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Frequent Sandstorms Challenge Traditional Farming Methods

Financial Times
May 8, 2006

The traditional methods of spring farming in North China is a likely cause of the sandstorms that have plagued Beijing and other northern parts of the country in recent years, according to a scientific research program. The new findings suggest that desertification, a longtime scapegoat for frequent sandstorms in North China, is not solely to blame. "The dry and vulnerable topsoil in North China's spring ploughland can be easily picked up by gales," said Jin Heling, expert with the Institute of Environment and Engineering in Cold and Arid Regions under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). About 53 percent of China's land, mainly in the north, is in the drought and semi-drought areas. "Sandstorms are usually triggered by sudden temperature changes in springtime, poor vegetation cover and aridity, but exposed ploughland where abundant soil can be blown away is also a major cause," said Kang Ling, vice director of the Observatory of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in North China.

The intensive land cultivation of furrowing and harrow - ploughing the land before planting crops - is seen as one of ancient China's breakthroughs and greatly boosted agricultural output. Environmentalists, however, point out that large quantities of topsoil in ploughed farmlands are blown across North China every spring, the time for annual ploughing. Researchers with the Division of Earth Science of the CAS based their study on the diameter of the granules blown high and low in the recent sandstorms and insist that dust in sandstorms were mainly from farmlands. The CAS research is backed up by Gao Huanwen, professor with the China Agricultural University, whose study shows that sandstorms in Beijing mainly originate from cultivated lands, dry river basins and degraded sandy pastures around Beijing, which is less than 250 kilometers from an encroaching desert. "Generally speaking, desert sands are hard to 'take off' because the granules are relatively big, but tiny and light soil granules in ploughed farmlands can be easily 'gone with the wind', " Jin said. The most serious sandstorms of the year are usually witnessed in March and April - North China's spring ploughing period. As shown in the past two months, at least ten major sandstorms hit North China including Beijing, making it "the worst sandstorm weather in the spring season for the past decade". The experts suggested that China may draw lessons from North America's great Dust Bowl in the 1930s when dust storm finally caused millions of farmers to transform traditional deep-furrowing and intensive cultivation methods of farming to an advanced "protective farming technique" in which farmers covered fields in straw to avoid wind erosion. They also noted that the "protective tilling technique" can prevent 30 to 68 percent of the soil flying in the air, sometimes even 90 percent. Since 2000, the Chinese government has piloted "protective farming technique" programs in more than 200,000 hectares of fields in and around the sand-prone Beijing and Tianjin municipalities as well as some desert areas in Northwest China which are regarded sandstorm birthplaces. The agricultural department of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region has earmarked 1.27 million yuan (158,750 US dollars) to develop the pilot program in the region with an area of 1.18 million square kilometers, about one eighth of China's total. Currently, about 62,000 rural families with nearly 80,000 hectares of farmland in the region have signed up for the "protective farming technique" program. The Ministry of Agriculture released a guide recently on how to join the innovation project of the "protective farming technique" to encourage companies and individuals nationwide to innovate and provide technical support to the new farming technology. On April 10, Hohhot, capital city of Inner Mongolia, was blanketed in a yellow mist and plunged into a choked gloom. State Environmental Protection Administration statistics show that sandy weather in April 2006 degraded the air quality in half of China's major cities, affecting around 100 million people. Since the late 1990s, the Chinese government has invested heavily in the implementation of the Sandstorm Source Control Project in and around Beijing and Tianjin municipalities, intensify afforestation and reforestation efforts, return reclaimed land to forest and restore degraded pastures by banning grazing, which are all key national projects to improve the ecological environment. According to statistics from the State Forestry Administration, since 1999, China has earmarked 103 billion yuan (12.9 billion US dollars) to restore degraded pastures by banning grazing and return reclaimed land to forests.




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