dry region, set very far inland with one glacier melt-fed river flowing through it. However, these limited resources are highly depended upon. Among the ten million locals, animals, plants and surrounding land, there is considerable competition.

Cotton farmers may be the first to forfeit as soils increasingly become more contaminated. According to their study, soils that have medium to high levels of salt can only produce roughly half of what non-saline soils can support.

While cotton plants prefer a drier climate in order to avoid growing fungus, they also require a lot of water to grow. So, farmers turn to the rivers that can't regenerate themselves nearly as fast as they are being depleted.

The water-use in the region also threatens the rare tree species Euphrates Popular, which relies on deep groundwater, according to the release. These trees are also threatened with deforestation, because farmers clear areas to enlarge their fields. Meanwhile, the trees provide protection against desert storms and help manage the area's climate, according to a release.

In an attempt to remedy this, the researchers suggested a series of preservation recommendations. They will present their findings at a conference in Xinjiang in September.

Among their suggestions is reforestation and renaturalization, sustainable land use, allowing the groundwater to replenish during the annual summer flood, and using alternative farming techniques.

"We hope that this implementation workshop will herald a new era in sustainable land and water management in the region," Disse added in a statement. "This is the only way that we can ensure long-term stability in this part of the world."

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