Climate Change

How communities in China helped keep desertification at bay

A fast-ageing population could deter efforts to achieve the United Nation’s target of zero land degradation by 2030

By Alok Gupta
Published: Thursday 05 September 2019
Community workers in China fixing one square metre straw checkerboard on the desert sand to curb desertification. Photo: Alok Gupta

Communities have played a major role in China, which has a quarter of its land under deserts. Degraded land spans 800-1,000 million hectares (mha) of the country and is responsible for economic losses to the tune of $6.9 billion a year. But this experience has also made the country a global leader in greening desert.

The country has five deserts on the two Great Plains in the north-central region. Another three, relatively smaller ones, are located in the northeastern part, occupying 13 per cent of the total land. Besides, numerous small desert patches are dotted along the Hexi Corridor, a series of valleys north of the Qilian Shan.

As a result of the land degradation, the desert area is expanding at the rate of 210,000 ha every year, swallowing vast tracts of fertile land in the process. Today, land degradation threatens more than 27.4 per cent of China’s territory, directly affecting nearly 400 million people in 11 provinces and autonomous regions: Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang and Hebei.

More than half of the desert, in the local language, is shazhihuangmo, meaning ‘sand that moves with the wind’ or aeolian desert. The wind becomes the legs of the sand, helping it crawl towards the neighbouring land. The sand layer envelopes the fertile soil shutting off its water and air supply, degrading its fertility.

“The movement of the sand is a huge problem. It causes sand erosion, resulting in expansion of desertification. A major part of our research focuses on fixing sand and another focuses on greening the desert,” said Zhang Zhishan, deputy director at Shapotou Desert Research and Experiment Station (SDRES).

According to the aeolian desertification survey of China, wind erosion and deficient rainfall (less than 50mm) in northern China are primary reasons behind soil degradation over an area of 37.63 mha, constituting nearly 44.1 per cent of the total soil in the country.

In the 1950s, in his childhood, Di Changcun of Ningxia autonomous province would wake up with knee-deep sand at his doors. Picking up the shovel became a morning duty and also a skill. Not only Di, thousand like him, spent their lifetime trying to stop the crawling sand in China’s northern region.

The government mobilised over a million people and initiated massive engineering projects like Three North Shelter Forest System, the Beijing-Tianjin Sand Source Control Project and the Grain for Green Project, to reverse the desertification. Apart from national-level policies, the provincial government made their own efforts, using local resources.

In Tengger Desert, dunes stroll at 15 metres per year, mostly in the southeast direction. In 1959, it started encroaching on the country’s first desert railway line — the Baotou-Lanzhou Railway — frequently disrupting the train services and sometimes causing minor accidents. In later years, sandstorms originating from Inner Mongolia blanketed Beijing.

For scientists at SDRES, one of China’s first research stations to control desertification set up in 1959, saving 40-kilometre stretch the rail network crossing through the Tengger desert at Zhongwei, became a major challenge.

To prevent wind erosion, scientists at our research centre were trying to devise a cost-effective and permanent solution, Zhang said. “One of the concepts based on the principle of reducing wind speed at the ground level to stop the sand flow looked promising. But its implementation required a large workforce,” he explained.

The method created a straw checkerboard of around one square metre in size. It was fixed on the desert sand. The straws act as a wind barrier preventing sand from moving. In laboratory conditions, it showed promising results and the government decided to scale it up.

Initially, when researchers from SDRES approached local communities in Zhongwei, Ningxia to initiate a pilot for anti- desertification, they were jubilant.

Farmers were under the impression that the researchers would help restore the fertility of their fields. They also wanted them to help transport water from the Yellow River to agricultural land.

“In the 1950s, land degradation forced hundreds of farmers to migrate. When scientists approached them, it sparked hope. It took a bit of effort to explain to farmers that the need of the hour is to stem the sand flow, not more agriculture,” said Zhang Kezhi, a senior employee who worked with Zhongwei Gusha Forestry Farm recalled. 

“After a bit of effort, communities agreed to work for the anti-desertification pilot project. They even helped scientists to procure agricultural waste to make straw checkerboard,” Zhang added.

The straws act as a wind barrier preventing sand from moving. Photo: Alok Gupta

The straws act as a wind barrier preventing sand from moving

Workers like Di, who had traditional knowledge of sand control collaborated enthusiastically with scientists in the anti-desertification drive. Farmers also helped scientists in procuring wheat and rice straws to make one square metre checkerboard in bulk, to plant it on the entire stretch of the railway.

Years of hard work of laying checkerboards along the tracks finally paid off. By 1990, railway line became completely free from sand erosion. Last year, it celebrated the 60th anniversary of establishment.

For sand fixation technique and motivating the locals to join anti-desertification, Zhongwei Gusha Farm was awarded United Nations Global 500 Environment Award in 1994. Zhang, who received the prize in London, added that the global recognition acted as a turning point for the anti-desertification drive in China.

Today, nearly half a century since SDRES started missions to reverse land degradation, an aerial sight of the Tengger desert appears like someone weaved a net with perfect squares over hundreds of miles of the desert. They run endlessly over the golden-yellow desert.

