Fighting desertification in China

Beijing launched an ambitious plan a decade ago, but the desert continues to swallow up large tracts of green land.

Desert in China

Beijing, China – Often accused of being an impediment to climate change mitigation because of its massive carbon emissions, China’s government has recently appeared to brandish its environmental credentials in the fight against desertification.

Vast tracts of China have been impacted by desertification, affecting about 400 million people in recent decades.

The Gobi desert in central China gobbles up 3,600 square kilometres of grassland each year, creating powerful sandstorms, robbing farmers of food-producing land, and displacing people from their homes. China’s desertification even affects neighbouring countries such as Japan, North Korea and South Korea.

” It is fair to say that China has the right vision, the political will and is moving in the right direction. This is how you win a fight”

Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary UN Convention to Combat Desertification

However, innovative methods to halt arable land from being degraded and to rejuvenate desert have been effective in decreasing desertification, State Forestry Administration statistics show.  

China’s administration spends billions each year fighting desertification. The “Green Wall of China” – the largest ecological project ever undertaken by authorities – was launched in 1978, aiming to increase human-made tree cover from five per cent to 15 per cent of the country’s vast landmass. These forests are envisioned to stretch across four million square kilometres of the country’s north by the year 2050.

According to the government, China is restoring between 40,000 and 70,000 square kilometres of desertified land – an area larger than Switzerland – every year through planting new and rejevenating old forests.

The province of Ningxia was the first in China to see a reversal in the volume of desert five years ago, Jia Xiaoxia, director of the National Bureau to Combat Desertification, told Al Jazeera.

Some critics have questioned the project, however, saying planted trees will consume large amounts of groundwater.

Other methods have bordered on the bizarre, including blowing up sand dunes, air-dropping “seed storms”, and erecting massive fences to prevent animals from eating threatened vegetation.

Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, told Al Jazeera that China’s efforts provide three important lessons.    

“First, that the restoration of even a severely degraded world is possible. Second, that the role of government – creating the right policy incentives – is indispensable. Third, is that we must think outside our traditional boxes regarding land stewardship – how we value, manage and invest in it,” Gnacadja said.

Human cost

While the mitigation efforts have shown some success, a quarter of China’s total territory – 2.6 million square kilometers – remains desertified.

As the sand and its associated storms approach, many Chinese people are forced leave their home regions. Ma – who asked to be identified by his surname only – is a farmer who moved from the north to Yinchuan in Ningxia province.  

“In my hometown it was impossible to grow any vegetable or any fruit because of the increase in the number of annual sandstorms,” said Ma. “Here conditions are much better, and I don’t have to deal with such hard life conditions.” 

About 178,000 people have been relocated from grasslands and forests near Beijing and Tianjin as part of regional authorities’ anti-desertification efforts, and more than 67,000 square kilometres of forest has been planted in the region over the past 12 years, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

In Baijitan, a project headed by Wang Youde – nicknamed China’s “Warrior of the Sands” – combats sandstorms and prevents the Moawusu desert from expanding south and westward. Sandstorms there have destroyed villages for the past 30 years.

“It is urgent to strengthen the forest building, to promote the combat of desertification, and to improve the environment,” Wang said.

For him it is a “long term task with difficulties” in Ningxia province. The 58-year-old arrived in Ningxia 27 years ago, when Beijing’s budget to fight desertification allowed for only 400 workers. His solution was to start businesses and use the profits to beat back the sands.

Wang and his team alone have managed to boost the forested area from 160 square kilometres to 930 square kilometres since their efforts began. 

“I think we have realised our goal,” he said. “We made the place lively and better and we made the desert green. We have also made ourselves a better life.”

China’s government has also recognised his efforts. Four years ago, Wang was invited to join the torch relay for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “To millions of desert fighters like me, it is the recognition of our career combating desertification,” he said.

Much more to do

China’s Minister of Forestry Zhao Shucong said in June that desertification posed “the greatest challenge of our generation”.

More than 400 million people are struggling to cope with water shortages, unproductive land and the breakdown of ecological systems caused by rising temperatures, overgrazing and poor land management, said Zhao.

He highlighted the need for programmes that also better the livelihoods of impoverished rural communities while combating desertification.

“It is no longer sufficient to provide training and technical guidance that does not meet the basic needs of the poor,” Zhao said. “Instead, we must understand that many of the causes of desertification are brought about by economic hardship … and the need to make ends meet.”

The UN’s Gnacadja noted the Chinese government’s efforts to support poor farmers, and its effectiveness in curbing desertification.

“By assisting farmers to erect tree shelter-belts, the rural poor have been able to farm in areas where commercial food production was not viable. These innovations have enabled China to address many challenges at once, and are, at least, part of the reason China has lifted so many people out of poverty and hunger.” 

He said China is an emample of “huge untapped potential” for the 167 other countries suffering the effects of desertifcation to “make land restoration a viable business”.

“It is fair to say that China has the right vision, the political will and is moving in the right direction. This is how you win a fight,” said Gnacadja.  

Source: Al Jazeera