Xinjiang is located in the single region in the world furthest from sea. The Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, Atlantic, and Arctic Ocean are all several-thousand kilometers away. In many ways, it is a typical drought and semi-drought region.
The great Altay, Kunlun, Tianshan, and Altun Mountains range encloses the region, making it a geographically discrete entity.
Unlike most areas in China, the water-vapor above Xinjiang mostly comes from the Atlantic which is more than 6,000 kilometers west of the region. Rivers can hardly flow out of the frontier of Xinjiang. The only river that runs into the sea is the Ergis River, which flows into the Arctic Ocean through the Ob River.
Located in the remote inland, far away from the ocean, and surrounded by mountains, Xinjiang has a dry, continental climate. There is less precipitation here than transpiration. The region enjoys long sunshine hours, but suffers from greater differences in temperature between day and night. There are also many deserts, Gobi, and wasteland. Drought-resistance animals and plants like camels, sacsaoul and ephedra are widely spread there.
The ecosystem in Xinjiang is relatively unique, distinguishing it from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in the east, the Indian Peninsula in the south, the Caspian region in the west and Siberia in the north.
High mountains surrounding the region block outside water-vapor. But these ‘obstacles’ include Snow Mountains and glaciers providing stable water sources, capable of nurturing the forest, grassland and oases.
Despite the necessary exchange of water vapor with the external environment, the eco-chain still works quite well in this independent ecosystem.
The sands in the Taklimakan Desert only flow in the basin, and even the broad Tarim River will never flow into the sea.
Scenery at the Bostan Lake, China's largest inland freshwater lake is dull.
And for thousands of years, there has never been a single fish in the huge Sayram Lake.
Because of this geographical separation, there are only three kinds of fish in the Junggar Basin and Tarim Basin. Even in Junggar Basin and the Yili River Valley, both of which belong to northern Xinjiang, there are only five varieties of fish.
Drought-resistant animals and vegetation are well-adapted to their homeland.
The Euphrates poplar and the red willow are two representative plants in the dry region of Xinjiang. Euphrates poplar is tall and strong, like men, while the red willow is tender, like women. They are a perfect couple. There is a legend in Xinjiang that the Euphrates poplar could live for thousand years, stand for thousand years after it dies, and remain imperishable a thousand years after being felled.
Human beings are an important constituent part in the ecosystem, and also a fatal force in changing the environment. But nature doesn’t mind when people make some beneficial adjustments to its system without destroying its overall balance. For example, people have built the Shihezi city on a reed beach, made artificial rivers flowing through Karamay, and launched the Kekeya ‘Greening’ Project at Aksu. Purified sewage irrigates mountains and hills around Urumqi, and the water of Bostan Lake serves the declining Green Corridor.
However, it would never be advisable for human activities to destroy the overall structure of the region’s ecosystem. Excessive water diversion would result in the breaking of the riverbed and the drying up of the lake. Over-lumbering would also destroy the vegetation in such a drought area, worsening the desertification of the soil. Large-scale agricultural development increases soil salinization. Extensive mining deteriorates the surrounding eco-environment, and rapid urbanization leaves more sewage and garbage.
And in the dry region, the lingering effect of environmental deterioration will last so long that it will be even harder to plant new vegetation and keep animals there in the future.
On the other hand, nature’s own mysterious rule is also an important factor in changing Xinjiang’s eco environment - something which has little to do with human beings’ activities. That is why the Loulan Delta will never flood again, nor the Lop Nor dry up forever. The Tarim River always changes its route, and the coalfield near Urumqi had been burning for a hundred years.
Human activities, surely, function as improving the local eco-environment. Although water in the riverbed is declining, artificial channels are always flowing water; although some natural lakes continue to dry up, the water level is increasing in reservoirs; and because wastelands have been cultivated, the density of forest and vegetation could soon be much higher.
The original ecosystem is not necessary the best and most suitable for human beings.
According to meteorological research, the Xinjiang region, especially northern Xinjiang is becoming much warmer and wetter recently. What people feel is that the winter is no longer that cold, and that rainfall in summer is increasing.
The change is definitely related to the increase of reservoirs, forest belts, and plantation.
Opinions differ as to whether or not it is better to retreat when sands advance.
However, it is quite normal that the frontier between oasis and desert does change from time to time. In history, as the desert has advanced, Cele County has moved three times.
As the frontier frequently changes, the total area of desert remains the same. Some oases decline or disappear, while more newly-formed oases thrive.
We can negotiate with nature. But we cannot alter the rights and the facts of the mountains’ and the deserts’ existence.
The ecosystem in dry regions is fragile, as the biological chain is simple and unstable. Once the balance is broken, disaster can occur.
Oasis is the main basis of life in the desert, and is also the balancing point on which human beings live in such environments - harmoniously. Looking down from the plane, the oasis is enchanting and beautiful, like a thriving tree. Once that tree begins to die, none of the life affiliated to it can survive any longer.
The inhabitants living on the Keriya River bank have had to move several times because of the change of river water. The glorious Loulan civilization had was buried in sand as the Loulan Oasis vanished.
Maybe that is why different ethnicities living in Xinjiang have the same traditional awareness as to eco-balance. Uygur people like to plant trees around their houses, while Kazaks always protect grassland and wildlife.
Nowadays, the Xinjiang people have an even stronger awareness of environmental protection - employing scientific methods. And it is believed that large-scale eco-disaster could never happen in this region. Under the government’s support, many huge eco-protection projects are underway, including the Tarim River comprehensive treatment, natural forest protection, restoring farmland to forest, soil improvement, extinguishing coalmine fires, pollution control, and so on. Some small-scale projects like the protection of the Przewalski horse and Tianshan snow lotus are also receiving the same priority.