Magazine / July 2013

A decade of struggle: the story of the Ordos Grasslands

Desertification from falling ground water levels has caused grasslands to disappear. Now the sheep have to be fed and raised in their pens.

Desertification from falling ground water levels has caused grasslands to disappear. Now the sheep have to be fed and raised in their pens.

© Greenpeace / Qiu Bo

Across the vast and serene Ordos Grasslands in Inner Mongolia, there is one quick and easy way to identify families as ethnically Mongolian:

READ THE REPORT Our groundbreaking investigation

Outside the front door of Mongolian families will be two tall poles. Hanging between these poles on a slender woolen rope will be small flags in five colors – blue, yellow, white, green and red. Locals call them "Mani Hong", holy prayer-flags for all Mongolian families living on the Ordos Grasslands.

For the Mongolian people, "Mani Hong" represents faith, respect for all living things on the grasslands and a love of nature and life. Blue symbolizes the blue sky and space, yellow symbolizes the land that has raised their people, green symbolizes the living grasslands that have been around for generations and generations, white symbolizes their flocks of sheep – the source of their wealth, while red stands for fresh flowers and a happy and blissful life.

However, for many herders and farmers, whose connection with the Haole Baoji stems back generations, life on the grasslands has changed dramatically. And this change can be pinpointed to the 2003 construction of the Shenhua coal-to-liquid project, which uses groundwater from the grasslands as a source of water.

Dunes

After the Shenhua coal-to-liquid project began extracting large volumes of groundwater, moving dunes began to form, eating into the grassland vegetation.

Change: burrowing 22 deepwater wells into the Ordos Grasslands

There are 5,752 farmers and herders living nearby the Shenhua coal-to-liquid project, across a 0.26 million hectares water uptake area. Much like other families in this area, Wuzhu Yunle's ancestors have been living on this land for decades: "There has been at least six generations of my family living on these grasslands. And we have always respected and cherished everything nature has given to us," he says.

The grasslands of Wuzhu Yunle's childhood were no different to the grasslands of mythic poetry: "A shepherd in this vast jade-green grasslands, riding his horse, singing to the heavens, intoxicated with its beauty." Every year the grass might grow tall enough to reach a man's waist, masking the sheep once they enter the grassland. The underground water was so plentiful, farmers needn't water their crops. They'd plant their seeds in spring and by autumn crops were ready for harvest.

"Blue sky, grasslands, water, herds of cattle, flocks of sheep … what a wonderful place," says Wuzhu Yunle.

Lake

Recent rain has filled Subeinaoer Lake a few more centimeters. Locals say many different types of birds used to come to the lake, but now there are very few. © Greenpeace / Qiu Bo