The New York Times

May 27, 2005

A Crescent of Water Is Slowly Sinking Into the Desert

Michael Zhao for The New York Times
Crescent Lake, a tourist attraction at Dunhuang in western China, has been shrinking over the last three decades because of the falling water table. (Click on picture for larger image.)

Michael Zhao for The New York Times
He Zhailin channeling water from wells to irrigate his land. He tripled his farmland when water was plentiful, but now it is drying up. (Click on picture for larger image.)

DUNHUANG, China, May 26 - At the bottom of the mountainous dunes once traversed by traders and pilgrims on the ancient Silk Road, Wang Qixiang stood with a camera draped around his neck. He was a modern-day pilgrim of sorts, a tourist.

He and his wife had traveled by train more than 2,000 miles from eastern China to the forbidding emptiness of the Gobi Desert to glimpse at a famous pool of water known as Crescent Lake. They came because the lake has been rapidly shrinking into the desert sand, and they feared it might soon disappear. "It is a miracle of the desert," said Mr. Wang, 67.

In this desert oasis where East once met West and that is home to one of the world's greatest shrines to Buddhism, the water is disappearing. Crescent Lake has dropped more than 25 feet in the last three decades while the underground water table elsewhere in the area has fallen by as much as 35 feet.

An ancient city that once served as China's gateway to the West, Dunhuang is now threatened by very modern demands. A dam built three decades ago to help local farming, combined with a doubling of the population, have overstressed a fragile desert hydrology that had been stable for thousands of years.

"I would call it an ecological crisis," said Zhang Mingquan, a professor at Lanzhou University who specializes in the region's hydrology. "The problem is the human impact. People are overusing the amount of water that the area can sustain."

Here as elsewhere in western China, the country's poorest region, the emphasis in recent decades has been on economic development at all costs. Isolated by the desert, Dunhuang has virtually no industry, so agriculture has dominated the local economy. In the 1970's, the government dammed the Dang River, which once flowed past the city, to provide better irrigation for farmland and to help relieve poverty. Farming did improve, but in a fashion that brought a larger burden: a desert oasis that had fewer than 100,000 people before the dam now has roughly 180,000. As more people arrived, the underground water table that is the city's main source of drinking water started dropping.

The pressure now to preserve Dunhuang is amplified by the growing recognition of the city's major cultural and historic significance. The nearby Mogao Caves, painted with murals dating to the fourth century, were built by the monks who helped bring Buddhism from India. The caves have been designated as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

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Ancient gateway to the West, Dunhuang faces new demands.

Michael Zhao for The New York Times
China dammed the Dang River, which once ran past Dunhuang, in the 1970's, and as the area's population rose, the water table has fallen. (Click on picture for larger image.)

The caves are a legacy of Dunhuang's emergence more than 2,000 years ago during the Han Dynasty as a crucial entranceway into China by the Silk Road, which served as the principal trade route to the West. Merchants and pilgrims made the journey by following the string of oases that skirted the brutal Taklamakan Desert, which many considered haunted by demons and ghosts. "At times one can hear soughing, or sobbing, but suddenly one does not know where to turn. ... Thus many perish," the seventh-century Chinese monk Xuanzang wrote of the voices he heard in the brutal heat. He described the desert as so bleak and empty that travelers stacked up bones as landmarks.

Farming in Dunhuang also dates to the Han Dynasty, and among the tens of thousands of manuscripts found inside the Mogao Caves was a map that detailed the region's critical water sources. Now, in the village of Zhabacha, about seven miles north of the city center, the water table has dropped more than three feet in the past five years alone.

Beneath a midday sun on Tuesday that had driven other farmers into their crumbling adobe homes, He Zhailin flooded a small plot of wheat with irrigated water. Mr. He said that he tripled his amount of cultivated land during the last decade and that some farmers had expanded even more. Until recently, he said, government officials had encouraged farmers to plant more crops. "There was a lot of water so the government encouraged people to cultivate the land," recalled Mr. He, 40. "At the time, it never dried up."

Now, local officials have introduced a strict policy known as the "Three Forbids" that bans any new farmland, forbids new migrants from moving to the city and prohibits any new wells. The need to protect the underground water is magnified by the fact that almost 90 percent of water from the Dang Reservoir is dedicated to agriculture.

Mr. Zhang, the Lanzhou University professor, stressed that reducing consumption was the solution to the problem and noted that the supply of glacial melt from the Qilian Mountains that feeds the Dang River - and by extension the rest of the oasis - remained largely unchanged from centuries ago. Even so, there are proposals to divert water from a river in Tibet, though the likelihood of such a plan is far from certain.

Conservation has become particularly crucial because Dunhuang has emerged as one of the leading tourist attractions in western China, giving the city a veneer of prosperity rare in rural regions. Last year, more than 430,000 tickets were sold to the Mogao Caves. In all likelihood, even more people visited Crescent Lake, which is nestled in the picturesque dunes known as the Singing Sands.

The lake, also a World Heritage Site, began shrinking in the 1970's and is now about a third of its original size. In the 1990's, officials tried pumping in water but quit because the transfers were polluting the lake. More recently, reservoirs have been built a short distance away in hopes that water would seep into the ground and help Crescent Lake, also called Crescent Moon Lake and Crescent Spring.

"As local people, we are very worried," said Fan Cun, who heads the agency overseeing the lake. "We would have failed future generations if we watch this lake disappear."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company