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The beginnings of a never-ending task
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By Zhang Yunxing
China.org.cn staff reporter

It all started with a movie called "The Great River," which had its premiere yesterday in Urumqi, capital city of northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

The movie tells a story of two generations of Chinese who offer their youth and even their lives to the protection and development of the Tarim River region. Co-starring Uygur, Han Chinese, and foreign stars, and with an ever-popular background theme of love, the movie attracted hundreds of local residents who wanted to relive the history of the period on the big screen.

Shot entirely in Xinjiang, the movie lacks nothing in breathtaking backdrops and shocking scenes of sandstorms and roaring floods, although most are computer generated.

"The movie offers a true picture of common people working in the Tarim River region for the protection of the local environment and the development of the local economy," said the director of the Tarim River Region Administration (TRRA), Tohti Ahmati, after the premiere. "In the film the story ends, but in real life the ecological restoration works that started decades ago will never end. What we have done and achieved is just a beginning of the journey," he added.

The River

The Tarim River, running for 2,179 kilometers from west to east through the northern part of the Tarim Basin and ending at the Taitema Lake, is China's longest inland river and is honored as the mother river of Xinjiang. It originates with the conflux of the Aksu River of Tianshan Mountain, the Yerqiang River of Kunlun Mountains and the Hetian River. Most of its upper reaches flow through the Taklamakan Desert.

The Tarim River region comprises a group of 144 rivers around the Tarim Basin. These rivers belong to nine hydrographic nets, including the area from the Kaidu to the Kongquehe River, the Aksu River area, and the Yarkant River area. The total river basin covers an area of 1 million square kilometers, while the total water volume amounts to 43 billion cubic meters.

This extensive region is wealthy in land, oil and gas resources and is one of China's major cotton production and petrochemical bases. The natural oasis formed over the ages is an ideal barrier to sand invasion from the Taklamakan Desert.

Historically, the Tarim was a river of surging and roaring waves which helped create such ancient oasis civilizations as Loulan and others along the Silk Road.

Unfortunately, the environment along the Tarim began to deteriorate rapidly in the 1950s, stemming from climate change, runaway land reclamation and improper water diversion for agricultural use.

Tohti said both the development and utilization of hydropower resources and the protection of the environment in the region are important to national solidarity and social stability.

The program

Since China launched its strategy to develop the west in 1998, the Central Government has attached importance to ecological restoration along the Tarim River. On June 27, 2001 the State Council approved a comprehensive water control and ecological conservation program involving a total investment of 10.7 billion yuan (US$1.3 billion).

Protection and rehabilitation of forests and grasslands along the upper and middle reaches and improvement of ecological environment around the lower reaches are two major targets of the program.

"In semi-arid Xinjiang, where there is water, there is oasis and hope," Tohti said. It is a simple and yet cruel natural law. People live and move along with the water. Oases will no longer exist without water. This partly explains the disappearance of ancient Loulan town and other oasis civilizations.

On nine occasions in May 2000 and October 2007, Xinjiang diverted an estimated amount of 2.3 billion cubic meters of water from Kongquehe river into the dry section of the lower reaches of the Tarim River. On six occasions water was diverted into the Taitema Lake, where the Tarim River ends. Before the diversion program, the lower reaches of the watercourse had been dry for 30 years.

The effect of the diversion program is positive and obvious. The groundwater level of riverbanks on the lower reaches rose from 8-12 meters to 4.13 meters on average. The number of plant species increased from 17 to 46, according to a report provided by the TRRA. Wild animals can often be seen.

Improving the environment benefits not only plants and wild animals, but also the people of the region. In 1999, the GDP of Weili County was 237 million yuan and the per-capita income of farmers and herdsmen was 2,422 yuan. By 2005, the GDP of the county had reached 1.6 billion yuan and per-capita income had climbed to 4,577 yuan.

(China.org.cn May 6, 2009)

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