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To Heal a Barren Land

How to halt China's creeping desert? For starters, head back to basics. An innovative mix of simple solutions is already taking hold at a grass-roots level. What will really help is increased government support

By David Murphy/BEIJING

Issue cover-dated July 19, 2001


DARKNESS AT NOON. It's an eerie experience to look out of your office window at midday as a deep gloom suddenly descends on bright city streets and the sickly sun is obscured by a rolling cloud of dust that reaches down to the cracks in the pavements and penetrates every crevice in the city. It looks like the end of the world. But it's not. It's yet another sandstorm enveloping China's capital.

The spread of arid land and desert is accelerating rapidly across northern China, aided by a cruel drought that only started to break last month. On average, 35 sandstorms scour a path across northern China every year, up from less than 20 two decades ago. Most occur in spring, when the winds blow hardest from the northwest. "Soil degradation affects about one third of the country," says Juergen Voegele, head of the World Bank's Rural Development Sector Unit for China and Mongolia. "China has the most active soil erosion problem in the world and potentially the most dangerous."

Ironically, in an era when technology can offer cutting-edge solutions to so many problems, this is one crisis for which there is no hi-tech answer. Quite simply, China needs to go back to basics. Sustainable agricultural practices are called for, like reducing herd sizes, allowing land to lie fallow and regenerate, using better animal breeds, and introducing new types of vegetation which can be used to fatten stall-fed animals and ease the burden on the fragile, worn-out land of northern and western China. In addition, careful management of scarce water resources, the promotion of alternative livelihoods for populations--who will need to see that they are benefiting from changing their way of life--and ultimately a significant reduction in the number of people dependent on herding and farming for a living.

Easier said than done. The very scale of the problem does not lend itself to easy solutions. It is as much about poverty alleviation as it is about environmental protection. Properly implemented, simple, sustainable practices could kick-start a process that would see "about half the affected areas recover naturally," says Voegele.

It's not just China. In a wide arc extending from Northeast Asia to the Middle East drought and soil erosion are devastating countries and economies. At the same time an international battle rages about man's role in climate change. One thing Chinese and international environmental experts agree on is that desertification is very much a man-made disaster. People and farm animals are destroying the delicate ecology of Asia's grasslands. "The natural resources cannot sustain the people," says Voegele. In some of the affected areas in China, "there are between 100 to 150 people per square kilometre living on the land, farming and grazing. In the long term, only 15 to 30 people can be sustained on these areas," he says. Though unpopular, measures such as moving populations away from affected areas and drastically altering agricultural practices are key elements in any plan to contain the expansion of Asia's new deserts.

But this cannot be achieved with the wave of a central government policy wand. It will require a range of measures that take into account local factors, including soil types, weather conditions and animal and human populations. Unlike previous government policies, which tended towards a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem, officials are now seeking expert advice on an innovative mix of basic ideas that are tailor-made to local conditions. Some of these involve adapting well-established techniques, such as terracing to prevent soil erosion on sloping land, improving water-saving and storage techniques and encouraging peasants to plant orchards that can also be a source of revenue.

In Yangling, an agricultural town in northern China's Shaanxi province, the Chinese Academy of Science and Northwestern University in Xian have set up a rain-simulation centre. Scientists there are trying to ascertain the vulnerability of different areas to erosion by seasonal rainfall. They do this by simulating rainfall on a variety of soil samples taken from across western China. The tests are conducted on different types of soil, including compacted soil, soil set in a slope, soil with grass cover and denuded soil. The aim is to prepare a series of recommendations to combat soil erosion, specific to each soil type.

Growing awareness of desertification has prompted a search for solutions at a grass-roots level. Experimental projects are springing up in many affected areas. In Dingxi county, Gansu province, farmers are starting to grow alfalfa, a plant with deep roots, which can be used as fodder for stall-fed animals who would otherwise be free-grazing. That's just one element in a "clever policy mix aimed at making progress in forestry conservation, grassland and steep-land rehabilitation" now being tested in government-funded pilot projects in several provinces, says Bob Clements, a grassland expert and director of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, who recently visited Dingxi county. "It includes giving farmers a quantity of grain and some cash and planting tools for the alfalfa which happens to be a nitrogen fixing plant that will help regenerate the soil," he says.

