China’s Growing Sands in The Beijinger Magazine

Posted by on Aug 5, 2009 in News | No Comments

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China’s Growing Sands appears in the August issue of The Beijinger this month. For the foreign community in Beijing, the magazine needs no introduction as it is a well-known steady source of news, events and happenings in and around the Beijing area.

I’ve put the layout into a handy piece of software which allows you to flip through the layout, exactly as it appears in the magazine. To turn the pages above, just move your cursor to either the top-right of the right hand page or the bottom-right of it. Then, click and drag left. Also, if you want to try and read the text, or have a closer look at the pictures, just give the picture a double-click wherever you want to zoom into.

If the writing is top small for you to read, here is the reproduced text below:

China’s Growing Sands: A nation’s battle against desertification. Text and Photos by Sean Gallagher

China’s task to control it’s growing sands has reached near-incomprehensible proportions. It is estimated that 20 percent of China’s land area, some 1.74 million square kilometers, is now classified as desert. Affecting the lives of an estimated 400 million people, it is the most important environmental issue in China today and arguably the most under-reported. Earlier this year, I was awarded a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, enabling be to travel 4000km overland from Beijing to Xinjiang, to document the various issues associated with desertification impacting China.

So what is desertification? It refers to the gradual transformation of arable and/or habitable land into desert, usually caused by local and global climate change and more recently, fuelled by the mis-use of water and inappropriate agricultural methods.

For residents of Beijing, the most tangible example of the effects of desertification comes in the form of sandstorms, which occasionally descend on the capital in spring. Those deposits of sand and dust are more of an inconvenience than anything else, but the underlying causes have huge implications in China and across the world.

The first stop on my journey across the country was the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. “The dryness affects our lives a lot. We call it the ‘black disaster’, which means there is no grass – we are afraid of this”, recounted Zamusu, a farmer who has lived on the central grasslands of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous region all his life. The grasslands are suffering as a result of overgrazing leading to the deterioration of the grasslands.

In neighbouring Ningxia, China’s poorest and least visited province, sandstorms batter the land with a fiercer intensity than seen in Beijing. Here, in the northern central desert regions of the country, sand and degraded topsoil are picked up and launched into the air. As they move east, the sandstorms descend on Beijing, and in recent years, these same sandstorms have been carried on to South Korea, Japan and even as far as the west coast of the United States.

One of my journal entries reads: “You can smell a sandstorm. As I woke this morning, my throat was drier than normal and the smell of dust and sand had crept into my room whilst I was sleeping.” Wiping sand from my eyes, clothes and camera equipment constantly, I found the working conditions to be some of the hardest I have photographed in.

“In March, the winds start to blow”, sighed Mrs Ma, who owns a small Muslim restaurant in the centre of Hongsibao in Ningxia province. The town was built 10 years ago to house 200,000 ‘environmental refugees’, relocated from the dry mountainous regions of the province. The creation of the town is a positive example of how desertification is being tackled – but while people can be moved, the dry and ravaged area remains.

Reforestation projects are underway in an attempt to restabilze affected land. The Great Green Wall, a project to reforest thousands of kilometers of land to the north of Beijing, has met with some level of success in stabilizing soil, and the intensity of seasonal sandstorms in the capital has decreased in the past few years. At Turpan Desert Botanical Garden and Shapotou Desert Research Centre, scientists are studying which plant species work best to “fix” sands and return land to a level of productivity.

Drought in the north of the country and the misuse of the remaining water is one of the main factors contributing to desertification in China. “When I was young it was very poor in Minqin and it was dry too”, began Mr Fang, a watermelon farmer who lives near the Minqin Oasis. Sandwiched unforgivingly between the mighty Tengger desert and the equally menacing Badain Jaran desert the oasis’s surface water dried up a long time ago. The area has become a symbol for China’s disappearing water.  Fuelled by a 15 metre drop in the water table over the past 50 years, 50 percent of the area has now turned to desert. “Our lives are much better now, but the problem is we are short of underground water. People dig too many wells to get water to use on their fields”, laments Mr Fang.

Historical lessons from the inability to manage water resources can be learnt by looking west in the country to the old silk road, which once snaked through Xinjiang Uyger Autonomous Region. It is estimated that in the past 2000 years, nearly 40 cities have been abandoned as a result of desertification in Northwest China. Among them is the old city of Yinpan, in Xinjiang. I traveled to one of the harshest, most remote areas of China too see what remained of Yinpan.

Approximately 2000 years ago, the city of Yinpan was a successful, thriving and eclectic city, welcoming travelers from across Asia. The gradual disappearance of water in the region and the inability of the people to adapt to this change, led to the misuse – and ultimately, the complete disappearance – of the area’s water. Now, the city lies abandoned. Isolated from the world by its unforgiving location, the land is scattered with human remains, a result of wind and water erosion that are slowly wiping away what is left of this ancient city.

How China handles the threat from desertification over the coming decades, may prove to be a lesson for the global community. China has all the problems and challenges associated with the issue and at the same time, has all the resources at its disposal to potentially combat the problem. Whether it will effectively do so remains to be seen. Demands and pressures from other sources, both environmental and political, are pulling much needed attention from this issue. With millions of people being affected by this crisis, however, it’s a fight that China desperately needs to win.

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