Fakultet for samfunnsvitenskap og
Haakon Lein & Shen Yuling
The disappearance of the Karez of Turfan
Report from the project ‘Harvest from wasteland.
Land, people and water management reforms in the
drylands of Xinjiang.’
Serie A, Nr. 15
Series A, No. 15
Avhandlinger og rapporter/Theses and reports
I n n o v a t i o n a n d C r e a t i v i t y
I n n o v a t i o n a n d C r e a t i v i t y
Acta Geographica-Trondheim is the continuation of Papers from the Department
of Geography, University of Trondheim, which came out 1978-2001.
Series A, No. 15
HAAKON LEIN & SHEN YULING
The disappearance of the Karez of Turfan.
Report from the project ‘Harvest from wasteland. Land, people and water
management reforms in the drylands of Xinjiang.’
Haakon Lein & Yuling Shen. 2006. The disappearance of the Karez of Turfan. Report from the project
‘Harvest from wasteland. Land, people and water management reforms in the drylands of Xinjiang.’ Acta
Geographica–Trondheim, Serie A, Nr. 15. Geografisk institutt, NTNU, Trondheim. 18 pp. ISSN 1502-2390
This report has been prepared as part of the project ‘Harvest from wasteland. People, land and water management
in Xinjiang, China.’ This project focuses on land and water management issues as well as ongoing water reforms
in locations in the Tarim basin of Xinjiang Uyuar Autonomous Region, Northwest China. The report deals with
karez irrigation in Turfan district. Karez irrigation is a type of irrigation based on underground canals and is well
known in many dry areas of the Middle East and Central Asia under the name qanats. The report describes the
situation today, the number of karez still in use, their importance as regards agriculture as well as to identify
causes behind the decline in number of karez in use. The report is based on fieldwork in Turfan in October
2004. A major conclusion is that the karez as a unique form of irrigation is under substantial pressure and that if
present development continues karez irrigation will more or less be abandoned in the region within a decade or
Keywords: Irrigation, Water, Reforms, Xinjiang, China
All photos, maps and figures © Shen Yuling
The disappearance of the Karez of Turfan
Haakon Lein & Shen Yuling
‘If you are born in Turfan you should know the importance of the karez’
This report has been prepared as part of the
project ‘Harvest from wasteland. People, land
and water management in Xinjiang, China.’ This
project focuses on land and water management
issues as well as ongoing water reforms in
locations in the Tarim basin of Xinjiang Uyuar
Autonomous Region, Northwest China.
More specifically the main objectives of the
Gain a better understanding of local water
management institutions and how they are
transformed during ongoing water reforms.
Describe the situation as regards water
pricing, to find out how water prices are set,
how collection is organized from farm level
and upward, and finally to try to assess the
effects of the pricing system on farmers’ use
of water and whether the ongoing reforms are
likely to bring about a functioning water
Explore the concept of water rights, the
multiple bases for claims to water, how these
claims are negotiated and conflicts solved, and
to what extent water reforms take into
consideration the possibility that multiple
forms of rights may exist.
Karez irrigation has been practised in Turfan as
well as other parts of Xinjiang for centuries. The
karez of Turfan are well known and have been
briefly described by various travellers to the
region (e.g. Huntington 1907, 1996 ).
However, literature focussing on karez in
particular seems to be very limited and what
exists tends to be very general or focussing on
physical aspects and/or the historical origins
(International Conference on Karez irrigation
The karez are extremely important for many
farmers in this dry region. As will be described
more in detail below, the construction of
irrigation canals as well as installation of new
wells have contributed to a lowering of the
groundwater table causing many of the karez to
run dry. If present development continues, there
is a real danger that this form of irrigation may
disappear from the region within the next 10–20
This report sets out to:
Describe the situation today, the number of
karez still in use, as well as their importance
as regards agriculture.
To identify causes behind the decline in
number of karez in use.
To assess the links between karez and other
forms of irrigation (canals and wells).
To give a general outline on how the karez are
Explore the concept of water right as regards
Has karez irrigation been influenced in any
way by past and presentland and water policy
reforms, and if so, in what sense?
The report is based on fieldwork in Turfan in
October 2004. During this period local leaders,
officials in various water management
institutions and farmers were interviewed. A list
of issues covered in the interviews is included in
Appendix I. In addition to interviews in Turfan
City, we visited three sites:
‘Baza’ village – located relatively close to the
mountain and having good access to karez
‘Dikaer’ – a settlement located downstream on
the desert fringe .
‘Blak’ village – a well-established settlement
not far from Turfan City experiencing
increasing water shortages.
In addition the study draws on literature and
data provided by various government agencies
during our stay.
Figure 1 Map of Turfan district.
II. The study area
Turfan district is located in the east of Xinjiang
Uyuar Autonomous Region. The district is
located in a basin of east Tianshan Mountains
and stretches c.300 km from east to west, and
240 km from north to south. The total area is c.
, with mountain area and plain area
accounting for 14% and 8% respectively. The
main city is Turfan, an oasis settlement, over
decades well known to traders and explorers and
more recently to tourists coming to explore the
many sights along the Silk Road. The Aiding
Lake located to the south of Turfan City, 153 m
below sea level, is the second lowest place on
From north to south the Turfan Basin can,
according to Historical Records of Turfan City
Editorial Board (2002), be divided into the
following geomorphological units:
Bogeda mountains (elevation 3500–4000 m)
Gobi desert in piedmont (elevation 600–1200
Alluvial fan and plains (elevation c.600 m)
Salt and Flaming mountains (elevation 300–
Gobi desert and alluvial plain (elevation c.