“These crisscrossing lines of wheat and rice straws have curbed the desertification in Ningxia,” Zhang Zhishan said. But the sand fixation efforts have not stopped with the checkerboard. The SDRES embarked on a massive mission to utilise the one square metre of the checkerboard as a protective enclosure to plant shrubs that can be grown in arid regions.

After years of trials, five shrubs Caraganakorshinskii, Hedysarumscoparium, Artemisia ordosica, Atraphaxis bracteates and Calligonummongolicum are being planted in the one square metre of the checkerboard.

“It has brought a hint of greenery and colonies of insects,” Zhishan added.

A detailed study published in the Journal of Arid Environment in 2004 shows that the straw checkerboards have reduced wind speed by 20 to 40 per cent at the height of half a metre, thus avoiding the sand flow.

“The straw can greatly increase the roughness length of the dune surface, decreasing the intensity of sand flux by as much as 99.5 per cent,” researchers wrote in the paper. 

Scientists at SDRES worked with communities to save 40-kilometre stretch of rail network crossing through the Tengger desert at Zhongwei. Photo: Alok Gupta

Scientists at SDRES worked with communities to save 40-kilometre stretch of rail network crossing through the Tengger desert at Zhongwei.

As a result of the anti-desertification drive, aeolian-degraded land started decreasing at the rate of 163,530 ha every year from 2000 to 2005. But, it witnessed a slowdown from 2005 to 2010 at 111,440 ha, shows a study “Remote Sensing Analysis on Aeolian Desertification Trends in Northern China during 1975-2010” published in the Journal of Desert Research.

But 2030 appears to be a challenging year for China to achieve the United Nation’s target of achieving zero land degradation. It’s difficult to ignore the greying hair of workers involved in planting the shrubs in Ningxia.

The senior citizen’s population will cross 487 million in 2050, constituting 34.9 per cent of the total population, according to the data released by China’s National Health Commission last year.

Mariam Akhter-Schuster, senior scientific advisor and coordinator of the German IPBES coordination office believes that the rural-urban migration is a global trend, better education and employment opportunities is a driving factor, which is good for the society.

“Problem is when such migration interferes with the ecological balance. It’s time for governments to provide incentives and better product services to make farmland attractive for young people,” she said.

The issue of migration and urbanisation echoed majorly during the World Day to Combat Desertification in Ankara on June 17. The head of United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), Ibrahim Thiaw, said urbanisation is a growing challenge because half of the global population now lives in urban areas and consumes resources produced in an area 200 times the size of the city.

“What’s more, regions such as Asia and Africa could lose 80 per cent of their cropland to cities,” he said. However, the ageing workforce fails to find an elaborate mention on the agenda of the UNCCD.

“We are not sure how ageing can affect land degradation, but we are open to discuss the issue at the upcoming Conference of Parties in New Delhi,” Thiaw had told Down To Earth.

An ageing population 

Recent data shows ageing will severely hit the whole of Asia, which is also the most severely affected continent in terms of the number of people affected by desertification and drought. 

In South Korea, the population over 60 years is projected to grow from 18.5 per cent to 31.4 per cent by 2030. While Thailand, the third-fastest ageing country, will have an ageing population of 26.9 per cent, Sri Lanka fifth on the ageing index with 21 per cent of the ageing population by 2030.

Despite the issue of ageing missing prominently from the desertification control agenda, China appears to be readying itself to meet the challenge. Recently, leading business houses have started taking anti-desertification initiatives.

At the same time, mechanisation of back-breaking labour in the drylands for sand fixation has started showing promising results.

Ant Forest, a part of Alibaba — a Chinese multinational conglomerate giant — is promoting a low carbon lifestyle in the country. The company has created a carbon account for its users. It plants a virtual tree if the user’s activity saves enough carbon worth one tree.

Every spring and autumn, the company matches the number of virtual trees by planting real trees in the deserts of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. 

Yi Xing, a project manager of Ant Forest, told Global Times that more than 55,520,000 real trees had been planted from 2016 to 2019, covering about 50,700 ha across China.

“It combines the internet, finance and a low-carbon lifestyle together that contributes to mitigating desertification,” Yi said.

The Wuwei region in Inner Mongolia has invented sand pressing machines with the help of engineering professionals. Private enterprises like RongHua, XinMiao are joining the desertification control initiatives.

The desertification control equipment of Gansu Construction and Investment Group were introduced to carry out the experimental demonstration of mechanical sand pressing technology of multi-functional sand stabilisation machinery.

“Now, a machine to build the straw-checkboard on the surface of the dunes has been built last year in Gansu province. Soon, machines would replace a large workforce to plant straw-checkboard and shrubs,” Zhang Zhisan added.

In his modest bedroom with a coal-fired chimney at the end, Di snuggles out of bed to write about how government, scientists and local communities came together to combat desertification.

“Sand doesn’t crawl to my doorstep anymore. I hope the next generation and technology brings back greenery in the region,” he said.

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