This article was written by Mara Hvistendahl in October 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
Western China is turning into a massive dust bowl. Desertification now affects fully one-third of the world's population -- and what's happening in Western China represents the largest conversion of productive land to desert anywhere in the world, consuming over one million acres of land each year. The dust isn't confined to the west: every spring, massive sandstorms roar through Beijing, blanketing the city with tons of dust.
The October issue of the Canadian magazine The Walrus has an excellent feature by Patrick Alleyn on efforts to combat desertification in China (subscription-only, but 10-day trials are available). Benoit Aquin's startling photos, which accompany the article, have been circulating on Chinese bulletin boards.
In China, desertification is exacerbated by overgrazing by sheep and other animals. As Chinese make more money, they are eating greater quantities of meat; by last year, herd numbers had increased fourfold over 1960s levels. The Chinese government has responded by imposing grazing bans and relocating rural residents to settlements that are effectively ecological refugee camps.
Alleyn describes one of these villages in Ningxia autonomous region. Herders reportedly vie for the right to be sent there, but once at the village, they sit around, live off subsidies, and wait. I've visited similar villages in Qinghai province; Tibetan nomads are being relocated to these villages, also in the name of preventing overgrazing, which are similarly bleak to the ones in Ningxia (think rural housing projects). One Ningxia refugee says she hopes to reclaim her land within five years. In greater Tibet, nomads may never get that chance. They are offered more compensation if they agree to hand over their land titles.
What's a better solution? Tree-planting is a great approach - and has the added benefit of mitigating climate change, the root cause of desertification. But it doesn't resolve the question of what to do with herders. Alleyn points to more holistic approaches:
Many of the stakeholders involved in the fight against desertification in China, both foreign and Chinese, are calling for investment in a more promising strategy: conservation agriculture, designed around water-saving irrigation systems, more suitable farming and grazing practices, and the inclusion of farmers in the decision-making process.
"China must invest more in its number one resource: its farmers and herders," advises Brant Kirychuk, manager of a project led by Canada's department of agriculture in the arid northern provinces of China. "They need to be guided and then take part in decisions." Between 2000 and 2009, the Canadian government has committed $23.5 million to a sustainable agriculture plan aimed at rejuvenating China's arid lands. Canadian experts are on hand with Chinese specialists as well as with farmers and herders to share a process that was developed to save the Canadian prairies from the 1930s dust bowl. "In Canada, thirty years were necessary to recover," Kirychuk says.
There are promising Chinese projects out there as well. Botanist Gaoming Jiang (who also advocates organic farming as a solution for China's food safety woes) is working closely with locals in Inner Mongolia, persuading them to grow their own feed rather than setting animals out to pasture -- and convincing shepherds that they can actually earn more money by cutting back on sheep and goat herds.
China needs more sustainable programs like these, efforts that take the dust bowl's inhabitants into account.
Image: Seedlings destined for a Chinese reforestation project. Credit: flickr/autan
Revitalizing China's Dust Bowl is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.
We just posted some videos for an NGO working in reforestation and last summer I wrote proposals for grants for them through a college course.
One of the more important aspects of the budget was actually monies for fences and sufficient funds to re-enforce the fences for the duration of maturity for the seedlings. This was because grazing of goats was contributing to the desertification of areas being renewed. Seedlings and what shallow vegetation survived logging and over-farming was being uprooted by poor shepherding practices, worsening the state of the topsoil.
The videos we did were primarily designed to educate the unfamiliar with the process of desertification, primarily as it has happened in the last 30 years in Africa - they can be seen at www.edenprojects.org/media. I hope that doesn't count as a commercial message!