100–500 m), where most settlements and
cultivation are concentrated
Aiding lake (elevation -153 m)
Jueluotag mountains (elevation 600–1500 m).
The rivers of Turfan district originates in the
northern and western Tianshan mountains, and
are supplied by glacier and snow meltwater as
well as rain. Annual average surface discharge is
, groundwater discharge is c.
. Estimated total water resources
available in the district are c.11.7x10
(Turfan District Water Conservancy Bureau,
As the rivers flow from the mountains much of
the water seeps into the gobi desert which has
deep sediments of gross texture materials. In
summer, water flow in the rivers is high due to
glacier and snow-melt in the mountains. If this is
combined with heavy rain flash floods can occur
carrying large amount of mud and sand and
causing damage to the railway, roads and
At the northern gobi desert of the Flaming
mountain, the depth of groundwater table
declines from 100–150 m in the piedmont to 20–
30 m near the Flaming mountain. The Flaming
mountain obstructs both the surface flow and
groundwater flow, which can only pass through
certain gorges of the Flaming mountain. After
the flows leave the Flaming mountain, part of
the flow seeps into the ground again and
becomes the water source for the karez in the
southern area of the Flaming mountain.
The climate of the Turfan district varies from the
mountains to the settled plains. On the settled
areas below the mountains, annual average
precipitation is 16.4 mm, whereas the annual
average potential evaporation is above 3000
mm. It is very hot in the summer and cold in
winter. The highest daytime temperature from
June to August is above 35°C, average
temperature in July is c.40°C, with the highest
49.6°C, making it is hottest place in summer in
China. The average temperature in January is
−9.5°C. The annual average period without frost
is approximately 210 days (Historical Records
of Turfan City Editorial Board 2002).
Population and cultivated lands
Turfan district is divided into three
administrative units: Turfan City, Shanshan
County and Tuokxun County. The population of
the district was c.525, 000 in 1995, an increase
from c.145,000 in 1949. At the beginning of the
century Huntington (1907) had estimated
the total population in the Turfan to be c.50,000.
Along with the increase in population has there
been a somewhat varying increase in land under
cultivation from 31,200 ha in 1949 to 55,200 ha
in 1965, followed by a decline to 43,300 ha in
1995 (Table 1).
The population of Turfan is made up of three
main ethnic groups:
As in Xinjiang in general, Turfan has witnessed
high rates of Han immigration since 1949 (Table
2). In 1949 the population of Turfan City was c.
67,300, of which more than 60,000 (89%) were
Uygur. In 1995 the population had grown to
196,000. Still the majority was Uygur but now
21% were Han Chinese
Table 1. Population and land under cultivation 1949–1995 in Turfan District.
Source: Xinjiang Uyuar Autonomous Region Financial and Economic Leading Group, Xinjiang Uyuar
Autonomous Region Statistic Bureau (1997)
Table 2. Changes in ethnic composition in Turfan City 1949–1995.
Source: Rudelson 1997, 101.
III. Karez irrigation
Karez irrigation is a type of irrigation well
known in many dry areas of the Middle East,
Central and South Asia but then under the name
qanats (Beaumont 1993). One controversial
issue relates to the origin of the karez in
Xinjiang and whether these are indigenously
developed or imported from neighbours in the
Some claim this is a technique adapted
from somewhat similar type underground water
canal found in other parts of China. Others claim
that it most likely is a local innovation
developed by people in Xinjiang as a response
to the physical conditions of the region. A third
explanation is that that this is an irrigation
technique that has spread eastwards from Persia
(Iran). Huntington (1907) refers to sources that
support the latter view and actually date the
introduction of karez in Turfan to approximately
1780. It is difficult to judge the basis for these
varying claims, not least because the various
explanations are linked to the more general and
contested history on the role of Xinjiang in
A karez is basically an underground canal
conveying water from an upstream aquifer to a
lower lying area. The canal tap water from
groundwater reservoirs in the alluvial fans
located at the base of the mountain areas. The
underground canal or tunnels can be divided into
two main parts, a water collecting part and a
water conveying part (Figure 2). Some karez
may have several water collecting heads, joined
together to form a single water conveyance
Photo 1 Collapsed karez with two water supply
The conveyance canal channel the water
downstream until it reaches the opening called
telemai in Uygur. In order to construct the tunnel
a number of vertical shafts have to be dug for
taking out soil as well as to supply fresh air. The
soil dumped around these shafts is a very
characteristic sight in the very sterile, flat or
gently sloping desert landscape.
Photo 2 Top of a vertical shaft of a karez
In the lower reaches, the distance between the
shafts may be 10–20 m, and in the upper part it
can be 30–70 m. The depth of the shafts varies
with the depth of the tunnel, in the lower reaches
the shafts may be only some metres deep, some
of the deepest shafts may be more than 100 m
deep. The size of the underground tunnel is
between 0.5–0.8 m wide and 1.2–1.8 m high. In
addition to the shafts and the conveyance tunnel
it is common to have a storage pool not far away
from the canal opening. This pool is used for
storing water at night and may also be used as a
means for measuring and dividing water among
Most of the karez in the area are relatively old
though some are of recent origin. Since many
karez have become dry or are in the process of
becoming dry, new and deeper karez are being
built and old ones are extended upwards towards
the mountains. The digging takes place during
the winter. Digging of the karez used to be done
by local people and in some places this is also
the case today. However, it has become
increasingly common to employ temporal labour
migrants from other parts of China (Ganzou,
Sichuan, Henan) to carry out this work.
