SuMaRiO - Sustainable Management of River Oases along the Tarim River
A Management Plan for the Tarim.

The Tarim Basin is China’s most important cotton growing region. The cotton farms depend on the water carried there by the River Tarim. Artificial irrigation is causing ecological problems in the region however. A German-Chinese research team is now working to develop a sustainable use concept for the oasis landscape.

The Tarim Basin in the extreme north-west of China is a very special landscape: no other region in the world lies as far from an ocean. Enclosed by the foothills of the mighty Tian Shan, Hindu Kush and Kunlun Shan mountains, this extremely arid region has an annual precipitation of only 50 millimetres per square metre. It is only in the early summer that rainfall in the mountains increases, the snows thaw and the glaciers melt, causing torrents of water to come flooding into the valley so that life flourishes along the 1400 kilometre long river – particularly in the form of cotton farms, which have spread out over the oases along the river and which take water from it for their crops. »Without artificial irrigation the cotton farmers could grow nothing here«, says Professor Markus Disse, a hydrologist from the Technical University Munich (TUM). But as a result, the floodplain ecosystem is deprived of the water removed from the river for cotton. Disse has therefore set himself the objective of balancing the demands of the people and the environment in terms of water volume and quality, and thereby achieving the sustainable management of water and land resources.

Lower reaches of the Tarim in summer (Photo taken by P. Keilholz)

Soil salinization (Photo taken by P. Keilholz).

Disse seeks to implement this in the project »Sustainable management of River Oases along the Tarim River«, or SuMaRiO for short. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research is giving 7.5 million Euros in funding for the joint German-Chinese project. Scientists from ten German universities and research institutions and eight Chinese universities and scientific institutions are working together on the project. Their aim is to set up a sustainable oasis management system for the Tarim Basin which meets the demands of land and water users fairly in these times of climatic change and social upheaval.

Euphrates poplars (Photo taken by P. Keilholz).

On the edge of the oasis - the start of the desert (Photo taken by P. Keilholz).

The objective of the SuMaRiO project is ambitious, because many lay claim to the meagre volume of water available in the Xinjiang region. They include the ten million people living in the oases along the Tarim, who rely on the river for drinking water, the cotton farmers, local industry, and the animal and plant species of the floodplains. In this respect the cotton is both a blessing and a curse for the region. 40 percent of China’s cotton production is harvested in the fields along the river, representing around 15 percent of world production. This brings a degree of prosperity to the region, and feeds the employees of the big state-owned and military farms and the small farmers. However, this agriculture is also causing major ecological problems because the cotton requires a lot of water. The farmers obtain this by diverting water from the Tarim along artificial canals, particularly in the summer months. Cotton cultivation has increased dramatically in recent years, and the effects on the middle reaches and especially the lower reaches of the river are plain to see. »The hydrological and ecological system is disrupted nearly everywhere«, asserts Professor Bernd Cyffka, a geographer at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. The scientist, head of the Neuburg Floodplain Institute on the Danube, is investigating the ecosystem services provided by the riparian forests along the Tarim in the SuMaRiO project. He says that the problems are obvious: in the past 30 years so much water has already been removed from the upper and middle reaches to irrigate the cotton and wheat fields after the snows melt that a 380-kilometre stretch of the lower reaches receives hardly any water at all.

Sometimes this section of the river has lain dry for years. »All the water is used up over the summer for cotton growing«, says the ecologist. The irrigated agricultural land also oversalinates the water.

Within the SuMaRiO project several datasets about climate change and agriculture have been collected and will be created. An overview of the resulting datasets can be reviewed in the application below.

Further information

Detailled information are available on the project website:
The SuMaRiO science portait and a short project description is available on the
Sustainable Land Management Website.
Detailled information about SuMaRiO datasets and web services are available in the
GLUES metadata catalog.