Desertification in China

Desertification, mostly from anthropogenic causes, has been of monumental proportions in China. The estimates are that the vast amounts of desertification are producing dust storms that can cover the capital, Beijing, within a few years. Currently, the Spring monsoons create dust storms that attack Beijing and other locales with choking particles and moving sand of massive proportions.

China implemented a massive shrub and tree planting program to help stave off the monster dunes, but it is not likely that even 30 billion trees, planted by the year 2000, will be able to withstand the estimated 2.5 million square kilometers of sand, sand, sand!

China has a history of desertification, with the first written analysis in the 4th century, BC by Mencius or Mengzi, a Chinese philosopher who did not hesitate to attribute the cause to deforestation and overgrazing.

The causes include unregulated and uncontrolled deforestation for building and for firewood, overgrazing to provide more meat to a growing and increasingly prosperous population that demanded much more protein, and the natural tendency of the Gobi desert to want to expand at the first opportunity.

The aggravating factors are the Chinese government’s inability to view the problem as something that requires changes in the ways that people farm or manage timber to replenish the nutrients and the stock, rather than to just work the soil or cut trees until there is no way to replenish the soil. The current efforts involve large and draconian initiatives, such as forcing people to stop farming or planting billions of saplings that are unlikely to survive in the dessicated soil. But there is no unifying, long term ecology or restoration plan or even use of composting and waste management to replenish the soil.

Land that was once chaparral or grasslands went through the classic and destructive process of denuding the grasses with sheep and goats (the most efficient for completely denuding and trampling soil), then failing to replenish the nutrients in time.

Where there was once a forested land with lakes and plentiful water that was about 70 miles northwest of Beijing, there is now a dry town that is rapidly being inundated with sand, the last remnant of soil after the richer particles of dirt have been lifted out of the soil complex and blown away.

In summary, a combination of population growth, increasing appetite for meat that led to overgrazing, massive tree cutting, poor water management and wasteful irrigation policies, and an uninvolved government with no environmental master plan or specific programs led to the desertification of an unprecedented volume of land in a country that is overpopulated and has what some figure to be only about 7 percent of its land available for food production.

For a more detailed report on the desertification of China:

Current issues in China desertification