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Qinghai Lake: Is It Really All Dried Up?
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The fate of Qinghai Lake bears witness to the saying that man will conquer nature, said a scientist from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) on August 9. To have a harmonious relationship with nature, people must adapt to it, and respect the law of development, the scientist added.


In early August, a scientific research team composed of scientists from the Ministry of Science and Technology, the CAS, and the State Forestry Administration conducted a joint investigation into the environmental situation at Qinghai Lake. From their findings, scientists concluded that they couldn't confirm how long the natural beauty of the lake would last with its ecology worsening every year.


Preliminary investigation results showed that in the past 30 years, water levels had dropped 3.7 meters and it had shrunk by 312 square kilometers, the main body of the lake splitting into smaller lakes.


The lake, located on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau 3,260 meters above sea level, measures 4,400 square kilometers. It is the largest inland saltwater lake in China. The plateau region is a state-level natural reserve and is home to 213 species of wild animals and 445 plants. Grassy marshlands, wetlands, brush and dunes, together with fish, birds and beasts make up the region's very special biological system.


In 1992, the lake was added to the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.


The lake maintains ecological bio-diversity of the northeast Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and is considered a natural protective screen to prevent an easterly movement of the desertification process.


However, the combination of global warming and human activities since the 1900s has destroyed the lake's natural environment, slowly but surely.


Desertification is also an issue. Deserted areas now measure 124,279 hectares, and continue to enlarge at an annual rate of nearly 2,000 hectares. The area of high quality grasslands has dropped from 2 million hectares in the 1950s to 1.09 million hectares today.


Fishing resources are being exhausted, too. In the last few years, the number of Gymnocypris przewalskii, a rare species of carp in the lake, has dropped to about 7,500 tons, only 10 percent of what it was 40 years ago.


Rare animals are also facing extinction. There are 37 kinds of wild animals under state first- and second-level protection in the region, 15 to 20 percent of which face extinction. There are fewer than 300 Procapra przewalskit, a rare antelope, left in the wild.


Yin Hong, an expert in the study of wetlands with the State Forestry Administration, said that the primitive ecological environmental system has been totally changed by human activities.


Large-scale agricultural development in the region that started in mid-1950s transformed 50,025 hectares of grassland into farmland, Yin said. A second round of development in the 1980s and into the 90s saw the establishment of six state-owned farms and the further cultivation of 23,350 hectares of precious grassland.


The human population around the lake has increased from about 20,000 in the 1950s to more than 90,000 today.


With areas of farmland needing irrigation increasing progressively, the region's original inhabitants -- wild animals, plants, fish -- have to vie with people for water.


To irrigate the farmlands, dams were constructed in most of the rivers in the region. Half a century ago, there were 108 rivers acting as water sources to the lake. Today, there are only 40, including the Habu and Shaliu rivers. Water sources provide 20 percent less than they did 20 years ago.


Reduced water supplies and levels have resulted in higher salt concentrations in the lake, according to Qinghai's provincial water resource bureau. In 1962, the salt content of the lake was 12.49 grams per liter. Now, that figure has increased to 16 grams per liter. The average pH has increased from 9.0 to more than 9.2, or even 9.5 in some areas. Its alkalinity is even higher than that of the sea. The change of water quality poses a great threat to the lake's ecology, according to the bureau.


Government efforts to rejuvenate the lake region


In 2001, provincial authorities implemented a policy of "people retreating and lake advancing," and allocated several hundred million yuan to reforestation, desertification harnessing, natural grassland recovery, soil fertility, ecological diversity protection, eco-tourism, and fish resource recovery, Vice Governor Li Jincheng said.


To reduce the pressure from people and livestock on the natural environment, the provincial government took "ecological migration" measures and transferred herdspeople to cities and towns to engage in tertiary industries. Local governments were tasked with providing these immigrants with living allowances for 10 to 20 years. Herdspeople who weren't uprooted were advised to switch from open grazing to pen-rearing their livestock. 


To date, 160,080 hectares of land have been reforested, and 1.47 million hectares of degenerating grasslands have been recovered.


In a bid to replenish fish resources, local governments prohibited fishing in the lake in the 1980s. In 1997, a fish farm was started and 15 million artificially bred Gymnocypris przewalskii fries have been released to the lake since then.


In 2003, the Regulation (Draft) on the Ecological Environmental Protection in the Qinghai Lake Reaches, the first for a nature reserve, was implemented.


Vice Governor Li said that after years of effort, parts of the region's ecology has improved, but the deterioration continues.


There is a Comprehensive Harnessing Plan for Ecological and Environmental Protection of the Qinghai Lake Reaches and Areas that has passed preliminary examination and appraisal of experts, but has yet to be approved.


The plan has identified 52,700 square km of land for harnessing over the next 10 years, with an investment of 6.89 billion yuan (about US$850.62 million), Li said.


(China.org.cn by Li Jingrong, September 7, 2005)

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