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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

China Desert

Air Date: Week of

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The soil in northern China is turning to sand, and huge dust storms are causing environmental and health problems thousands of miles away. Now, the Chinese government is making control of desertification a national priority. Anne Marie Ruff reports from Inner Mongolia.


CURWOOD: Controlling land erosion is one way officials in China are moving to curb dust clouds. Anne Marie Ruff traveled to the deserts of inner Mongolia, and prepared this report.

RUFF: Beijing has some of the worst air pollution in the world, made worse each spring by sand storms that make life miserable for Beijing residents, like Gung Xao Wei.

WEI: The sky will turn a yellow and you can feel the sand flying in the air and you get very dirty and everybody runs back to their home and closes the window. It happens more frequently this year.

RUFF: For decades, the city government has tried to defend itself against the invading sand by planting trees with an army of students, like Nu Wah Lee (sp).

LEE: We are volunteers to plant all of the trees, and sometimes the government will give us some money to help us to plant some trees, to buy some small trees and to plant it.

RUFF: But the damage caused by increasingly frequent sand storms has become so massive, that the Chinese government and the United Nations estimate it costs China two to six billion dollars a year from lost crops and damage to transit lines in buildings. So, the Chinese government is moving its battle lines closer to the source of the problem, and party leaders are rallying volunteers in the deserts of the autonomous region of inner Mongolia.


RUFF: The fearsome warriors of Genghis Khan came from this region eight centuries ago. Now, it's the sand that is the danger. And there's more of it--for several reasons. Climatic changes have made the area drier over the last few decades, and increasing population is putting added pressures on rivers and aquifers, and expanding herds of sheep denude the land of sparse vegetation. Starved of water and stripped of vegetation, there's nothing to keep the sand from being whipped up by the desert winds and blown over farms, roads, and 900 kilometers east, into Beijing. But the Chinese government is trying to change that.


RUFF: Here along the Yellow River, near the region of Alashan, in central inner Mongolia, dozens of volunteers are planting trees and seedlings of desert shrubs in an effort to stabilize the sand dunes that are marching out from the edges of the desert. Liu Whong Guay is a senior engineer for afforestation, in inner Mongolia.


VOICEOVER: Every year we plant trees, not only in this area but over thousands and thousands of acres. Worsening weather conditions have worked against us, so we have to keep up our efforts. It's every citizen's responsibility to plant trees.

RUFF: The government has even enlisted the Air Force to help. Every year, planes sweep across large, flat desert areas sowing seeds from the air, which then wait for the previous few millimeters of rain that come in the early summer.

Fan Bu He, the director of the Alashan Desertification Bureau, says another weapon in the war against desertification is just simple fencing.


VOICEOVER: Aside from air and ground seeding, the most basic method of protecting the desert is just to put wire fencing around pastures, to protect them from sheep. It's cheap, quick and effective.

RUFF: These efforts have been backed up by government policies subsidizing the settlement of nomadic herders. Nearly half of the 45,000 herders in the region have been settled onto enclosed grazing areas, farms or in cities. But according to Fan Bu He, the problem remains daunting.


VOICEOVER: Four deserts cover nearly two-thirds of 2,270,000 square kilometers of the region of Alashan, and the remaining livable land must be fought for continuously.

RUFF: Ironically, the Chinese government is working at cross-purposes with its effort to stanch the desert. Since 1994, encouraged by government policies, inner Mongolia has increased farm land by 22 percent. After highly erodable desert land is plowed it becomes vulnerable to erosion from both wind and irrigation water.

A report of the United Nations Convention to combat desertification paints a grim picture of the future. Citing a bad shortage of financial input and a weak technical system, the report concludes, the expanding trend of desertification can hardly be reversed.

Observers from the World Watch Institute and the World Bank think China's only hope is to reduce the number of livestock and humans in inner Mongolia and to introduce improved breeds of sheep and water conservation measures. But, on the ground in inner Mongolia, Fan Bu He remains optimistic.


VOICEOVER: With help, and our fighting spirit, we should be able to stabilize things in the next 30 to 50 years.

RUFF: Until then, China may continue to lose an area twice the size of Hong Kong every year, to expanding deserts and the endless appetites of people and their sheep.

From Alashan, Inner Mongolia, this is Anne-Marie Ruff for Living on Earth.




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