Study Area

Urumqi is the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in North-West China. It is situated in a high-continental and semi-arid environment within a narrow irrigated belt embraced by mountain ranges in the West, East and South and the desert to the North. Nonetheless, it has developed from a town of 100,000 inhabitants (1949) to a bustling 3.5 million strong metropolis (2017), rightly called the “Regional Capital of Central Asia”. Considering the current administrative reform, involving a merger with the surrounding Changji Prefecture, the U-Chang region today is the largest metropolitan area in Central Asia with a total population of about 5.1 million.

Urumqi’s economy is developing rapidly at an average growth rate of 12.3% p.a. since 2000. Although the city’s tireless pace of development is still reliant on the richness of the region’s natural resources, it continues to diversify in its expansion of the manufacturing industries, which extend from food and biological products, metal, and machinery, to new energy equipment, automotive industry and its component supply.

Location of Urumqi, by Sophie Gindele

The Urumqi Economic and Technological Development (UETD) District

In 1994, the “Urumqi Economic and Technological Development (UETD) Zone” was established as an industrial park of national level with a starting area of only five km². Since then, its development has gained momentum and the park size has expanded continuously. As a strategic step towards the U-Chang integration and the formation of a new UETD District, the park underwent an administrative merger with the surrounding Toutunhe District in 2011. Today, 320,000 people are living here on the total area of around 280 km². With the half of the area being industrial quarters, more than 8,000 companies of all sizes and industries have settled in the UETD district. They contribute more than 40% of the entire industrial output of Urumqi. VW too decided to gain a foothold there and laid the foundation stone for its China-wide sixth production base in April 2013. With the inauguration of the new railway station for high-speed connections, UETD has become now Xinjiang’s largest hub for railway transportation.

Land use of UETD District, by Kevin Fleckenstein

Huge challenges for sustainable development

The fast advancing urbanisation and industrialisation create challenges concerning sustainable resource deployment and climate-resilient development. Air pollution remains a significant environmental problem, especially in winter. Not only pollutants like SO2, NxO and soot from power plants and industrial production but also the rapid increase in automobiles and meteorological influences of warmer winters are sources of the current pollution. Coal burning is part of the reason that the energy-related CO2 emissions of URC have tripled over 2000-2014. The per-capita emissions increased from 10.9 to 19.1 tonnes and are thus significantly higher than China´s current average of around 7 tonnes. A profound concept promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency in high quality is thus indispensable.

Water scarcity is a crucial factor for the development of the economy and society in a semi-arid region with sensitive climatic conditions like Urumqi. While the annual water withdrawals have significantly increased by around 40% between 2004 and 2015, the Glacier No.1, the origin of the Urumqi-river and thus the primary water source, is retreating at a pace of 4-8 metre per year. Since the exploitation of surface water reached its limit, the groundwater´s share of the total supply increased by 15%, leading to the decline of the water table and degradation of the water source area. The bottleneck between increasing demand and decreasing availability intensifies the competition for water use among sectors. Treatment plants are challenged by the increasing amount of wastewater. Although water is that scarce, its reclamation is barely utilised. A more efficient water management concept is of vital importance especially considering the regional water security is further endangered by the strained water quality due to pollution and salinisation of groundwater.

The rapid growth has also resulted in significant waste problems. Both industrial and municipal wastes increased dramatically over the last decade. Though the recycling rate of industrial waste has significantly improved, some problems, such as the processing of coal gangue, remain intractable. The separation and recycling of municipal wastes are still heavily limited. The collected wastes are mainly disposed in landfills, which often lead to the further environmental burden. Waste incineration, though gaining increasing weight, is still limited due to the abundance of organic wastes. Due to the absence of an environment-friendly waste reduction and recycling concept, the waste problem is currently mostly approached by increasing landfill capacities which is merely a problem displacement and not a solution and implies further environmental repercussions.

Urumqi: A growing city facing huge challenges, by Michael Seyboth

Both future growth and certain impacts of climate change will exacerbate these stresses. Higher temperature, hydrological changes and more frequent extreme events like droughts, heavy rain and floods will significantly affect the region – particularly the infrastructure for supply and disposal which is essential to the city and its inhabitants. Given the existing conflicts and climatic conditions, the region will become highly vulnerable if adaptation actions are not taken. The limit of adaptation reduces if sufficient mitigation measures are carried out immediately.

In a city where the cause and effect of global warming are so closely collocated, there is significant potential for concepts promoting both mitigation and adaptation. First and foremost, these include planning and implementation processes on different scales that can embrace adaptive and flexible structures with enhanced resilience and transformational decision-making avoiding locking additional emissions into the future. Given the current high development dynamics and the environmental pressure, important and efficient are in particular those strategies that exploit synergies of the interaction between industry and residential areas as well as among sectors.