Driven by weather, waste, deserts swallowing China

Advancing sand threatens infrastructure, farmland

April 20, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONGBAOSHAN, China - Whipped by the wind, sand from Sky Desert swept through this village earlier this month like sheets of stinging rain, clattering against dried corn husks and piling up in small dunes against buildings.

Longbaoshan, a farming community about 40 miles northwest of Beijing, stands on the front line of China's losing war against the country's advancing deserts. Driven by overgrazing, overpopulation, drought and poor land management, they are slowly consuming vast areas of the country in a looming ecological disaster.

Official figures tell a frightening story.

Between 1994 and 1999, desertified land grew by 20,280 square miles - an area twice the size of Maryland. Desert blankets more than a quarter of China's territory, a region nearly the size of Argentina. Shifting sands threaten herders and farmers in a nation with one-fifth of the world's population but only one-fifteenth of its arable land. Scientists warn of calamity if the government fails to stop the sands.

"Pastures, farmland, railroads and other means of transportation will be buried under sand," said Dong Guangrong, a research fellow in environmental engineering at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in western China's Gansu province. "People will be forced to move."

The environmental damage is visible across North and Northwest China, the country's driest regions. In areas such as Inner Mongolia, sand dunes are enveloping grasslands in scenes reminiscent of the American Dust Bowl in the 1930s, according to a U.S. Embassy report.

Not far from Sky Desert, sand and dust pour into the Guanting Reservoir - one of two from which Beijing draws water - at a rate of nearly 3 million tons annually. Silt, fertilizer runoff and factory pollution rendered the water unfit for drinking in 1997.

Last month, the worst sandstorm in a decade blinded the capital, painting the sky yellow and engulfing 40-story buildings as visibility dropped to less than a football field. Beijingers literally gritted their teeth as a seasonal storm known as the Yellow Dragon dumped 30,000 tons of sand on the city. People who braved the streets covered their mouths with surgical masks or their faces with scarves in a futile attempt to keep the sand out.

Four years ago, the Yellow Dragon merged with swollen rain clouds and inundated the city with mud. A mocha-colored mixture of soil, sand and water covered every surface; cars on Beijing's highways looked as if they were in an off-road rally.

The effects of China's sandstorms stretch far beyond the capital.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration tracked dust from last month's storm as it traveled across the Pacific Ocean and swirled high above California. Last year, for the first time, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that a Chinese dust storm caused haze over Colorado.

Officials here are trying to stop the sands by building green buffers. A project intended to protect Beijing in advance of the 2008 summer Olympic Games involves reclaiming desertified land in 75 counties

In Xuanhua County, about 90 miles northwest of the capital, officials are trying to finish planting a belt of white poplars and pines around the Yanghe Reservoir to halt an adjacent desert. During the past decade, more than 250,000 soldiers have pitched in, officials say.

Carrying shovels on their shoulders as though they were rifles, dozens of People's Liberation Army soldiers marched along the reservoir earlier this month to plant poplars in the soft brown sand. Against a craggy moonscape littered with sun-bleached rocks, the task seemed almost overwhelming.

Wearing heavy green military overcoats, and in a few cases goggles, soldiers dug pits and watered tree roots as freezing winds whipped sand into the reservoir's choppy waters. Some of the trees that had been planted earlier appeared dead.

Officials acknowledged that poplars, which cost about 70 cents each, have limitations. In winter, they have no leaves to block flying sand. The trees also struggle during drought, which has afflicted Xuanhua County for the past three years.

Soldiers place cardboard around the roots to help retain moisture and protect them from summer ground temperatures that reach 160 degrees. Officials say pine trees would be more effective but cost five times as much.

The government is also enlisting farmers to plant trees in dry fields where they once grew crops. Officials give peasants 1,320 pounds of grain and $2.40 for each acre replanted with trees. Farmers receive payment if 80 percent of the trees survive the first year.

Tending trees can be hard in this stretch of bare mountains and dry riverbeds that resembles northern Mexico. Some farmers live five miles from their fields and must lug water by ox cart or on their backs.

Critics question the extensive efforts outside Beijing, arguing that larger deserts in places such as Inner Mongolia contribute more to sandstorms and deserve greater attention.

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