Sands of time

The clock is running on China’s desertification

Sands of time

Life's a beach: but Beijing's residents want the sand out of their eyes

Most of us like sand; but usually on a beach on holiday, and not blown in our faces when we are travelling to work. Beijing had its first sandstorm of 2009 last month, and it won’t be its last.

With the capital city only 250km from desert, it is always prone to sandstorms. At their worst, storms have forced citizens to run indoors, barely able to see or breathe.

China’s rapid desertification is the root of the problem. Xinjiang is the province suffering the most in this respect: around 85 square kilometres turn to desert each year, according to the Xinjiang Environmental Protection Bureau.

But according to China Environment News, an “unprecedented ecological nightmare” is also underway in Sichuan. The Ruoergai Prairie, which once played host to Mao’s troops during the famed Long March, is rapidly turning from grassland to undulating sand dunes.

The area, which used to be praised as ‘China’s most beautiful wet grassland’ and ‘the kidney of China’s western plateau’, now has over 1,000 square kilometres of desert. Desert now accounts for 13% of the grassland’s surface area.

Zuo Lin, the deputy director of the Ruoergai County Forestry Bureau paints the picture in stark terms: the desertified area has grown tenfold in 10 years.

He says that it is a “man-made calamity”, the result of a “decade of overgrazing, which has severely damaged the pasture, and is the key reason for the grassland’s degradation and desertification.”

Zuo also blames government projects that drained the marshes in the 1970s – again for agricultural purposes. Local water sources remain under threat. Zuo says Xingcuo lake has shrunk from 469 hectares to 10 hectares – again in around a decade.

Professor Liang Yuxiang of Sichuan University has been studying the grassland for years. He has concluded that the Ruoergai region is a leading source of “China’s dust bowl”. That’s because the southwest monsoon blows from Ruoergai to the north. Liang reckons that water supplementation efforts in the Ruoergai would lead to a reduction in sandstorms to the north. But without additional water, the dry monsoon will whip up sand and dust and flush it towards places like Beijing.

“If we take a laissez-faire attitude,” says Liang, “and do not increase our anti-desertification treatment measures in Ruoergai, the grassland may no longer exist in our generation or the next generation.”

Such an outcome could lead to a catastrophic increase in sandstorms.

According to the most recent national survey, China has 1.73 million square kilometres of desert; accounting for 18% of the country’s land area.

By the calculation of the State Forestry Administration, more than 400 million people now have their livelihoods affected by desert conditions in China – more people than reside in Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Canada as a whole.

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