China's dangerous dustbowl
Overgrazing, logging, and loss of ground water turn nearly a million acres into desert every year, displacing millions and cutting global food supply
BEIJING -- A new Chinese export has been spreading quietly across Asia and America: dust.
Violent sandstorms from China's expanding deserts have been battering Chinese cities, and their mustard-colored dust has begun reaching South Korea, Japan, and the west coast of North America.
``People dusting off their cars in California or Calgary often don't realize the sand has come all the way from China," said Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., who was in Beijing recently. ``There is a dustbowl developing in China that represents the largest conversion of productive land to desert of any place in the world . . . and it's affecting the world."
China has always suffered from aridity. About 25 percent of its landmass is composed of deserts made famous in tales about the Silk Road, which traversed many of them.
But the situation is getting worse.
Overgrazing, along with persistent drought, indiscriminate use of ground water, and rampant logging, are eroding the edges of China's deserts, allowing them to merge and spread. Recent satellite imagery shows that the Badain Jaran Desert in north-central China is pushing southward toward the nearby Tengger Desert to form a single, larger desert overlapping both northwestern Gansu Province and neighboring Inner Mongolia.
Expanding deserts swallow almost a million acres of land every year, China's Environmental Protection Agency says. Soon, 40 percent of China could turn into scrubland, creating massive social, economic, and ecological challenges, including the problem of millions of ``ecological refugees."
``When I was a kid, the desert was five kilometers" -- three miles -- ``away, but now it's right here," said Li Liang, 19, gesturing to the sand lining the periphery of his family's cotton farm just outside Dunhuang in Gansu. ``Every year there are sandstorms, and every time there is a sandstorm our cotton is destroyed and we have to replant it, which costs a lot."
The Li family's diminishing profits are rooted in China's increasing prosperity. The leading cause of China's desertification is the growing number of sheep and goats reared in places such as Gansu for China's increasingly prosperous 1.3 billion people, who are eating more meat.
China has 350 million cattle, sheep, goats, and yaks, up from 100 million in 1960. Since many of these animals are owned by traditional herders who graze them on ecologically fragile hills and steppes, the animals have uprooted and eaten up vast swathes of grassland. As the topsoil has loosened, strong winds have blown it away, creating massive sandstorms and turning the area into desert.
Across China, more than 200 million people are suffering from the health and economic impacts of desertification. Breathing and skin disorders caused by the dust are on the rise, and falling crop yields are lowering incomes. Officials estimate that desertification is costing China $7.7 billion a year, and about 4,000 villages have been entirely swallowed by the encroaching desert and wordlessly stricken off maps.
Significantly, it's not just tiny hamlets like Li's that are being threatened. The legendary Gobi Desert in central China has expanded by about 25,000 square miles since 1994, and its sands are now within 100 miles of Beijing.
The capital gets blasted by about a half-million tons of sand every year, often reducing visibility to the point where its soaring skyscrapers can barely be seen, air traffic is grounded, and people are forced to stay indoors. While such sandstorms seriously impair human health by causing or worsening breathing, skin, and eye disorders, they can be quite good for the earth. Often, the minerals transported during sandstorms provide new nutrients to inland ecosystems and the seas, according to the Asian-Pacific Regional Aerosol Characterization Experiment, an international campaign focused on understanding how dust particles affect the chemistry of the atmosphere.
Yang Jian, director of the Development Planning Department in the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture, worries about the impact of China's desertification on food supplies.
Yang said at a recent news conference that China needs to grow 500 million tons of grain every year. Though the country is currently self-sufficient in food, production of most grains is slipping, largely because about a million acres of arable land have been lost to urban sprawl over the last decade, according to official reports. Though Yang's ministry has reserved 255 million acres of land for agriculture, much of it is in areas affected by desertification.
If the desert eats substantially into China's arable land, Beijing will be forced to import grains. This would raise world food prices, a potentially devastating development for the 350 million people worldwide who live on less than $1 a day, Yang said.
The government is trying a number of strategies to battle the creeping sands.
Farmer Li said local officials have ordered his family to switch from growing cotton to planting trees in the hope that reforesting the desert's periphery will help contain it. Many counties in Gansu have restricted herders from grazing their animals on damaged grasslands, and cities such as Beijing are creating ``shelter belts" of grass and trees around themselves to prevent topsoil from loosening.
China is even trying to water arid regions by seeding clouds with silver iodide, which creates ``artificial" rain. The chemical, which is sprayed into clouds by plane or cannon shell, cools clouds so their moisture condenses and falls as rain.
So far, the Chinese government has equipped about 35,000 farmers with antique anti-aircraft guns and trained them to fire shells loaded with silver into passing clouds.
Despite such innovations, China's deserts are stubbornly expanding.
In the western province of Xinjiang, the Tarim River, which began to run dry in 1972 following construction of a reservoir in its middle, has almost totally disappeared. As a result, the large poplar groves around it that once served as a barrier between two deserts, the Taklamakan and the Kumtag, are disappearing and the two parched swathes of sand are merging.
The stubbornness of the sands has led many people to find ways of making the most of their new proximity to the desert. In Dunhuang and Beijing, local entrepreneurs have created ``sand parks" where city kids can ride camels, toboggan down dunes, and drive SUVs.
``It's a tourist attraction," said an official at the park outside Dunhuang. ``We have to make the best of our conditions."