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China: Water usage in the Uyghur Autonomous Region

20 June 2023

The Uyghur homeland lies in the very heart of Asia. It is known as East Turkistan to Uyghurs and designated the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) by China. Situated along the fabled ancient Silk Road, it has been a prominent centre of commerce for more than 2,000 years. The region gave birth to many great civilizations and at various points in history has been a cradle of scholarship, culture and power. It is inhabited by a majority of Uyghur and other Turkic people. 

The Uyghur Region is the westernmost province of China, with Mongolia to the east, Russia to the north, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to the west, and Tibet to the south. It has a rich history and diverse geography, including grand deserts, magnificent mountains, beautiful rivers, grasslands and forests. In recent years, the region has been the focus of the international community over the discriminatory and repressive policies implemented by the Chinese government.  

Starting in 2013, when Xi Jinping came to power, the Chinese government took a new approach to ethnic groups based on assimilation around a common Han Chinese-centric identity. The launch of the ‘Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism’ campaign in May 2014 marked the first escalation of discriminatory policies, particularly mass arbitrary detentions targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the region in the name of ‘countering terrorism’. The purpose of the campaign was to combat the ‘Three Evil Forces’ of ethnic separatism, violent terrorism and religious extremism. 

In August 2016, the appointment of Chen Quanguo as Party Secretary to XUAR marked a second escalation and a turning point in the implementation of policies targeting Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims. Quanguo had previously been appointed in Tibet, where he had led the development of a system of control using new technologies. He and other officials put in place policies that eventually led to a province-wide surveillance system that disproportionately targets Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, centralized through the ‘Integrated Joint Operations Platform’ (IJOP). These digital surveillance methods were supplemented by biometric data, including DNA and blood types collected during the ‘Physicals for All’ campaign launched in September 2016 to ensure a broad database for the implementation of new laws, regulations and social control policies.  

Other abuses include the mass arbitrary detention of at least three million Uyghurs and other Turkic people in internment camps (also called re-education camps), since 2017. Those held in the camps are detained indefinitely without charge, forced to undergo indoctrination classes, subjected to severe physical and mental abuse, provided with very little food throughout the day, and housed in small rooms with many other inmates. Detentions are extra-legal, with no legal representation allowed throughout the process of arrest and incarceration.

A Uyghur woman collects water from the opening of a karez in Turpan, Xinjiang, China. Credit: Adam Dean/The New York Times.

Importance of water

Water has always been considered fundamental in Uyghur culture and traditions. Since their homeland is a landlocked region, access to water is limited. The land is surrounded fully by mountains. The Tenghritagh mountain range runs through the centre and divides the region in two: the Junggar in the north and the Tarim in the south. In the southern regions, the climate is arid, and in the northern regions, the climate is continental arid and semi-arid. The annual precipitation is very low. Historically, water scarcity has been a real problem in the region. 

Recent challenges resulting from climate change, including the melting of glaciers and the proliferation of development projects in water-intensive industries, are endangering the region’s access to water.  

Since the 1950s, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) or Bingtuan, a paramilitary group, has also negatively impacted the Tarin Basin as a result of its agricultural production. In the 1990s, the region quickly became one of the world’s most important textile producers and exporters, especially in the water-intensive cotton industry. The XPCC operates autonomously in the region and monopolizes the cotton and textile sectors. Various reports indicate that this paramilitary organization uses prison and forced labour, particularly in cotton harvesting and production. In 2018, it produced 2.0465 million tons of cotton in the Uyghur Region, accounting for 33.5 per cent of China’s cotton production. The group exported about RMB 47.3 billion worth of apparel, textile, footwear and hat products. The region accounts for over 20 per cent of the world’s production of cotton. 

The karez system is a network of underground channels that transports water in the Turpan Basin from the Tenghritagh mountain range. This ancient irrigation system of hand-dug channels was built around 2,000 years ago by pastoralists in the region for the irrigation of crops, to prevent evaporation in arid areas and serve as a drainage system. The size of the network was vast, with over 5,000 kilometres of water channels.  

In the last 20 years, the number of karezes in the region has decreased rapidly, mainly because of industrial development, oil exploration and industrial-scale farming. Water channels have fallen into disuse because of the retreating glaciers resulting from climate change. According to government figures, the number of karezes decreased from nearly 1,800 in the 1950s to just over 200 today. This decline coincided with the XPCC’s increased presence in the region.

The water scarcity in the Uyghur Region is a prime example of the Chinese government’s systematic exclusion of the Uyghur and other Turkic people.

Recent research has indicated that the World Bank has loaned money to the local government to restore the karez system. However, a Chinese company known as Camel Group Co., Ltd. – one of the China’s largest battery manufacturers – built a lead battery disposal facility on top of the karez system in Turpan with support from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the lending arm of the World Bank. Reports indicate that the karez system where the company operates is still active and is used by farmers in the area for crop irrigation. Camel Group submitted an environmental impact report but no social impact assessments. IFC therefore does not have documentation as to whether Uyghur families on these karez channels have been consulted or affected by Camel Group’s operations.  

The karez system has been on UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage since 2008. It is an important symbol of Uyghur civilization and a vital part of Uyghurs’ cultural traditions. Both the central and local governments have recognized the historical and ecological significance of this system. The karez system has also fostered a strong sense of cohesion in communities. The elimination or damage of this ancestral heritage is a direct threat to Uyghur cultural traditions and ancestral ties to the land.

Locals have also indicated that their traditional farms are expropriated or destroyed through pollution. It is safe to say that the development projects or poverty alleviation programmes implemented by the Chinese government have rarely benefited the local communities and the ancestral owners of these lands. The Chinese government’s forced migration policies have also led to the occupation of Uyghur ancestral lands and rich resources. Especially in rural areas, Uyghur communities have not been consulted or included in the decision-making processes, although these have often had major impacts on their livelihoods.  

The water scarcity in the Uyghur Region is a prime example of the Chinese government’s systematic exclusion of the Uyghur and other Turkic people. The development projects intended to be beneficial to the advancement of the region have not been to their advantage; they have simply been imposed on local communities. Meanwhile, water and other economic resources have decreased in their ancestral lands. With overpopulation in the southern parts, and the decrease in water and other resources, the local authorities have imposed stringent birth control policies to ensure that the population is within the limits of the region’s carrying capacity. Birth control policies include forced sterilization, forced abortion and other preventive measures. Violations of these policies are punishable with internment, as confirmed in the Karakash List, a leaked document from February 2020. In December 2021, the independent Uyghur Tribunal concluded that these crimes perpetrated by the Chinese government were acts of genocide and crimes against humanity.

To bring an end to these crimes, it is necessary for the international community to take immediate action and not let the Uyghur issue fall off the global agenda.

We are grateful to members of the World Uyghur Congress for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: An aerial photo of karez wells in the desert. Hami, Xinjiang Province, China. 26 March 2023. Credit: Cynthia Lee/Alamy Stock Photo.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >

Author(s)

Zumretay Arkin