For various opinions on this, see papers in International Conference on Karez irrigation (1993).
Figure 2: Schematic overview of karez in Turfan
The group of karez diggers shown on photo 3
have come from Gansu to work on the extension
of one of the karez in Baza village. The team
consists of 8 men. They start work in October
and return back to their home village in May in
order to harvest wheat.
Photo 3 Karez diggers.
They work 8 hours a day: 4 hours underground
and 4 hours outside. They can dig 1–2 m per
day. The village provide the equipment needed
and the tractor used for lifting the buckets of soil
up from underground. The group has excavated
a cave in the ground where they live throughout
the winter. During the season each will earn c.
5000 yuan. The construction of the vertical
shafts, which are more than 60 m deep, is
considered most dangerous as there is a risk that
the shafts may collapse. Below c.50 m
conditions are very wet and the digging has to
be done ‘in the rain’. Also there is a problem
with access to fresh air so the period of work
underground has to be restricted.
The many archaeological sites of large
settlements in the area indicate that the people
must have been living in the area under quite
different and wetter climatic conditions than at
present. Huntington (1907) concluded that these
ancient settlements must have been based on the
use of wells and surface water. However, after
karez irrigation was introduced in the area it was
possible to support an increasing population and
Huntington estimated that c.40% of the
population during his visit was relying on karez
water (Huntington 1907).
As shown in Table 3, there has been a rather
dramatic decline in the number of karez in use
since the 1960s.
Table 3. Number of karez with water flow in Turfan district 1949–2004.
Karez (with water flow)
Source: Turfan District Water Conservancy Bureau 2001.
This decline may have many causes. One may
be that there has been a decline in precipitation
in the mountains and/or a natural decline in
water flow in the rivers affecting the recharge of
groundwater. Unfortunately there are no
meteorological stations in the part of the
Tianshan Mountains where the rivers of the
region originate. Although data on discharge
exist for the major rivers originating in the
mountains but the data are hard access to as this
type of information is considered ‘internal
material’. However, available aggregate data
from one of the main rivers Meiyaogou river,
indicate no significant downward trend in water
flow over the last decades. The data do,
however, show that there are quite large
variations in discharge from year to year. In the
period 1956–1998 the smallest annual average
discharge was 0.479x10
in 1985 and the
biggest annual average discharge was 1.212x10
in 1990 (Table 4).
Although the climatic and hydrological data
presented here are very scant, it is most likely
that the decline in karez irrigation has been
caused by human activities. During the
interviews with water management officials and
farmers, the decline in karez use was attributed
to human-caused lowering of groundwater
levels. The extent of decline in groundwater
level is difficult to ascertain and will vary
considerably from place to place. Officials from
Shanshan County claimed that groundwater
table had decreased 6.0 m in the southern part,
and 3.9 m in the northern part of the Flaming
mountain. A comprehensive study of the
groundwater situation in the area is currently
under way and hopefully this will provide better
understanding of the present situation as regards
groundwater resources in the region.
Table 4. Annual average discharge in ten-year period in Meiyaogou.
Annual average discharge
Maximum discharge in the
ten-year period (10
Minimum discharge in the
ten-year period (10
Source: Data provided by Xinjiang Hydrology and Water Resources Bureau.
During discussion with staff in the local water
bureaucracy as well as local leaders and farmers
the decline in groundwater level tended to be
attributed to two main causes:
1. The construction of water reservoirs and
surface water canals reducing the recharge
rates of the groundwater reservoirs.
2. The rapid expansion of groundwater
pumping in recent decades.
Photo 4: Ertang gou River
Since the 1960 a number of reservoirs have been
constructed at sites close to where the rivers
leave the mountain river valleys. From these
dams a number of lined canals have been built in
order to carry as much as possible of the
available water to the cultivated areas further
down. Besides being used for storing water for
the dry season, the reservoirs are important for
controlling flash floods. Such floods due to
snow-melt in the mountains and heavy rain may
cause substantial flood damage to both roads
and other types of infrastructure.
Table 5 shows there is a considerable variation
in surface flow over the year. The discharge in
the three months of June to August amounts to
57% of the estimated annual total discharge.
Although the construction of dams and river
control measures may be important for
controlling floods it is also assumed that the
development may be harmful for the karez
because such regulations will reduce the
recharge of the aquifers. In practice only very
little water is allowed to flow freely into the
original riverbeds. In fact, it may be only during
the winter – when water flow may lead to frost
damage in the canals – that water is fed into the
original riverbeds. The likely negative impact of
these dams on the karez downstream was openly
acknowledged during interviews. However, the
importance of controlling damaging flash floods
was seen as being of overriding importance. It
was also argued by some water bureaucrats that
surface water irrigation was a more ‘modern’
type of irrigation than the karez and that it thus
was important to improve the water flow in the
canal systems, even if this was done on the
expense of the karez system.
Another and perhaps equally or more important
reason for the decline in groundwater level is the
spread of well irrigation. The installation of
tube-wells started in the late 1960s. At that time
there were somewhere between 1200 and 1300
karez with water in the district. In the period
1985 to 2000 the number of wells increased by
1500 (Table 6).
The tube-wells are used for pumping
groundwater for irrigation as well as for other
purposes. Especially since the introduction of
the household responsibility system in 1982
there has been a growing interest in opening up
new land as well developing grape production.
In addition a number of oilfields (Tuha oilfields)
have been developed and a considerable amount
of water is pumped into these wells in order to
enhance oil production.
Table 5. Discharge of surface flow variations in seasons in Turfan district.
