boom, development quicken spread of desert in China
By Julie Chao
Cox News Service
Nov, 7, 2004
HANGGIN QI, China _ A decade ago, the
grass grew tall around Erdung Geshige's humble wooden house. The
grasslands stretched for miles, feeding his goats and those of
his neighbors. But over time, after years of drought and
over-grazing, the grass disappeared and the sand crept closer.
By last year, sand dunes swallowed up Geshige's house.
Half-buried, it is surrounded by a vast desert that looks as if
it's been there for all of time. Geshige now has to travel 25
miles to buy grass to feed his goats.
Neighbors have fled. But Geshige, an ethnic Mongolian, says he
doesn't want to leave.
"If it rains, the grass will grow back," he said, unaware that
in his Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, 386 square miles of
grassland turns to desert each year, an expanse about three
times the area of the city of Atlanta.
China is fighting a losing battle with sand _ a result in part
of population growth, poorly managed land policies, over-grazing
of grasslands and groundwater pollution. Its deserts are growing
by 1,160 square miles annually and now cover 27 percent of
China's land mass.
The consequences can be seen every spring. As the ground thaws
and the Siberian wind kicks up, intense dust storms blow into
western China and beyond, obscuring the sun and turning the sky
to mud. From Beijing to Seoul, the dust has shut down airports
and schools and forced residents to hide in their houses. It has
even been known to spread a haze across the United States.
Scientists are concerned that the dust storms, growing in scale
and intensity, are binding with increasing amounts of airborne
pollutants to create a toxic soup that is being blown around the
"The dust in a sandstorm far exceeds the amount of matter in a
hydrogen bomb," said Quan Hao, director of the State
Environmental Protection Agency's Sandstorm Group. "Imagine
millions of tons particles in the air, traveling so far."
Desertification and other land degradation threatens China's
biodiversity, agricultural productivity, water quality and
quantity and the livelihoods of millions of people. The United
Nations Environment Program estimates the direct economic losses
at $6.5 billion annually.
The Chinese government is spending huge amounts of money on the
problem, feverishly planting trees and grass to stop the
But critics say it's a losing battle, with the plantings
targeting areas already lost to desert and much of the money
grossly misspent by corrupt local officials.
The State Forestry Administration has said it will spend $85
billion over the next 50 years to cover 180 million acres of
land with trees and other vegetation "to turn China into an
ecologically-friendly land," according to the official Xinhua
News Agency. In 2002 alone, 18 million acres of trees were
planted, an area nearly the size of South Carolina.
"The problem is so massive, and it appears to be growing despite
all the money the government has spent," said Bruce Carrad, head
of the environment and agriculture unit at the Asian Development
Bank's China office.
More effort should be spent on protecting at-risk farmlands and
grasslands and making sure trees already planted survive, the
experts say. Trying to make the deserts bloom is an expensive
mistake, says Quan.
In some places, the environment has become so desolate that it
has turned thousands into ecological refugees. More than 800,000
farmers and herders have already moved voluntarily or been
relocated. Carrad likens the situation to the migration of farm
families from America's dust bowl in the 1930s, captured in John
Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath."
The population of Inner Mongolia has soared in the last 55 years
from 5.6 million to 32 million while the number of domesticated
animals has grown even faster, putting immense pressure on the
region's environment. The booming international demand for
cashmere has been a major factor in the rising number of goats.
In recent years, northern China has suffered extreme drought,
with rivers shrinking and water levels in some places at their
lowest in 50 years. China's unclear definition of land
ownership, coupled with corruption and a bureaucratic mess _ at
least four different government ministries receive funds to deal
with land degradation _ has allowed the problem to become more
To many local officials, getting tree-planting funds is like
hitting a jackpot. They plant a few trees for show, then spend
the rest buying cars, hosting banquets and building showy
"The central government has spent a lot of money on planting
trees, but the local governments focus only on planting along
the roadside so that visiting officials will see them," said
Quan. "If they can't reach further in the interior, they just
forget about it."
A recent government audit found that agencies responsible for
fighting desertification had misappropriated hundreds of
thousands of dollars by claiming non-existent employees and
drafting phony projects.
Meanwhile, the farmers and herders of the Hanggin Qi area (pop.
130,000) on the edge of the Kubuqi Desert, are among the poorest
in all of China.
In Xinjian Village, reachable only by several hours along bumpy
paths and sand dunes, the average household income of its 10
families is less than $100 a year.
Xinjian's village chief Li San gets by with about 20 goats and a
few pigs, turkeys and chickens. When the weather allows, he can
also grow corn and potatoes. His main complaint is not about the
lack of water or other material comforts; what he'd most like to
see changed, he says, is the government's grassland policy.
The government uses an airplane to sow grass seeds at a cost of
about $10 per mu, or about one-sixth of an acre. But Li said
less than 20 percent of seeds even sprout, while villagers would
have a higher success rate for cheaper.
"If they could give that money to the people, that would be
better," he said. "The villagers would be happy with $5 a mu."
Hanggin Qi officials insist airplanes are necessary because much
of the desert is so vast and remote. But one official said the
practice is just another opportunity for corruption.
"They report the plane costs $10 a mu, but in reality it costs
less," the official said, insisting on anonymity. "They pocket
Another factor is China's "Go West" campaign of the last several
years, designed to encourage economic development in provinces
like Inner Mongolia. It is meant to reduce the economic gap
between the impoverished interior and the booming east coast.
In effect, it has sent polluting enterprises unwanted elsewhere
in China to the West.
"In recent years, some areas in western China placed undue and
blind emphasis on developing ... projects which are highly
energy-consuming and highly polluting," said Li Zibin, an
official in charge of the Western development campaign.
In Inner Mongolia, some factories have polluted the groundwater
in a place where water is more precious than oil. One grassland
that had remained relatively unharmed by grazing started
deteriorating after a paper pulp plant moved in and created a
giant lake of waste water, the Workers' Daily reported.
"Industries that are expressly prohibited by the national
government are creeping into Inner Mongolia, an inherently
vulnerable ecology which is facing another surge in pollution,"
the newspaper said.