The Heat Is Online

Drought, Overgrazing Propels Desertification in China

A storm over shifting sands

Desertification advances in China

The Boston Globe, May 5, 2002

LONGBAOSHAN, China - Whipped by the wind, sand from Sky Desert swept through this village last month like sheets of stinging rain, clattering against dried corn husks and piling up in low drifts against buildings.

Longbaoshan, a farming community about 40 miles northwest of Beijing, stands on the front line of China's losing war against the country's advancing deserts.

Driven by overgrazing, overpopulation, drought, and poor land management, they are slowly consuming vast areas of the country in a looming ecological disaster.

Official figures tell a frightening story.

From 1994 to 1999, desertified land grew by 20,280 square miles. Desert blankets more than a quarter of China's territory. Sands threaten herders and farmers in a nation with one-fifth of the world's population but only one-15th of its arable land. Scientists warn of calamity if the government does not stop the sands.

''Pastures, farmland, railroads, and other means of transportation will be buried under sand,'' said Dong Guangrong, a research fellow in environmental engineering at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in western China's Gansu Province.

The environmental damage is visible across northern and northwestern China, the country's driest regions. In areas such as Inner Mongolia, sand dunes are enveloping grasslands, according to a US Embassy report.

Not far from Sky Desert, sand and dust pour into the Guanting Reservoir - one of two from which Beijing draws water - at a rate of nearly 3 million tons annually. Silt, fertilizer runoff, and factory pollution made the water unfit for drinking in 1997.

Last month, the worst sandstorm in a decade blinded the capital, painting the sky yellow and engulfing 40-story buildings. The storm dumped 30,000 tons of sand on the city.

The effects of China's sandstorms stretch far beyond the capital.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration tracked dust from this spring's storm as it traveled across the Pacific Ocean and swirled high above California.

Officials are trying to stop the sands by building green buffers. A project intended to protect Beijing in advance of the 2008 summer Olympic Games involves reclaiming desertified land in 75 counties.

In Xuanhua County, about 90 miles northwest of the capital, officials are trying to finish planting a belt of white poplars and pines around the Yanghe Reservoir to halt an adjacent desert. In the past decade, more than 250,000 soldiers have pitched in, officials say.

Officials acknowledged that poplars, which cost about 70 cents each, have limitations. In winter, they have no leaves to block sand. The trees also struggle during drought, which has afflicted Xuanhua County for three years.

Critics question the efforts outside Beijing, arguing that larger deserts in places such as Inner Mongolia contribute more to sandstorms, and thus deserve greater attention.

''Putting hundreds of millions of dollars into the Beijing-Tianjin Sand Prevention and Forest Belt Project and ignoring the major sand source regions is ... practicing self-deception,'' wrote Shi Yuanchun of the China Academy of Sciences.

A key weapon against desertification is water. Demand from industry and rising living standards have tapped rivers dry and have created shortages of drinking water. In 1997, the lower part of the Yellow River, China's ''mother'' river, ran dry for 226 days. For most of the year, the river's waters never reached the Yellow Sea.

This story ran on page A9 of the Boston Globe on 5/5/2002.