China slows spread of encroaching deserts

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The Independent Online

China has announced it has managed to slow the rate at which the desert is eating up farm and other land, but the problem is still serious in a country where sand already covers one third of its land mass.

To the disbelief of many who endure the sandstorms that sweep the country every spring, officials also expressed confidence that the 2008 Olympics in Beijing would not be affected by them. China would never completely tame the sandstorms, the officials said, but they did promise China would step up efforts to control the problem.

The spread of deserts in western China and the Mongolian steppes has made spring sandstorms worse in recent years, reaching as far away as South Korea and Japan. A persistent drought in northern parts of China has only added to the problem, sucking moisture from the soil and making it more easily picked up by the wind, officials have said.

Population growth and an increase in the number of livestock had led to a rapid expansion of desert at an annual rate of 10,400 sq km (4,015 sq miles) by the end of the 20th century. Imported European cattle such as the Friesian and Simmental varieties, which eat more than Asian breeds, have made things worse.

But Zhu Lieke, the deputy head of the State Forestry Administration, said yesterday that the rate of desertification had slowed to about 3,000 sqkm a year. "China's anti-desertification work has made major progress," Mr Zhu said. "It has effectively improved agricultural production conditions. Although the work has had certain success, the desertification situation is still very serious.

"Disadvantageous climatic reasons, especially the influence of drought, cannot be underestimated. Over-planting, over-grazing and over-use of water are also issues yet to be totally resolved," he added. China's State Council, or cabinet, said its schemes would ensure that by 2020, half of all land that could be repaired would have been.

But a UN study issued last year warned that a deteriorating environment, including encroaching deserts, could drive 50 million Chinese from their homes by 2010.

China is home to part of the Gobi desert, one of the largest deserts in the world. Beijing has embarked upon a massive tree-planting scheme to hold back the deserts, as well as banning the grazing of domestic animals on fragile soil and trying to improve irrigation.

An enormous "green wall" is now being built in the areas worst hit by desertification. It will eventually stretch more than 5,700km in length ­ nearly as long as the Great Wall of China ­ to protect so-called " sandy lands", or deserts believed to have been created by human activity.

Oases and farmlands in windy regions are also protected by planting tree fences and grass belts. The sand that manages to pass through the grass belts is caught in strips of trees, which have been planted and act as wind breaks 50 to 100 metres apart, adjacent to the belts.