China: Water Scarcity and the Development of Xinjiang Province

1 June 2016 Madeleine Lovelle, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


China is hoping to create one million textile jobs by 2023 by growing its cotton industry in Xinjiang. The region has been producing cotton for some time, despite its arid climate and sparse population. The Chinese Government is now looking to populate and industrialise Xinjiang to meet a number of internal and external strategic ends.


Plans to develop the cotton industry in Xinjiang support President Xi Jinping’s “one belt, one road” initiative to create a transport route extending from western China, through Central Asia to Europe. By placing production closer to China’s export markets, Beijing believes that lower transport times will make China’s textile industry more competitive in the international market. Developing its western province means that on a broader level, Beijing’s new Silk Road would dissolve China’s vulnerability of having oil imports pass solely through the chokepoint of the Malacca Strait.

The expansion of the industry would also encourage population growth within Xinjiang. More strategically, Han population growth in Xinjiang would suit Beijing’s desire to limit the threat of Uighur separatism. The Uighurs, who made up 45 per cent of Xinjiang’s population in 2000, are a minority Muslim people with different customs from the Han Chinese. China has been fighting an Islamist insurgency in the region surrounding Xinjiang. While the strategy may place increased pressure on scarce resources, it acts to quell Chinese anxiety over increasing unrest developing in Xinjiang.

Increased desertification in Xinjiang, and the surrounding regions of Tibet and Mongolia, has threatened political stability. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, desertification is believed to be the result of human activity and climate change. Despite the recent discovery of an “ocean” beneath the Tarim basin in Xinjiang, the underground water is believed to be salty and contain a large amount of carbon dioxide (the release of which would be detrimental to the Earth’s atmosphere). Water scarcity and the threat of worsening desertification restrict the prudency of developing a water-intensive industry in the region.

Over 60 per cent of China’s cotton is grown in Xinjiang. Various economic benefits are associated with moving the textiles industry closer to the cotton region (including lowered transport costs and greater efficiency). A significant challenge to the successful growth of the textile industry in Xinjiang, however, is the large degree of water scarcity that the region already faces. The region sources its water from two basins: the Junggar in the north and the Tarim in the south. The Tarim basin is one of the driest geographical places that relies heavily upon water sourced from the melting glaciers in surrounding mountains. Climate related drought and human activities have significantly contributed to the region’s dwindling water supply.

The demand for increased water from economic growth that has occurred throughout the Xinjiang region has led to groundwater over-exploitation. The Xinjiang region’s growing population and increasing water scarcity is a cause for concern. The World Bank reports that canal restoration, improved drainage systems and a switch to drip irrigation has helped to improve water-conservation practices within the area, however, the World Resources Institute still classifies a large portion of Xinjiang as ‘high risk’. Any strategy to encourage population growth within the region will no doubt increase pressure on already scarce resources.

Beijing appears to be securing several interests by creating a greater labour-intensive region in Xinjiang: creating growth, generating jobs and ensuring stability against internal and external threats. What does not appear to be a priority, however, is the effect that the growth of this water-intensive industry will have on Xinjiang’s already water-scarce status. While it is trying to achieve several short-term goals with wider strategic implications for the region, the growth of a water-intensive industry may create future long-term ramifications with dire consequences for the population and regional stability.

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