Cities at the fringe of the Taklimakan desert in NW China are prone to dust and sand storms with serious consequences for human well-being. The Kökyar Protection Forest was established in the 1980s as an ecological engineering project with the intent of protecting the city of Aksu, NW China, from these impacts. It is designed as a combination of poplar shelterbelts and orchards, irrigated by river water from the Aksu River, the main tributary of the Tarim River. Prevalent literature describes it as an afforestation project for combatting desertification with manifold positive effects for the economic, social, and environmental dimension of sustainable development. This paper sets out to challenge these claims by a sustainability assessment in which the plantation is examined from a broader perspective, embedding it to the wider context of social and environmental problems in South Xinjiang. Methods comprise evapotranspiration calculations, interviews, a socioeconomic household survey, stakeholder dialogues, and literature research. Results affirm its economic sustainability, but see a mixed record for the social sphere. From the nature conservation point of view, it has to be classified as unsustainable because its high irrigation water consumption results in the downstream desiccation and desertification of natural riparian forests along the Tarim River, causing a forest loss in the downstream area twice the size of the forest gain in the upstream area. There is a trade-off between artificial shelterbelt plantations for urban ecosystem services on the one hand side, and natural riparian forests and their biodiversity on the other hand side. The paper recommends restricting agricultural extension, and using locally adapted less water consuming agroforestry schemes to protect urban dwellers from dust stress.
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