Source: Turfan District Water Conservancy Bureau, 2001.
Table 6. Tube-wells in Turfan district.
Source: Data provided by Turfan District Water
Table 7. Number of tube-wells in different parts
of Turfan in 2000.
Source: Data provided by Turfan District Water
As Table 7 shows, the tube-wells are distributed
fairly widely in all three counties.
IV.Changes in population, land use
and water availability at the three
In order to gain an understanding of the use and
importance of the karez at local level, three sites
and a number of production teams were visited.
The three sites proved to be quite different as
regards access to and use of karez water.
Upstream: Baza village
Baza village was once a vital trading centre as it
was located on the main road to Urmuqi. The
road currently runs outside the centre and
Lianmuqin xiang government, which used to be
located here, was moved to a new place in 1966.
During the period of Peoples Commune, Baza
village was called Brigade No. 10. The brigade
has 716 households and c.3700 people, with a
land area of c.4500 mu (15 mu equals 1 hectare).
Approximately 700 of those living in the village
do not have own land.
The village used to have 7 karez but 10–15 years
ago several began to dry up. These were
shallower karez than the two used at present.
After the oil company began to extract oil in the
village the groundwater table declined from c.6
m below the surface to c.20 m. There are
currently 20 oil wells in the village and much
water is poured into the wells in order to sustain
oil production. This water is supplied by a
special tube-well installed in the village and 10
trucks carry water to the wells on a continuous
basis. The oil company pays 20,000–30,000
yuan per annum to the production team owning
the land on which the tube-well is installed.
Photo.5 Oilwells in Baza.
The village has two karez (Liqiza and
Doulekunqi karez) which both lead to a large
storage pool. Here water is stored at night (12
hours), and released in daytime (12 hours). In
the daytime, water from the two karez is
diverted directly to land without passing through
the storage pool. In practice, the water stored in
the pool provides four production teams with
water during daytime, and at the same time
water flowing directly from the karez provides
the other four production teams with water.
The water rotation order between the different
teams is arranged by the brigade, within the
production team the rotation order is managed
by the team’s head. The brigade originally
consisted of eight production teams but as part
of the rural reforms the number was reduced to
six in 2004. However, water is still managed by
the former heads of production teams and is still
distributed as originally.
In general, every production team receives water
10 times per year. As the number of households
and the area under cultivation varies between
production teams the length of irrigation period
varies between the teams. The longest period for
one biggest production team is eight days, while
the shortest period for one production team is
Different crops have different water
requirements. Wheat needs no water before
sowing as it has winter irrigation. Sowing is
finished before 10th March and the first water in
supplied on approximately 15th April, the
second round of water supply is on 10th May,
and so forth. In total there are four rounds of
irrigation for wheat before harvest
(approximately 20th June). When harvesting is
finished, normally by the end of June, this land
receives water and is planted with Chinese white
sorghum, corn or cabbage. These crops need
approximately five rounds of irrigation. All land
has winter irrigation.
In 1982, there were almost no grapevines
planted in the village. Today, 80% of the land
area is planted with vines. During winter the
grapevines are covered with soil. This cover is
removed between 20th and 30th of March.
Irrigation begins approximately on 1st of April,
and then approximately every 20 days thereafter
the land will receive water. Harvest starts
approximately on 20th of June, and the peak
season is in July and August. After harvest the
grapes are dried as raisins in special houses
(liang fang). This process takes about one
month. After the harvest, land receives winter
irrigation and the grapevines are again covered
with soil before the first frosts occur.
The brigade has 10 tube-wells so that each
production team has at least one tube-well used
for supplementary irrigation. Also, in June the
teams can buy additional water diverted from
The brigade started to collect water fees in 1982
after land had been distributed to farmers.
Collection of fees was dependent on the cost of
maintaining the karez; if there are no cash
expenses, there are no fees. At that time farmers
provided compulsory labour to clean the canals.
Since 1995 this work has been contracted to
farm labourers from inland China (Gansu,
Sichuan and Henan). In 2000 the water fee was
1.2–1.5 yuan/mu and was used for covering the
costs of cleaning the karez. From 2003 onwards
the brigade started to collect water fees at the
rate of 60 yuan/mu to cover the costs both for
maintaining both karez and the tube-wells. In
2003, 200,000 yuan was collected. If, for
example, the price of electricity is 0.42 yuan/
kwh, water from the pump will cost farmers
between 10 and 20 yuan/mu for one round of
irrigation. The actual price varies because of
variations in groundwater levels and conditions
of the pump.
One mu can produce approximately 2 tons of
fresh grape, and 5 kg of fresh grapes are needed
to produce 1 kg of raisins. The price of raisins
varies; in 2004 it was as low as 5.7–5.8 yuan per
kilogram, giving farmers an income of
approximately 2200 yuan/mu.
Blak village is located south of Turfan City. It is
a well-established settlement that has
experienced increasing water shortages over the
last decades. Blak means spring water and the
village has acquired its name from the many
natural springs once found in the area. The
present Blak village used to be two ‘vanguard’
production brigades (Nos. 1 and 2), which were
merged into one village in 2004 as part the
central government’s policy to ‘reduce farmers’
burden’. In this process the number of
production teams was reduced from 9 to 4 and
the number of paid local leaders cut from 26 to
12. As part of this policy change, agricultural tax
was also reduced from 150 yuan/mu in 2003 to
10 yuan/mu in 2004.
