No city on earth is further from the open seas than Urumqi. And the only source of fresh water for the city, the glaciers around it, are fast disappearing. 'People will have to leave to survive'.

This story was published by the Netherlands Press Association, then the largest newspaper group in the Netherlands. 




in URUMQI, Xinjiang, China

13 JULY 2010

,,You mind if I switch on some music?'' mountain guide Huang Bo (34) asks, standing at the lower end of an enormous glacier in an area which is far removed from anything and anyone. He presses a button on his mp3-player and, having climbed for thirty minutes, glances at the landscape around him.

The sound of water drops falling from the glacier's end drowns out in the music coming from the speaker in Huang's backpack: a rendition of the hit christmas song 'Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow'.

,,This area used to be covered in ice and snow all year round'', Huang points downhill. Now, in the heart of summer, you have to climb to 3,500 meters to reach the lowest parts of the Urumqi-1 glacier.

The glacier is named after the nearby capital of the Xinjiang autonomous region, in the extreme northwest of China. No city on earth is further removed from a sea than Urumqi. Rising sea levels is therefore not something on the minds of the people who live here. But the cause of these rising waters, the warming of the earth, threatens them as well.

The average temperature in Xinjiang rises faster than anywhere else on the planet. This causes the prime water source for the region, the glaciers, to disappear at a quicker rate than previously thought.

,,The average temperature here has risen a full degree over the past decade'', says professor Li Zhongqin. ,,This has severely disrupted the growth of the glaciers.'' Li is heading international research into the shrinking Urumqi-1 glacier. ,,Glaciers are the first phenomenon in nature that react to changes in the climate'', says Li. ,,This glacier here does that in the most average way of all glaciers on earth. That makes the Urumqi-1 glacier the perfect example of what all glaciers have ahead of themselves in the not too distant future.''

That future is a dark one. The melting rate of the Urumqi-1 has been speeding up each summer since 1977. The rain and snow fall and the below zero temperatures of winter are no longer adequate for the glacier to grow back what it loses during summer meltdowns.

Li: ,,Since 1986, the amount of water that flows down to the city from the melting glacier has doubled. The length of the entire glacier has shrunk to 2.5 kilometers. That's 25 per cent shorter than it was only fifty years ago.''

It is inevitable the glacier will disappear in its entirety within a hundred years, Li and his team have calculated. That means millions of Chinese stand to loose their primary source of fresh water.


A hundred and fifty kilometers downhill, in the city of Urumqi, that seems to be on no one's mind. After all, more water than ever flows through the river that comes down from the mountains into the city. In addition, the amount of rainfall has only increased over the past few years. These two factors make it difficult for the people of Urumqi to worry about the lack of water that is looming a few decades from now.


Even though the local authorities have begun building reservoirs to capture the water from the glaciers, they seem more intent to use the extra water that is here now in different ways.

Projects worth billions are to be built in the near future to help the economy in this desolate region.

Six kilometers from downtown, the Snow Lotus Golf Club has been constructed. The equivalent amount of water needed to fill seven Olympic sized swimming pools is used daily to keep the grass there green.

Not too far away is the Silk Route Ski Resort. Its manager is proud to say that during the peak season, last February, they were able to offer beautiful artificial snow on the slopes. It did take ten snow blowers using an amount of water enough to fill sixteen Olympic sized swimming pools.

South of Urumqi, the government is planning a 'high-tech desert metropolis' which has to fill up the space between the regional capital and its suburbs. The city proper wants to transform itself into an 'ecological park city' with green, lots of green that will need lots of water.


Professor Li stares through a window in his research center at the foot of the mountains. He can see the river which transports the melted water from the glacier to the city. ,,It's good the city decided to build those reservoirs'', he says. ,,They even helped in increasing the amount of fertile land around Urumqi. But they are missing the bigger question, which is: what to do when the inevitable happens and there really is no more fresh water? The next drought, which will come as it always has in the past, will make Urumqi unliveable. It will leave the millions who live there with only one choice for survival: leave.''