Water History

, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp 177-196

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Variations in discharge from the Qilian mountains, northwest China, and its effect on the agricultural communities of the Heihe basin, over the last two millennia

  • Akiko SakaiAffiliated withGraduate School of Environmental Studies, Nagoya University Email author 
  • , Mitsuyuki InoueAffiliated withRitsumeikan University
  • , Koji FujitaAffiliated withGraduate School of Environmental Studies, Nagoya University
  • , Chiyuki NaramaAffiliated withResearch Institute for Humanity and Nature
  • , Jumpei KubotaAffiliated withResearch Institute for Humanity and Nature
  • , Masayoshi NakawoAffiliated withNational Institutes for the Humanities
  • , Tandong YaoAffiliated withInstitute of Tibet Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Science


Over the last two millennia, agricultural land in the Hei river basin, northwest China, has been subjected to a series of significant droughts and flood events. These documented hydrological events were compared to estimates of fluvial and fluvioglacial discharge from the mountains. Areal extents of glaciers are important for validation as water mass remaining in mountain area, although glacier area occupied only about 1.5 % at present in this high mountain area. These glacier mass balance and discharge estimates, calculated using proxy data, appear reasonable, as the total maximum glacier area during the little ice age (LIA) was comparable to the maximum glacier area deduced from the positions of terminal moraines. The precise timing of the glacier area maximum during the LIA in the Qilian mountains is unknown. However, variations in the calculated glacier area suggest that glacier extent reached a maximum between 1520 and 1690 CE. A number of the historical drought events occurred during periods of reduced discharge from the mountains, and, conversely, flood events tended to coincide with an increase in discharge from glaciers. Historical documents record five multi-year droughts in the basin between 1200 and 2000 CE. The modelling of the fluctuating pattern of fluvial and fluvioglacial discharge implies that at least two drought events were anthropogenically driven. Furthermore the reasons for the presence or absence of drought events are considered based on continuous discharge fluctuation and water demands of each ages, that can be estimated from analysing intermittent historical documents.


Glacier Discharge Drought Arid region Precipitation