Table 8. Number of households, land and irrigation facilities in Blak village
Old Blak village (2003)
New Blak village
Name in People’s Commune
Vanguard No. 1
Vanguard No. 2
Name after People’s
Number of production teams
- With water
People’s Canal No.1
People’s Canal No.1
People’s Canal No.1
Despite the reorganization water is still managed
according to the former production teams and
the brigade leaders have little influence on water
management issues. The different production
teams do to a varying degree depend on karez
water, and only one is totally dependent on
water from People’s Canal No 1. Some have
good access to karez water and only use tube-
wells for supplementary irrigation. Others
mainly depend on canal water but also use karez
water and tube-wells. Since the village has land
located on the southern desert fringe, i.e. at the
end of the canal, the water supply is very
unreliable and can be scarce in some parts. In
2004 much of the land experienced drought, as
the canal water supply had been very erratic.
The village wanted to install a new tube-well but
had failed to be granted a licence for this.
According to local regulations, no new tube-
wells are to be installed closer than 500 m from
existing karez and since instalment of a tube-
well would infringe on this rule, the application
to install a tube-well was turned down.
In addition to water from the karez and tube-
well, farmers also depend on canal water from
‘People’s Canal No 1’. This canal conveys water
from the Meiyaogou River and was constructed
between 1956 and 1959 by farmers providing
compulsory labour. Also up until recently people
also had to provide free labour to maintain the
canal. The water from this canal used to be
reliable and cheap. However, due to opening up
of new land in the upper stretches, water supply
has become unstable and the length between
each round of irrigation has increased. At the
same time the price of water has risen
substantially. The water is measured at a
location far from the village and all water
conveyance losses in the systems below have to
be covered by the users, thereby adding to the
water prices. In addition, the price of water
varies from round to round. If water flow is low,
it will take long time to complete one round of
irrigation and water losses will be high, thus
resulting in relative high prices. Currently, water
also has to be paid before it is supplied, whereas
previously farmers had to pay afterwards. The
situation seemed to be confusing for farmers and
local administrators, as the pricing system was
difficult to understand.
The female brigade leader had on several
occasions taken up the issue of the drying out of
the karez with the leaders of the xiang who,
according to her own view, probably regarded
her as a problematic person. Also, some farmers
had gone to Turfan City to protest directly to the
city government over the problems of water
scarcity and she, as a leader, had been
reprimanded for not preventing this. The brigade
leader’s view was that ‘If you are born in Turfan
you should know the importance of the karez’.
Her opinion was that the regulations for tube-
wells should be stricter; the distance to the karez
should be increased, there should be limits on
the depth of the wells, and the electricity fee
should be raised so as to make it more expensive
to use. Access to karez was, in her opinion,
important for the production teams and a
production team should have access to at least
one karez. Access to a karez meant that more
vegetables for household consumption were
grown; if water for pumps or canals were to be
used for this it would be too expensive and
farmers would stop growing vegetables.
On the desert fringe: Dikaer
Dikaer xiang has six villages. As shown in Table
9, there was a rather moderate increase
population from 1984 to 2004 whereas the land
under cultivation increased by 6000 mu. Along
with this development there was a rather
dramatic decline in number of karez with water
whereas number of tube-wells has increased
from a few in 1984 to 257 in 2004. The most
rapid increase in tube-wells was from 1994 to
Table 9. Changes in population, cultivated land
and irrigation facilities in Dikaer xiang, 1984–
Cultivated area (mu)
Karez with water
Source: Interviews with local government
officials, Dikaer xiang
This development came as a result of an active
policy for opening up ‘wasteland’. Currently, all
wastelands that are developed to plant
grapevines and melons are allowed to install a
new tube-well. In 2003, Turfan district
government began to advocate the development
of greenhouse cultivation of vegetables (facility
agriculture – sheshi nongyie). Since 2004, all
who develop vegetable production in
greenhouses can obtain approval to install a new
Turfan district government has a favourable
policy towards developing vineyards and every
xiang is expected to develop viticulture. The
natural conditions are considered suitable for
this and vegetable production for the market in
Urmuchi. At present, there are many
professional land developers and commercial
plantations establishing in the area, many of
them run by people from inland China.
The leader of Dikaer xiang government argued
that farmers like to use karez and have great
confidence in this system. After land was
contracted to individuals in 1982 the karez had,
however, faced problems in terms of
maintenance. The xiang government has not
invested in maintenance of karez but in 2004 it
applied and received 100,000 yuan for this
purpose. All the karez have some water at the
head of the system and some of the abandoned
karez can be recovered. The rising costs of using
water from the pumps have also made the karez
more competitive and an attractive alternative.
The price of electricity was 0.08 yuan/kwh in
1984, 0.22 yuan/kwh in 1995, and 0.35 yuan/
kwh in 2004. On some land the cost of
electricity for pumping can reach 200 yuan/mu
per year. Dikaer xiang had three production
teams that use water from the canals, but it was
a common problem that when farmers wanted
water most there was usually no water in the
canal. The price of canal water is 0.043 yuan/m
The changes depicted Dikaer is found also in
other areas where the process evidently started
earlier. In Dalangkaer xiang to the north of
Dikaer the last karez went dry in July 2001.
Here the number of tube-wells had increased
from 200 in 1984 to 502 in 2004. At the same
time the land under cultivation had doubled
from 15,000 to 30,000 mu. Before 2002 all
applications for opening up new land and a
licence for installing a new tube-well (dajing
xukezheng) was approved by the xiang. Due to
the declining groundwater table new wells now
have to be approved by the Vice Head of
Shanshan County and since 2002 no new tube-
wells have been approved.
