Articles | Volume 18, issue 4
Research article
03 Apr 2014
Research article |  | 03 Apr 2014

Socio-hydrologic perspectives of the co-evolution of humans and water in the Tarim River basin, Western China: the Taiji–Tire model

Y. Liu, F. Tian, H. Hu, and M. Sivapalan

Abstract. This paper presents a historical socio-hydrological analysis of the Tarim River basin (TRB), Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in Western China, from the time of the opening of the Silk Road to the present. The analysis is aimed at exploring the historical co-evolution of coupled human–water systems and at identifying common patterns or organizing principles underpinning socio-hydrological systems (SHS). As a self-organized entity, the evolution of the human–water system in the Tarim Basin reached stable states for long periods of time, but then was punctuated by sudden shifts due to internal or external disturbances. In this study, we discuss three stable periods (i.e., natural, human exploitation, and degradation and recovery) and the transitions in between during the past 2000 years. During the "natural" stage that existed pre-18th century, with small-scale human society and sound environment, evolution of the SHS was mainly driven by natural environmental changes such as river channel migration and climate change. During the human exploitation stage, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, it experienced rapid population growth, massive land reclamation and fast socio-economic development, and humans became the principal players of system evolution. By the 1970s, the Tarim Basin had evolved into a new regime with a vulnerable eco-hydrological system seemingly populated beyond its carrying capacity, and a human society that began to suffer from serious water shortages, land salinization and desertification. With intensified deterioration of river health and increased recognition of unsustainability of traditional development patterns, human intervention and recovery measures have since been adopted. As a result, the basin has shown a reverse regime shift towards some healing of the environmental damage. Based on our analysis within TRB and a common theory of social development, four general types of SHSs are defined according to their characteristic spatio-temporal variations of historical co-evolution, including primitive agricultural, traditional agricultural, industrial agricultural, and urban SHSs. These co-evolutionary changes have been explained in the paper in terms of the Taiji–Tire model, a refinement of a special concept in Chinese philosophy, relating to the co-evolution of a system because of interactions among its components.