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Recently, I was approached by Greenpeace China do write a short article for their website about my work on desertification in China for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. This has been a great chance to reach out to Greenpeace’s audience and inform them about the work that I have been doing on this subject. You can see the article here, or scroll down to read the text as it was published.
Beijing, China — China’s poverty-stricken northwest is swathed in sand. The deserts are creeping over ever larger areas, in part because of weather changes linked to climate change. Sean Gallagher a young British photographer travelled to Ningxia to document China’s growing sands.
“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. I opened my curtains expecting to see the Yellow River out of my window but all I could see was a haze of yellow light.” Sean Gallagher. Diary entry. April, 2009.
The sandstorm that descended on me that day was the most visually arresting sight I had seen during my time in China. Blocking out the sun, casting a yellow/orange light on the earth and bringing life to a standstill, I was experiencing something that was strangely unnerving. The underlying cause would prove to be even more so.
I was in a place called Shapotou, in the province of Ningxia. Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region is a small province lying in Loess highlands of north-central China. Dry and desert-like, it is China’s poorest province and is the least visited by outsiders. It was the second of my stops on a 4000km journey across China documenting the effects of desertification on the north and west of the country for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. It was a journey that would take me to a city of environmental refugees, visit degraded grasslands, abandoned cities, desert theme parks and disappearing oases.
So what is desertification? The desertification of north and western China is arguably the most under-reported environmental crisis facing China today and is little understood outside the circles of NGOs and groups of scientists who are desperately fighting against it.
Desertification is the gradual transformation of arable and/or habitable land into desert, usually caused by local and global climate change and more recently in China, fuelled by the destructive use of land in the forms of over-grazing, increased population, water mis-management and outdated farming methods. As land becomes degraded, the spring winds of northern-central China pick up sand and dust, hurling into the air creating vast sandstorms which batter the region.
Each year, desertification and drought account for US$42 billion loss in food productivity worldwide. In China, approximately 20% of land is now classified as desert or arid, and desertification is adversely affecting the lives of over 400 million people in China alone.
“Desertification is one of the most serious threats facing humanity. It is a global problem, affecting one fifth of the world’s population in more than 100 countries”, stated former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a message on World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought in 2006. “If we don’t take action, current trends suggest that by 2020 an estimated 60 million people could move from desertified areas of sub-Saharan Africa towards North Africa and Europe, and that worldwide, 135 million people could be placed at risk of being uprooted.”