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China: a vast land being swallowed

Sand and dust storms are becoming more intense in China (Peter Curry)
Sand and dust storms are becoming more intense in China
Peter Curry

Green plains and rice paddy fields cover much of the surface of China. But with 20 per cent of the world's population, China has only seven per cent of the world's water resources, and a growing population is putting pressure on the country's natural resources. Is China turning to dust? High productivity targets and intensive agriculture have forced many farmers into marginal lands in the north-western province. The land in these parts is too dry for cultivation, and as a result, it blows away. Although phenomena like sand and dust storms and floods are nothing new in China, they are becoming more intense. Honorary Professor at the Gansu Academy of Sciences, Edward Derbyshire says: "This process has been happening for at least 2.6 million years, and probably much longer, though at lower rates. What has happened in the past few decades is that man has put his foot in it, so to speak, and accelerated a natural process."

Sand-dunes and dust

More than 30 per cent of the country is desert land, affecting 400 million people. In the northern half of Hebei province, for example, blown sand has partially buried some villages. Su Rongxi, from the village of Langwogou, north-west of Beijing said: "There is nothing to do but dig away at the sand and wait to see what happens." Sand dunes forming to the north of the capital are drifting south - some scientists say between 20 and 25 kilometres every year. In April this year, storms in the northern part of China swept 330,000 tonnes of fine sand and dust into Beijing. There is good reason for the government to be concerned. The advance of deserts costs the economy an estimated US$6.5 billion each year. They force communities to abandon their homes, kill people and livestock, and destroy crop land.

Re-greening the country

China has one of the highest soil erosion rates anywhere in the world and, according to desertification expert Juergen Voegele at the World Bank in Beijing, much of it is irreversible. But not everyone agrees. Standing in the midst of smooth sand dunes, one Chinese worker announces: "We're making this place green". The statement is a bold example of China's commitment to stop soil erosion. In 1978 the Three-North Shelterbelt Development Programme was created to prevent sand from drifting. Known as 'China's Great Green Wall', its aim is to cover 35 million hectares of land with trees. Green belts have been designed to act as windbreaks, protect agricultural land, and to secure dust.

Mongolian dust over Beijing, China, April 2003 (Edward Derbyshire)
Mongolian dust over Beijing, China, April 2003
Edward Derbyshire

They combine a number of different plant species for example Populus and Artemisia frigida, the latter an important forage species for resisting steppe degradation. In 2001 China passed a new Law to combat desertification, and the State Forestry Administration has predicted that all human-induced desertification will be reversed by 2050. It provides incentives such as tax breaks, subsidies and technical support to those who commit to reversing the problem, although some argue that such projects are confined to forestry land, and do not have any impact on slowing desertification in northern or western parts of China which are intensively grazed and cropped.

Water: a precious resource

But critics say that planting trees will not alone solve the problem. Indeed, in some cases it may do more harm than good by using up precious water resources. "If it is not combined with better grazing management policies at the same time, those trees will not survive" Mr Voegel said.

A hard lesson

Wide belts of green trees and shrubs have been creeping up the windward side of dunes to reduce their height. A multiple system of green belts and ditches is winding its way through the country. But critics say that, in all its efforts to combat desertification, the cause has been ignored: an increasing rural population. Certain contradictions highlight the problem. While one government agency promotes shelter-belt efforts, another will set higher targets for economic growth.

According to the China Daily, the Head of the international affairs department of Gansu Desert Control Research Institute (GDCRI), Man Duoqing, has announced that African technicians and officials will be invited to spend 25 days in Gansu and neighbouring provinces. They will come "to learn how to choose plants for desert control and how to set up windbreaks", among other techniques. Can China sustain the current rate of economic growth while protecting its environment? With average desert expansion of about 10,400 square kilometres per year, the country may still be struggling to learn a hard lesson.

With contributions from: Edward Derbyshire and Peter Curry

Date published: July 2006


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