In 1996, altogether three settlements in Dikaer
xiang were abandoned and people in these
settlements were moved to a newly established
village named Hope (near Dikaer xiang
government site). The settlements were
abandoned primarily because all karez carrying
water to the villages had dried out. As these
settlements were thinly populated, remote and
without public amenities such as electricity and
schools, the xiang government decided to
abandon the settlements rather than invest in
new tube-wells. According to village elders
these settlements had once been very good sites
for grazing, with plenty of grass and bushes
around but all this had disappeared after the
karez ran dry. Some plots are still cultivated and
there is still some grazing of sheep around the
Photo 6 Abandoned settlement, Dikaer xiang
In total, 130 households moved in the period
1996–1998. Each household received support to
set up new houses in Hope and the total cost of
moving was 26,000 yuan per household. This
was partly financed by the xiang government,
partly by Shanhshan Gold Mine Company. In
addition, 35 have moved to Hope at their own
expenses. In 2004 the village thus consisted of
165 households, all Uygur, with 709 people.
When settling in Hope each adult person was
allocated 3 mu of land in three different plots. In
2004, a total of 1200 mu of land was under
cultivation and of this 780 mu were vineyards.
Other crops grown in the areas included melons,
cotton and wheat. As this land was new
previously uncultivated a total of 10 tube-wells
were installed. The cost of installing a well is c.
90,000 yuan. The groundwater level had
declined continuously in 1996 the groundwater
table was c.20 m below the surface, in 2004 it
was 33 m. More wasteland (600–700 mu) was
still in the process of being opened up in the
area. In addition, some private developers
(getihu) have installed their own private tube-
wells and opened up new land in the area in
recent years. To convert the desert into
cultivable land takes some time since the soil
contains salts. These have to be washed out and
this process normally takes two years, after
which only Chinese white sorghum can be
cultivated in the subsequent few years.
Of the 19 karez in the xiang still providing
water, 11 are found in Dikaer village. This is the
most southern village, bordering the dry gobi
desert to the south of Turfan district. The village
has 2000 mu of land and 1100 people. No
wasteland has been opened recently in Dikaer
village but one settlement had been abandoned
and the inhabitants moved to Hope village.
One of the production teams (No. 3) visited in
2004 consisted of 300 people holding c.600 mu
of land. In 1982 land was contracted on the basis
of 1.5 mu per person. There were five karez in
the production team at the time. Land parcels
were not distributed on the basis of the karez but
land quality, which meant that a family could be
drawing water from different karez.
Shayi karez is one of the karez in use. It is very
old, 700 m long and irrigates c.65 mu lands.
Twenty people use water from the karez, in
addition to using water from other karez. Water
from the karez is stored in a pool and released
twice each day: first in the morning between
04.00 and 07.30, then water is stored again until
15.00, after which it is released until sunset.
Every day, water is used to irrigate two farmers’
land, regardless of where the plots are located.
Some land cannot receive enough water from
the karez, so farmers have to buy water from a
tube-well. In July, August and September, crops
need more water and farmers have to buy
additional water from the tube-well. The fee for
electrical pumping was 10 yuan/hour.
A fairly similar practice was followed in Gehep
karez which belongs to production team No. 5.
The water distribution rotation is organized so
that each farmer gets water every 16 day. The
farmers will have land in plots located at
different places, but when he receives water all
his plots will be watered regardless of location.
The distribution is based on a 24 hour cycle. For
6 hours water is stored in dam, then water is
released for 6 hours to three farmers, then 6
hours of storing, then 6 hours of release to three
other farmers. If a farmer needs additional water
he has to purchase from the pump.
V. Some general observations
Land and water rights
When land was distributed after 1982 as part of
the introduction of the household responsibility
system, it was distributed on a per person
system. All adults, as well as children who were
born at that time, were allocated land. As
regards land allocated to children, the families
operate this land until the children (male) marry
and take over the land. Children born after 1982
inherit the land after the death of their parents.
In some of the villages visited it was claimed
that in general, the youngest son would inherit
the land. Although girls may have right to land,
they will normally not exercise that right as they
will settle with their husband’s family after
When land was distributed in 1982 it was done
on basis of the production teams, the land held
by the team was simply distributed to the people
belonging to the team. As the production teams
varied both as regards number of people and
land this meant that the amount of land
distributed to each person would have varied
between different production teams. This is
again reflected in present-day patterns, there
may be considerable difference between even
neighbouring production teams as to how much
land a person holds today.
Since children born after 1982 have no right to
land, a considerable group of young people have
been affected. Their option will be either to find
an alternative to agriculture, to rent land from
absent owners, or to work as agricultural
labourers in the village or on Bingtuan farms. In
at least two of the villages (Dikaer and Baza)
visited, shortage of land for this group was
pointed out as a major problem. In one
production team (No. 5) in Dikaer village, 60
out of 150 people, all born in the village, had no
In the distribution process the available land was
classified according to land quality and people
received pieces of land from each category. In
most cases people will therefore have their land
distributed between a numbers of separated
plots, sometimes located far apart. This means
that a farmer commonly will draw water from
different sources, i.e. different karez, pumps or
As regards the link between land and water
rights, access to water from a karez is linked to
access to land. Formerly, when a farmer was
allocated land within the traditional command
area of the karez he was also assigned a ‘right’
to water from that particular karez. Further,
when land was rented out from an absentee
landowner, as was practiced in Baza village, the
land leaser would have the same access as the
landowner to water from the karez.