Aside from the efforts of scientists and researchers, communities are seeking their own ways out of the crisis. Han Nianyong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing, points out that the high cost of winter fodder in the denuded grasslands has opened informal channels of cooperation between herders there and farmers further south. He cites a livestock farmer in Inner Mongolia who drove his sheep 300 kilometres south to Hebei province, north of Beijing, where they grazed on the winter stubble in a small farming community. The cost to the livestock farmer was one sixth of what he would have paid for hay to feed the sheep at his farm. What did the Hebei farmer get? A supply of free manure while his land lay fallow over the winter.

So there are baby steps in the right direction. With government support, the situation could be vastly improved. Han says that with official coordination, this type of cooperation could be widely extended. "The livestock farmer doesn't need to take the animals back. Instead, the host farmer can sell them directly to the urban markets in spring." Extensive research is also necessary. Han says surveys need to be conducted in affected areas to determine the current capacity of the land, with herd sizes reduced in accordance. And local people should be involved in creating alternative forms of industry.

For one thing, Han believes China's rapidly growing domestic-tourism industry can offer an alternative to animal husbandry for hard-pressed farmers. It will offer relief to the grasslands and even allow the reintroduction of native species, such as the Mongolian gazelle, which once roamed northern China.

He rejects the suggestion that tourism is a pipe dream, pointing to the Dalai Nur Nature Reserve in Inner Mongolia, which opened to tourists in 1995. In its first year, the reserve had 5,000 visitors. Last year, it had 150,000--most from Beijing, Tianjin and cities in northeast China.

The summer droughts of recent years have turned the economic screw still further on livestock farmers. A scarcity of grass has pushed up the price of hay in many areas in recent years, tempting farmers to harvest hay earlier, despite lower yields. The subsequent hay shortages have forced herders to move animals into more fragile ecosystems for feeding. The result is an accelerating trend of soil degradation and increased desertification.

In Beijing, government ministries, although now acutely aware of the problem, still cling to some of the failed policies of the past. Among them is the mandating of grain quotas for all provinces, even as those areas hit by soil erosion need to cut back on cultivation. And there is still a preference for tree planting, even though in many areas this has a limited or even negative impact. Trees need a lot of water and in some instances mass planting has proved a massive failure. Mass planting of a single type of tree can leave the shelter belts vulnerable to disease from insect attacks. Eighty million poplar trees were wiped out by an attack of long-horned beetle in Ningxia in the early 1990s. Only recently has the Forestry Ministry begun to endorse the planting of grasses, which require less water, and in many areas are more effective than trees in the battle against soil erosion. Previously, tree planting was given the highest priority and funding. "The structural problem was that there was no Ministry of Grass," says a Beijing-based Western diplomat who follows environmental issues, in a nod to the bureaucratic red tape that has hampered resolution of the issue.

Meanwhile, the problem draws nearer. From downtown Beijing it's not far to the source of some of the sand that has reached the capital nearly a dozen times this year. Thirty minutes drive from the Great Wall, on the outskirts of Beijing, is the village of Longbaoshan. It lies at the front line of an invasion. Large sand dunes where the Peoples Liberation Army conducts military exercises lead the charge of the encroaching desert and are alarmingly close to the village centre. Every year the sand moves another eight or nine metres closer to the village. According to local resident Zhang Xiaosong, the sandstorms were so heavy last spring that villagers were confined to their homes for almost a week in April.

This year it's worse because of the drought. "It hasn't rained in our village since September last year," says the village Communist Party Secretary Wang Yongxiang. Villagers have dug two wells and are searching for more underground sources. They have enough water to grow crops like millet and watermelon, but the sand that creeps into the recently planted shelter belt at the perimeter of the village lends it the aura of a doomed oasis.

Meanwhile the government in Beijing is pitching radical national solutions to drought, desertification and soil erosion. Chief among them is a vague but ambitious plan to channel water from the south of the country to the arid north. But it is clear that the command approach will not work and that the best hope lies in encouraging localized solutions supported by government policy. "The more you can swing the balance away from regulation and towards local incentives the better the outcome," says Clements.

-- Martin Thompson (, July 12, 2001

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