The Heat Is Online

Drought, Deforestation Fuel Massive Chinese Dust Storm

More than a dust storm in a Chinese teacup, April 4, 2002

BEIJING, China -- Its North Asia's turn to endure the equivalent of the choking haze that in the past has plagued large swathes of Southeast Asia.

In Beijing the dust storms have been the worst for a decade, after China's airborne desert -- more than 50,000 tonnes -- dumped itself on the city and then moved on to Japan and Korea.

This year's acrid clouds have highlighted the monumental task ahead for the Chinese government in dealing with desertification.

The northern capital's answer, after reeling from 18 giant spring storms in the first six months of 2001 and fresh ones in 2002, is the construction of a "Green Wall".

Its purpose, like the Great Wall, is to keep out any unwanted invaders, this time in the form of Gobi desert sand particles.

Although prevention efforts are targeted at tree planting in cities and rural areas, progress has sometimes been slow.

And controlling the sandstorms by the 2008 Olympics deadline is far too optimistic, experts have told local Chinese media.

Almost one third of this vast country's land mass is desert or is in the process of becoming one, according to official statistics.

Since the first desert tracking study eight years ago, another 50,000 square kilometers have been reduced to dust and now the Gobi desert is only 250 kilometers (155 miles) from the capital.

Recently Beijing and its 12 million residents were engulfed in a dust storm not only large enough to show up clearly on satellite images, but also covering several provinces and other cities.

Every spring, dust blowing off the Mongolian desert plain chokes northern China, but the problem has worsened in recent years because of improper land use.

Overgrazing and deforestation across the north has damaged the fragile ecosystem, rendering oases and rivers dry, and worsening the desert environment.

Four years of drought, in what has been termed as the Central Asia's dust-storm zone have also aggravated the drifting desert sands.

Short-term view

In Yanqing county -- a two hours' drive from Beijing -- the process of desertification continues.

This mini desert developed about four years ago with a lot of the sand being blown in from other areas -- in some spots sand was exposed beneath the thin topsoil when it eroded.

Tree cutting in the mountains has also taken away the roots that could have stopped the sands from spreading so quickly.

What few trees have been planted are designed to protect tourist facilities at a sand dune park -- created to attract onlookers and income.

The desire for short-term economic gain explains why government plans to encourage tree planting have not taken root, with farmers wanting money up front before they invest in the saplings.

"The government has plans to get trees planted, but it just hasn't happened, this is a poor area, it's going to take a while," farmer Wang Yongli told CNN.

So far environmental good intent has been more symbolic than effective and there is certainly a monumental task ahead in preparation for hosting the 2008 Olympics.

-- Beijing Correspondent Lisa Rose Weaver contributed to this report