As discussed, there has been considerable in-
migration as well as opening up of new land in
the region over the last few decades. This
development has been based on the use of tube-
wells and canals, not on karez. This is not only
because the karez have been running dry but
also because in practice existing karez are closed
to newcomers. In none of the places visited was
it possible for outsiders to link up to existing
karez in order to obtain water for new land. This
is very different from the situation as regards
tube-wells and canals. Up until recently, the
installation of tube-wells was not regulated and
even today it is possible for newcomers to link
up to existing surface canals and draw water
Water use and management
Although Turfan is well known for its grapes,
raisins and melons, the traditional crops in this
area have been wheat and Chinese white
sorghum. Since liberation, cotton has also been
an important crop. In the last few decades the
importance of grape production seems to have
grown substantially as a result of growing
Before 1949 the karez belonged to individual
farmers or families and were also often named
after the one who was responsible for the
original construction, referring either to the
person’s name, their profession or other
characteristic. For instance, Gehep karez is
named after the person who organized the
digging of the karez, thought to be more than
200 years ago, Carpenter karez is named after
the carpenter who initially organized the
construction of the karez, and in the case of
Wujiamu karez, Wujiamu means a person that
can be trusted.
After 1949 the running and maintenance of the
karez has been based on local level farmers’
associations. After the introduction of the
production brigades, the latter have played an
important role in organizing all kinds of water
issues, including karez, tube-wells and canal
In general, water is distributed according to a
rotation system. Farmers are allocated a certain
amount of time for water flow. In some areas
water is directed towards certain parts of the
village and an individual farmer may receive
water for his plots on different day according to
the location of his plots. In some of the smaller
schemes visited, a farmer received water for all
of his plots on a given day, irrespective of
location. This practice might be less efficient as
regards water use but more transparent and easy
Photo 7 Storage pond
If a farmer does not receive enough water he has
to buy extra from a pump or canal, if available.
In some areas it seemed that it was possible to
‘borrow’ water from another farmer. If neither of
these options is available a farmer simply has to
accept whatever water he receives and this often
results in low yields.
In several cases, karez water is stored in a pond
before being released to the fields. The use of
storage ponds makes water distribution more
transparent and measurable. The water stored for
some time (e.g. overnight) prior to release at a
given time and when the pond is empty the
outlet will be closed. The system is easy to
understand and be controlled by everyone. This
practice also increases the water flow into the
field canals. Some farmers also argued that the
pond allowed the water to heat up before it was
applied to the field and this was good for the
crops. In some cases, water from tube-wells was
also directed to these ponds in order to increase
The water distribution issues are commonly
discussed in local meetings. However, it seems
that the order is fairly stable over time. As one
informant explained, there would be much
discussion at these meetings but in the end
everything tended to be carried out as in
The advantages of karez
In most of the places visited karez were only one
source of irrigation water as farmers also (to
varying degrees) had access to tube-wells and/or
canals. For some farmers this was the main
source of irrigation, while for others it provided
supplementary irrigation only. A comparison of
the three sources of water for irrigation is
presented in Table 10.
A well functioning karez can provide a year-
round reliable supply of clean water. Many
farmers emphasize the importance of the karez
in the spring. In March–April the canals will be
dry as the snow-melt has yet not started in the
mountains and only a karez or a tube-well can
provide the water needed to start growing
grapes. In addition, the karez is used for other
productive purposes which are otherwise often
neglected. Firstly, it provides a steady flow of
clean water for drinking as well as for other
domestic use. Secondly, as strongly emphasized
by a local party leader, the availability of a karez
also tends to lead to the production of vegetables
for family consumption. When water has to be
bought at high price from a pump or a canal
such subsistence production is difficult to
uphold. Thirdly, due to the year-round
inexpensive flow of water, farmers are more
likely to use water for washing out salts after
harvest in the autumn. Salinization of the soil is
a problem in these areas and autumn and spring
irrigation are essential to prevent these
problems. However, it is known from other
areas that farmers may try to avoid this when
water becomes too expensive. Lastly, during
winter the karez water is diverted outside the
cultivated land and towards the trees and bushes
surrounding the oasis. In some of the areas on
the desert fringe vegetation forms a green buffer
between the settlement and the desert. People
claim that this winter irrigation is essential for
maintaining this important vegetation.
Table 10. Comparison of different sources of irrigation water.
flow of clean water
Flexible, can provide
water when needed
Used to be inexpensive and
Expensive water, in
some places running
Big variations in flow,
increasing water shortages for
some users, especially in the
All year. Important
water source in
All year supply of
water when needed
Shortage in mid-
Less water in spring, more in
Controlled by water
bureaucracy – farmers and
local government little or no
influence on decisions
Closed systems, no
new access to existing
Open, but recently
Expensive to build but
last for a long time.
often in the form of
labour. Currently the
Relatively cheap to
install but needs
technician to run and
the most expensive
water as electricity
Price of water varies between
canals as well as between each
round of irrigation. Difficult to
understand pricing system.
Domestic and drinking
Domestic and drinking
Domestic use, in some places also
Photo.8 Karez used for washing
Photo 9 Karez supplying water during winter to
A major conclusion that can be drawn on basis
of the visit to Turfan is that the karez as a unique
form of irrigation is under substantial pressure
and that if present development continues karez
irrigation will more or less be abandoned in the
region within a decade or two.
The problem of karez drying up is a remarkable
result of the land expansion and agricultural
development that has taken place in the region
over the last half century. The rapid growth in
grape production has provided farmers with new
income opportunities and both local farmers and
newcomers have taken advantage of this.
