China is losing war against deserts Dune: Contrary to official figures, China's deserts are spreading rapidly. The nation now has more desert than cultivated land.

June 07, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GUZILIANG VILLAGE, China -- With a mighty roar, the tractor laboring outside Xue Yongquan's house shoveled sand off the road that was once the main route south. The road is blocked, yet again, because the desert is coming closer.

When Xue was a boy, Guziliang was a prosperous oasis on the eastern fringe of China's Gobi Desert. But a huge increase in population as well as overuse of the naturally available water has caused the desert to besiege the town, with huge dunes looming in the distance.

It is the story of China's fight against the desert, a battle China appears to be losing. While the country has made colossal efforts to hold back several of the world's largest deserts, its mismanagement of natural resources and overpopulation has led the deserts' steady expansion.

The growing population both consumes more water and has bred ever larger livestock herds -- which overgraze the grasslands. Without adequate management of water or land use, the northwest's grasslands are falling quickly to the sands.

"In the past, the government asked people to plant grass and trees," Xue said. "Now no one is in charge of that."

Since the 1950s, China has lost 170 million acres of land to the sands, and although the rate of loss has slowed, another 2 million acres a year are rendered useless.

For the first time in modern Chinese history, according to a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the total area of desert lands is higher than cultivated lands.

Expanding deserts are just one of a series of ecological problems that make the environment a chief constraint on China's development.

Some estimates put the cost of environmental damage at 10 percent of China's total annual economic output -- raising questions about the future of China's rapid economic growth.

So huge efforts have been made to control the deserts with reforestation programs, dams and irrigation schemes. And, officially, all is going well.

According to World Bank officials, who base their work on official statistics, China is winning the battle. "Desertification has been reversed," said Daniel Gunaratnam of the bank's Washington headquarters.

But talks with Chinese experts, who themselves do not accept the official figures, as well as visits to these deserts, show that they are growing, not shrinking.

Experts in Gansu province, for example, report that the desert line continues to move south by about 10 to 15 feet a year. And oases, which used to dot the Silk Road caravan route to the west, are drying up.

A third of the oases in the northwest have disappeared, the Gansu experts said, making it doubtful the Silk Road would be viable under today's conditions.

During a 1994 crossing by foot of the Gobi Desert, Austrian explorer B. Baumann found evidence that the desert was drier and larger than before. Whereas water used to be found after digging just 10 feet, Baumann's team had to dig 30 feet.

"It was a terrible vision," Baumann said. "You see that thousands and thousands of trees have died. The rivers had been diverted for agriculture; all the lakes and water holes were dry."

In China's far western province of Xinjiang, over-irrigation has led to a paradox, said Professor Zhou Xingjia of the Xinjiang Institute of Biology, Soil Studies and Desert Research. Oases around the Taklamakan Desert have doubled over the past 40 years to 60,000 square kilometers. But deprived of the water that now feeds the oases, the grass in between has turned to desert.

Rivers, such as the Tarim, which explorers from last century described as flourishing green bands stretching deep into the Taklamakan Desert, are now dry, leaving ancient trees standing like skeletons amid the conquering dunes.

One reason for the misuse of water is a growing population. Xinjiang must now support 16 million people, whereas only 4 million lived here in the 1950s.

The province has tried to stop the sands. Dunes are blanketed with hardy shrubs, which are watered for three years until their roots can reach the water table.

But the irrigation has caused the water table to drop, making it less likely the vegetation will survive.

Further east in Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi provinces, the Ordos Desert also continues to eat up valuable grazing lands.

In the past, Mongols and other nomads fought with China for control of the Ordos, which lies inside the Yellow River's northern loop, on the river's route eastward. The region was important to ancient China's survival: control of these fertile grasslands meant control of the nomads' route into China's heartland.

Nowadays, however, few people would find the Ordos of much '' strategic value.

Climatic change has led to drier conditions, which combined with an influx of people has led to a breakdown of the grasslands' fragile ecology. The area suffers from sandstorms that can wipe out crops in a couple of days.

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