Surrounded by desert on all sides, the wide, glittering expanse of Hongjian Nur appears like a mirage. Yet it is very much real — and in trouble.
Located in northwestern China’s Shaanxi province, Hongjian Nur used to cover 67 square kilometers at its peak, and is known as China’s largest desert freshwater lake. But it’s shrinking fast — currently measuring just 33 square kilometers. In recent years its water level has dropped by 30 to 60 centimeters annually, and it’s only getting worse.
“The water levels are decreasing faster than ever, even more than in previous years,” Chen Kelin, China director of the nongovernmental organization Wetlands International, told Sixth Tone. “The lake is already only shallow water now. It won’t take more than a few years for it to become the second Lop Nur,” he said, referring to a saltwater lake in northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region that dried up in 1972.
Hongjian Nur holds particular environmental importance because it provides the primary nesting grounds for the relict gull, a “vulnerable” bird species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The birds thrive in desert areas with both open plains and access to large amounts of water — two criteria that few places in the world satisfy.
Relict gulls forage for food on the shores of Hongjian Nur, Shaanxi province, June 18, 2016. Wang Jing/VCG
There are fewer than 10,000 relict gulls left in the world, and nearly 90 percent of them nest at Hongjian Nur each summer. But falling water levels have the birds looking for other habitats.
“In 2011, there were about 7,700 gull nests at Hongjian Nur. The last time I checked, in 2015, there were only about 2,000 nests left,” Xiao Hong, a researcher at the Northwest Institute of Endangered Zoological Species, told Sixth Tone. Wetlands International’s Chen said he has already documented two to three thousand new relict gull nests in nearby provinces, which he believes are from birds that would otherwise be spending their summer near Hongjian Nur.
The drop in water level has also led to a higher concentration in minerals, which has drastically altered the lake’s acidity levels. As a result, fish have nearly vanished from Hongjian Nur, including several species unique to the lake.
Hongjian Nur’s rapid decline can be attributed to causes both natural and man-made.
Large swaths of China’s already arid north have undergone accelerated desertification over the last few decades. Research shows the area around Hongjian Nur went through natural swings in temperature and rainfall over the last century, with a particularly dry spell beginning in the 1990s. Today, the lake only receives between 30 to 40 centimeters of rain a year. Three of the lake’s seven tributaries, all of which originate in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, are expected to run dry within the next 10 years.
The effects of these natural changes have been significantly exacerbated by nearby human activity. Local governments in Inner Mongolia have dammed two of the rivers that run into Hongjian Nur, diminishing inflow to the lake by up to 60 percent.
In 2005, the Yingpan River was dammed by a local government in Inner Mongolian, who did so without consulting Shaanxi authorities. At the time, one Shaanxi official said dam construction had pushed Hongjian Nur “to the brink of death.”
“There definitely is a human influence on Hongjian Nur’s decline,” said Wang Yong, a researcher at the Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology, in a phone interview with Sixth Tone. “But the degree to how much this is attributable to human activity is a very difficult question that we are still trying to figure out, and that we don’t have a clear answer to.”
The area near Hongjian Nur is home to several coal-fired power plants and factories, which pollute the region’s air and groundwater, leading to degraded wetland areas and loss of wildlife. Mining in the area has diverted the flow of water underground, further diminishing the lake’s inflow.
Since 2012, China’s Ministry of Finance has been spending 100 million yuan ($15 million) a year on efforts to revive Hongjian Nur’s water level and biodiversity, with the Shaanxi provincial government contributing an extra 300 million yuan. This money has gone toward maintaining the nature preserves and forests around the lake, as well as to restoring the nearby wetlands. Artificial rain, for example, has seen some success in raising the lake’s water level. Shaanxi’s government has also repeatedly called for greater interprovincial collaboration on water management, because the tributaries that feed into Hongjian Nur run through both Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia.
Concern for the fate of Hongjian Nur comes amid scrutiny of China’s hydropower projects known for their negative environmental impact. Two planned dams on the Lancang River, also known as the Mekong River, have already been canceled over environmental issues: one in 2010 because of its potential influence on nearby fish, and another in 2012 out of concerns that the dam would damage a major glacier. The potential revival of multiple hydropower projects on the Nu River, widely regarded as the last dam-free river left in China, has been met with widespread criticism both domestically and internationally.
“The public’s attention toward preserving China’s bodies of water is higher,” said researcher Wang. But he cautioned that more drastic intervention would be needed to save Hongjian Nur. “Public opinion can only do so much. It doesn’t reverse dams or increase rainfall,” he said.
(Header image: An aerial view of Hongjian Nur, Shaanxi province, June 17, 2016. Wang Jing/VCG)