Ulagai Wetland: A Dry and Thirsty Place

by Uchralt Otede

‘WETLANDS AND WATER’ was the theme of World Wetland Day, 2 February 2021. The People’s Republic of China joined the intergovernmental Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention) in 1992. China’s State Council issued the China National Wetlands Conservation Action Plan and announced its List of China’s Important Wetlands 中国重要湿地名录 in 2000.1 The Ulagai Wetland 乌拉盖湿地 is one of the nine wetlands in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region on the list. The Ulagai River (Ulgain Gol in Mongolian) is one of the largest inland rivers in Inner Mongolia. It originates on Bogd Mountain, on the western side of the Greater Khingan Mountains in north-east China and flows south-west through the jurisdiction of the Ulagai Administration Bureau乌拉盖管理区. It then turns to the west towards Uliyasutai Town 乌里雅斯太镇, and the river’s lower reaches gradually sink into the East Ujimqin Grassland to form large wetlands and lakes. At least, that has long been the case.

The Government of Xilingol League classified the Ulagai Wetland as a protected area in 2001 and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region’s government approved the establishment of the Ulagai Nature Reserve in 2004. It extends protection to wetland ecosystems, rare and endangered animal and plant species, and natural landscapes. However, in this case, the wetland protection policies exist only on paper. The reality is the Ulagai Wetland, which covers a total area of 315,714.2 hectares (3,200 square kilometres),2 has become a dry and thirsty place due to a large reservoir on the river’s upper reaches.

The Ulagai Reservoir was built in the territory of the Ulagai Administration Bureau in 1980 to aid agricultural development. Over the following two decades, because the reservoir continued to discharge water downstream, there was no obvious harm to the wetland ecology. The turning point came in 2003, when the Xilingol League Government decided to develop extensive coalmining and coal chemical industries. As a result, the water usage pattern of the reservoir changed and supplies for the mining and coal chemical industries were given priority. The Ulagai Administration Bureau rebuilt and expanded the reservoir in 2004. Construction of the Ulagai Industrial Zone, an area of 30 square kilometres, began two years later. The expanded reservoir, with a total storage capacity of 248 million cubic metres, was designed to provide 47.6 million cubic metres of industrial water annually, via a 4-metre-wide canal. However, the real water consumption of the Ulagai Industrial Zone far exceeded what was anticipated, straining the capacity of the Ulagai Reservoir to supply water to industry and allow sustainable flows downstream. In 2010, Ge Jiangtao 葛江涛, a news reporter from Oriental Outlook 瞭望东方, a state-run weekly magazine, wrote a special report titled the ‘Death of Ulagai Wetland’ 乌拉盖之死, revealing that the operators of the Ulagai Reservoir were so focused on supplying industrial water they had not released water downstream for six years.3

In 2015, Focus Report 焦点访谈, a widely watched TV program on the national China Central Television, reported in depth on the serious damage caused by the Ulagai Reservoir to the wetland. It talked about how there used to be many lakes (nuur in Mongolian) in the Ulagai Wetland, which is why the region has so many placenames incorporating nuur, including Yikhe-nuur (‘Big Lake’), Tsagan-nuur (‘White Lake’), Bayan-nuur (‘Rich Lake’), Tod-nuur (‘Clear Lake’), and Aralynn-nuur (‘Island Lake’). By the time reporters from Focus Report conducted their field investigations, these lakes had dried up and become saline and alkali land, on which many plants cannot grow.

In contradiction of the evidence of its own inhabitants, the Ulagai Wetland in 2021 remains officially a place with abundant water
Source: An Lee, Flickr

Among the people featured in the Focus Report was a herder named Baatar and his family. They had originally lived in Yikhe-nuur before the lake dried up and the desertification of their traditional pastureland forced them to leave. Song Xianfang 宋献方, a water resources expert from the Institute of Geographical Resources of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Focus Report that the internationally recognised safety line for river ecosystems is maintenance of 40 percent of the runoff flow. However, the water demand in the Ulagai Industrial Zone is far greater than the amount of water the river can provide without harm to its ecosystem.4

In May 2020, the herdsmen of the Ulagai Wetland collectively made a formal complaint to the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Ecological Environmental Protection Inspector 内蒙古自治区生态环境保护督察组. This is part of a dispute that spans several decades between the herdsmen of East Ujimqin Banner and the Ulagai Administration Bureau. They claimed the Ulagai Reservoir was damaging the wetlands and grassland ecology in the river’s lower reaches through the water allocations to industry. In June, the local herders also posted photos and videos on social media of the dry surface of the Ulagai Wetland and called again for the release of water from the Ulagai Reservoir.

Chen Jiqun 陈继群, a Beijing-based Chinese painter and a well-known environmentalist who is passionate about the preservation of the Inner Mongolian environment and cultural traditions, detailed the crisis in the Ulagai Wetland on the website of his nongovernmental organisation (NGO), Echoing Steppe 曾经草原.5 The NGO had previously carried out an investigation into the crisis in the wetlands, in 2008–2009. Chen mobilised an informal network of friends and classmates in Beijing, and successfully convinced many news media to report on the crisis in the wetland, including Focus Report.

Officials of the Ulagai Administration Bureau, where the reservoir is located, officially responded to the herders’ complaint on 14 August 2020, saying it was not based in fact. The Ulagai officials insisted the reservoir is focused on flood control and water is released to fulfill the needs of both ecology and tourism. They said the reservoir has effectively guaranteed flood control, drought mitigation, and ecological downstream water supply for many years.6

On 3 February 2021, the day after World Wetland Day, the Inner Mongolia Daily published a report entitled ‘Inner Mongolia’s wetlands area reaches more than six million hectares’. The report said the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region had certified and implemented its wetlands protection policy and achieved significant results in wetland protection and restoration. The 6 million hectares of wetlands, it said, accounted for 5.08 percent of the total land area of the region.7

These data, however, were taken from the autonomous region’s 2014 wetland resources survey report; therefore, the extent of wetland areas in Inner Mongolia, including the Ulagai Wetland, on the official database will not be changed until the next national survey has been completed. In other words, in contradiction of the evidence of its own inhabitants, the Ulagai Wetland in 2021 remains officially a place with abundant water.