Beijing Fends off Monsters on Its Steppes ; Giant Spring Dust Storms Are Sweeping Down from the North into Beijing, Prompting Plans to Build a Great Wall of Trees

Article excerpt

It is born in the Gobi desert. Each spring it sucks up fine sands, growing more malevolent as it inhales dust over the bald steppes of Inner Mongolia and slouches toward Beijing. Who says monsters don't exist?

We speak of Beijing's spring dust storms - fengchenbao, or "wind- dust-tempest." Part natural, part man-made, an environmental troublemaker, the tempest fills the sky from the west like a special- effects sequence from the recent Hollywood thriller "The Mummy Returns."

This year's first dusty beast made an early showing last week, sending fine yellow dust through mesh screens and under doors, violating the microscopic cracks of civilization. It settled in file drawers, between pages, past the face scarves of cyclers. It crept into the narrows between spice jars, tracked wantonly from room to room, and settled into toothbrush trays.

Last year, 18 monster storms assaulted Beijing during the first six months of 2001. The year before, one storm killed several construction workers and the dust cleanup took days.

Fortifying the city

Now, using the politically potent lever of Beijing's 2008 Olympic Games, Chinese officials are pledging to mollify the monster by various means. The "Around Beijing Sand Source Controlling Project" - that is, a massive tree planting project - earmarks $120 million to plant a series of "green belt" forests around the city.

Some retired Chinese have, for years, planted their small orchards and hundreds of trees, on a freelance basis, in a small attempt to harness the beast. But it's not enough, says Jia Baoquan of the China Forestry Research Institute. "A network of green belts is an important and effective measure to keep the sand and dust ... from being blown into the city. But it is not enough just building a defense. We should find and deal with the source."

Just what the wind tempest is - its frequency and identity - is debated. Studies suggest the number of full-blown, if you will, "sandstorms" are in decline. But the number of so-called "sand- flying days" are still high - 20 to 40 a year, depending on conditions such as drought. Last year there were 32.

Most scientists agree that little can be done about the Gobi winds that kick up when colder desert air mixes with warmer air. "Strong winds can carry dust particles 1,600 miles or more," says Yang Weixi of the China Forestry Administration.

But the most alarming problem is man-made - the deforestation of grasslands. …