Sands of time

Large portions of cultivable land may be lost to the desert in northwest China by end-1997

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Picture of neglect: the old ar (Credit: Un)rapid urbanisation and development pressures plague China today. Ironically, the pressure to increase farm productivity to meet the present and future food needs is threatening the future of arable areas in the northwest. Scientists believe that by the end of this year China could lose more than 2,000 sq km of farmland to the desert.

Desertification is not new in China. Many Chinese cultures were lost to the advancing desert, including the Loulan in the third century. A few hundred kilometres west of the Loulan ruins lies the Tarmin river which irrigates 60,000 sq km, an oasis which supports the largest plantation of poplar trees. This area, too, has recently been affected by desertification. The river has narrowed along its course and only a two-kilometre stretch remains where the river is widest. Poplar trees along the river's banks are drying up and dying. The Kumtuduk desert in the east has advanced fast and is now only two kilometres from the world's largest shifting desert, the Taklamakan. The two deserts will eventually meet.

A board set up to control desertification in the northern and western region, headed by Ci Lonjuan, director-general of the National Bureau to Combat Desertification (nbcd), says that human misconduct and population is to blame for the threat faced by farmlands. In inner Mongolia, for example, villagers eager to earn money from cashmere wool raised goats in numbers disproportionate to the grazing land available. As a result, pasturelands have lost their capacity to regenerate and have been destroyed.

Unmindful logging and increase in mining activities have also led to neglect of farming, contributing to ecological destruction. The results have been catastrophic. In Hulun Bir, in northeast Mongolia, a centimetre of fertile topsoil was lost every year in the past five years.

Human efforts, though belated, have proved successful in some regions. People planted trees in large numbers to stop the spread of deserts. But the area of land gained is negligible compared to what has been lost to desertification. According to estimates, the Gobi (stony) and sand-sea-type deserts already occupy 17.6 per cent of China's land area.

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