Camel owner Baoyin Culu says prayers at the place where his last camel died. All of his 80 camels died due to desertification in the region.
The desert's expansionist agenda has become a massive regional
problem -- so much so that the authorities in China, the Central
Asian republics, Mongolia, South Korea and Japan have jointly
committed resources and effort to stemming the tide of sands.
The problem of desertification began to receive the global
recognition it warrants at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. As a
result, the United Nations
Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was adopted in
1994. This week sees the largest gathering ever of high-level
officials and experts on desertification in Havana, Cuba.
a quarter of China's huge landmass is officially classified as
desert. Up to 400 million people are under threat from the
fast-advancing deserts in the country's western and north-western
provinces of Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Ningxia and Shaanxi.
The impacts of desertification on urbanised eastern China are
severe and getting worse. Huge quantities of sand are deposited on
urban streets and the desert's leading edge is within 150 miles of
Beijing. Economic loss has been estimated at around US$ 6.5 billion
per year. However, the most severe impacts are felt by those who
depend on the lands being desertified - every day they see the
topsoil they rely on for food and for their livestock blown away on
Desertification is caused by a complex combination of factors.
In China's Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang provinces in particular,
some of the causes are clear. The huge pressures on China to feed
1.3 billion people has resulted in a doubling of grazing livestock
numbers over the past 30 years. In 2002 China had 427 million head
of livestock, up from just over 200 million in the early 70's.
Previously arable land has also been over ploughed, loosening the
The other major contributing factor is climate change. And while
the problem is fueled principally by the consumption and driving
habits of the West, Beijing is rapidly becoming a car city itself.
In August of this year, the number of registered automobiles in
Beijing surpassed 2 million. Streets that were once thronged with
bicycles are now choked with cars. It took nearly 50 years for
Beijing to move from just under 2,000 registered vehicles in 1950
to 1 million in 1998. The second million vehicle was added in only
five years. As China and other nations reach for the same standard
of living that the West has championed for decades, using the same
destructive technologies and adding to the global emissions burden
that the US in particular refuses to reduce, the impacts on our
planet's fragile environment grow more severe with time's
Warmer winters and less rainfall have left the fertile topsoil
of Inner Mongolia even more susceptible to the strong winds that
course across the area.
impacts on provinces like Inner Mongolia are harrowing. Livestock
are dying in large numbers due to lack of grazing ground, people
struggle for water as groundwater levels reach all-time lows, goats
eat each other's coats in a desperate search for nutrition, and the
threat of mass migration of people grows with each season.
The Chinese authorities have made the battle against
desertification a top priority and are investing huge resources in
putting it in check. There is a massive reforestation programme, a
plan to lay down a "Green wall" of trees and plants stretching from
Beijing to Inner Mongolia, and farmers are being urged to cut back
on livestock numbers. Each year, Japan sends volunteers to plant
trees in a bid to end the deserts's creep toward Beijing and the
lengthening reach of the dust-laden winds.
the effort to stop the desert, however, is merely addressing a
symptom, not the cause. The problem of climate change doesn't
respect borders. Low-efficiency cars rolling off assembly lines in
Detroit are as much a part of the problem of desertification as the
lack of vegetation in Inner Mongolia. Unless the world takes joint
action to curb carbon dioxide emissions and adopt the Kyoto
Protocol on climate change, desertification, sea-level rise,
floods, droughts and other impacts will continue to be consequences
of human impact on the climate. Worldwide action is needed now. And
if China, with its massive renewable energy resources, can curb its
greenhouse gas emissions by harvesting renewable sources, that may
help slay the Yellow Dragons.
For the poor of Inner Mongolia living close to a land turning to
dust, desertification is costing lives and livelihoods. For these
people, climate change isn't a chimera on the distant horizon: it's
a killer at large today.
For more information
Chinese documentarian Lu Tongjin has been chronicling
desertification in Mongolia since 1995. You can
view a slide show of his images here.
Visit the website of the United
Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.
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