Livelihoods blown away

Desertification in Inner Mongolia destroys everything in its path

Feature story - 1 September, 2003
Each year for the last few years, the winds of March or April bring the desert to Beijing. No ordinary storms, these sun-darkening blasts shift and deposit millions of tonnes of sand across the city, into Tianjin and onwards, over the water to the Korean Peninsula and Japan. The dust storms, known in China as 'Yellow Dragons', have been increasing in frequency over the last decades.

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.

Over 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 the wind.

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 topsoil.

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 passing.

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.

The 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.

All 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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