Many river basins in the arid and semi-arid parts of the world are experiencing water scarcity due to water consumption by agriculture resulting in conflicts between upstream and downstream, conflicts between water users, and degradation of the natural ecosystems. The Tarim Basin, Xinjiang, China, has developed into the world’s most important cotton production region with 8.85% of the world’s production. Under the extremely arid climate with annual precipitation of below 100 mm, the water consumption due to irrigation resulted in water scarcity and conflicts between water users as well as between upstream and downstream. The Tarim river catchment harbors about half of the world’s Populus euphratica riparian forests, which are impacted by water shortage. Starting in the 1990s, a unified water management system with a quota system for water distribution has been set up. We introduce this unified water management system and analyze how the water distribution works in practice. Ecologists and forestry officials claim more water for environmental flow, whereas water management officials give priority to agricultural, industrial, and domestic water use. The water quotas for downstream regions are frequently not fulfilled, especially during the non-flood season in spring and early summer posing a risk to water users. Water users with financial and political advantages gain more water security than others. The water quotas are annual quotas. These quotas should be differentiated into seasonal quotas, in order to enhance water security for the downstream section of the Tarim all year round.
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