China Sounds Retreat against Encroaching Deserts

Article excerpt

Behind the walled farmhouses, where fields of cotton and fennel bask in bright sunshine, the desert begins. Pale ochre sand dunes loom over rows of carefully tended crops that represent a lifetime of labor for the 21 families who live here.

As the desert closes in, this community has been told to leave, so that their fields can be replanted with native grass. Local authorities say this will revive the parched land and halt the sand dunes, and have promised new land and housing to villagers. The forced move is an admission that China's grandiose plans to turn its arid land into farms have run dry.

In recent years, China has met some success in slowing the sands by imposing curbs on grazing in Inner Mongolia and other measures.

But with China's average annual land loss of about

950 square miles to desertification, according to researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in addition to vast swaths of land turned over to industry and housing, the amount of farmland available to feed a large population is being pinched.

In all, more than 10,500 residents of Minqin County in northwest Gansu Province, along the ancient Silk Road, are due to be relocated over the next three years.

It's a tactical retreat after decades of cropping that exhausted scarce water resources. What matters now, say experts, is preventing this and other marginal land from turning into vast dust bowls where nothing grows.

"Minqin is an example of what's happening all over China. If we lose villages here, we can expect to lose villages in other places," says Sun Qingwei, a researcher on desertification at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Lanzhou, the provincial capital.

For decades, China has been trying to hold back the deserts that cover one-third of the country and produce seasonal sandstorms that scour Beijing and other northern cities. Experts say deforestation and overfarming are to blame for desertification, though global warming may become a greater factor in the future, as the Tibetan glaciers that feed China's waterways are melting.

China has more than 20 percent of the world's population and only 7 percent of its arable land. China announced Monday that rising food prices pushed the inflation rate in July to 5.6 percent, a 10- year high. Adding to the pressure on farmland is rampant environmental degradation that has poisoned waterways and soil.

Attempting to stop the sandy tide

To combat the encroaching Tengger and Badain Jaran deserts, China has planted billions of trees - to replace felled forests and as barriers against the sand. This isn't a panacea, though, say experts, as thirsty trees can exacerbate the problem by sucking up groundwater.

"Planting trees is one way, but it's not that simple. It doesn't tackle the fundamental issue" of water resources, says Wu Bo, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Forestry in Beijing. "We need to calculate how much water the trees will absorb, or else it could have a negative impact."

Villagers in Zhengxin have taken on this challenge, with limited success. …