However, water resources in the region are
limited. The rather uncontrolled spread of tube-
well irrigation has undoubtedly had a negative
impact on the karez systems, as too has the
development of canal irrigation supported by the
government water bureaucracy.
The karez has its obvious strengths compared to
canal water and tube-wells. It provides water
early in the spring, the water flow is stable, the
water is cleans and it provides water for
domestic use as well as for non-crop vegetation.
However, it is a closed system in the sense that
water is only available for land being defined as
belonging to the karez system. It is not open for
newcomers or local children born after 1982.
The government water management institutions
have entirely focused on developing canal water
systems. This has contributed to the problems of
declining groundwater tables, because it has
meant channelling all river flow into the canals.
Further, the control of tube-well installations has
been neglected for a long period, and only
recently does this seem to have been seriously
regulated. It seems that the government water
management institutions regard the karez as old
fashioned and canal irrigation as more modern
and efficient. The karez have probably also been
seen as farmer-controlled systems, and difficult
to manage by the official water bureaucracy.
Beaumont, P. 1993. ‘Development and recent
changes in the Karez (Qanat) systems of
Iran’. In Proceedings of the International
Conference on Karez Irrigation, Urumqi,
China, 1983, pp. 133–149. Xinjiang
People’s Publishing House, Educational
and Cultural Press, Urumqi.
Historical Records of Turfan City Editorial
Board. 2002. Historical Records of Turfan
City. Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region
Historical Records Series, [Turfan shi
zhi.] Xinjiang People’s Press, Urumqi. (In
Huntington, E. 1907. ‘The depression of Turfan,
in Central Asia’. Geographical Journal
Vol. 30, pp. 254–273.
Huntington, E. 1996 . Across Central
Asia. A Journey into Central Asia
Illustrating the Geographical Basis of
History. Cosmo Publications, Dehli. (First
published in 1907 under the title The
Pulse of Asia).
International Conference on Karez irrigation.
1993. Proceedings of the International
Conference on Karez Irrigation, Urumqi,
China, 1983. Xinjiang People’s
Publishing House, Educational and
Cultural Press, Urumqi.
Rudelson, J.J. 1997. Oasis Identities. Uygur
Nationalism along China’s Silk Road.
Colombia University Press, New York.
Turfan District Water Conservancy Bureau.
2001. The Tenth Five Years Plan and
Overall Plan to 2010 in Turfan District
Water Conservancy Development. [Turfan
diqu shuili fazhan shiwu jihua he 2010
nian changyuan guihua.] Duplicated
materials. (In Chinese).
Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Financial
and Economic Leading Group, Xinjiang
Uygur Autonomous Region Statistics
Bureau. 1997. Social and Economic
Development in District, Prefecture, City,
and County in Xinjiang. [Fazhan zhong
de xinjiang di, zhou, shi, xian shehui,
jingji.] Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous
Region Statistics Bureau, Xinjiang
People’s Press, Urumqi. (In Chinese)
List of issues addressed during interviews with farmers and officials.
THE STUDY AREA
General information about climate, soils and vegetation
Is there any evidence of changing rainfall patterns over the last few decades?
Do any measurements of water flow in the rivers upstream of human settlements exist? Is
there any evidence of decline in water flow?
Is it possible to find figures on water use/irrigation by various means in the region (tube-wells,
canals and karez)?
Other issues, e.g. problems of salinity and land degradation
Population and economy
How many people are living in the area, including changes?
The extent of in-migration from other areas
The Bingtuan in the area: how many units, how many people?
General information about the economy of the area : production of grapes, others (mining?)
Who controls the karez (village, family, sub-village)?
Who can use water?
What rights do water users have?
What is a water right as local people perceive it?
What obligations do water users have?
How are decisions over water allocation made, and by whom?
Is there a water committee?
If so, who are the members, how often do they meet, and what kind of issues do they deal
Do any written rules or agreements exist?
What happens when someone dies, do sons automatically inherit water rights?
Can women (widows, divorces, etc.) claim rights to water?
What happens in cases of water scarcity?
By whom and how are conflicts solved?
What is the main advantage of karez?
Is karez water cheaper?
If so, in what sense: because it means less cash outlays?
Do the karez have (more) stable flow throughout the years?
Does karez water have other physical advantages (salt, temperature, etc.)
What is water used for? Household use as well as water for animals?
What are the main advantages and disadvantages of karez compared to tube-wells and canals?
What is the main disadvantage of the karez?
Have there been/are there still problems of water availability. Are the karez drying out?
If so, why, and what do people and officials see as the main cause?
Problems of maintenance? Labour availability, skill, labour costs?
What do people see as the main future threat to the karez?
Role of government
What is the role of the government in running the karez?
Are there any government investments for maintaining karez?
What are the links between local institutions and government institutions?
Have there been any attempts by the local government to introduce new institutions or rules?
Do they have to pay any kind of water fee?
If yes, how is this organized? Who collects?
How is price set?
What is the main argument for claiming water fees?
How was the situation during the period of the People’s Commune? Was the traditional way of
operating the karez changed during that period?
If ‘yes’, in what way?
Have recent water policy changes had any impact on the karez?
If ‘yes’, in what sense?
Has karez irrigation become more popular recently (after the reform)?
General physical layout of canals and fields.
Sketch maps – possible to generalize or use for the purposes of case examples?
How is water actually distributed to the fields, when, and for which crops?
Who is responsible for overseeing this in the field?
What is the rotation order? What is the main principle?
Is water distributed according to volume, time or land area?
How is water measured?
How many times per season is land irrigated?
For what crops?