Photographer: James Whitlow Delano

China Fights Desert’s Spread and Puts Mongols’ Way of Life at Risk

Dust storms and desertification are two of China’s biggest environmental challenges, and they can’t be addressed without dealing with the stressed northern region of Inner Mongolia. Years of intensive agriculture, the ravages of open-pit coal mining, and climate change have depleted the scarce water resources of the already arid territory. Its grasslands are disappearing and lakes are drying up. China’s response includes the “Great Green Wall”—planting vast numbers of trees to form a protective belt between cities and deserts—and a policy of moving Mongolian herders and their livestock off the land. It may not be working, say academics and activists. Meanwhile, tensions are growing as ethnic Mongols protest the resettlement and growing environmental problems.

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    A Mongol herdsman inside his house, the last one in a Tengger Desert oasis, where he raises 120 goats, 380 sheep, 5 camels, and 12 cows. 

    Photographer: James Whitlow Delano/Bloomberg

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    The herdsman looks out into the blinding desert light from his house. These oases, many of them containing artesian-fed lakes, are drying up in Alashan, and the central government is putting pressure on indigenous Mongols to relocate to resettlement camps outside the sand desert where they have always lived.

    Photographer: James Whitlow Delano/Bloomberg

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    The herdsman’s goats in an isolated oasis surrounded by a vast sand desert. 

    Photographer: James Whitlow Delano/Bloomberg

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    Planting more of the so-called Great Green Wall of China in the southern part of Alashan, Inner Mongolia. Since 1978, 66 billion trees have been planted as part of the Chinese government’s plan to halt the eastward advance of the Gobi Desert. By the time the project is finished in 2050, the Great Green Wall is expected to stretch for 4,500km (2,800 miles) along the fringes of the northern deserts, the Tengger included, to cover 42 percent of China’s territory.

    Photographer: James Whitlow Delano/Bloomberg

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    Of all the methods used to halt the progress of the sand desert, the most sustainable seems to be grids like those found here at the fringe of the Tengger Desert just south of the Inner Mongolia border. 

    Photographer: James Whitlow Delano/Bloomberg

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    A typical Mongol oasis settlement in the Tengger Desert. This is not, however, a traditional settlement, as Mongols used to live in ger, or yurts. 

    Photographer: James Whitlow Delano/Bloomberg

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    Water in the desert. This artesian-fed freshwater lake sits in an oasis surrounded by a vast sand desert. For centuries, ethnic Mongol herder families have occupied hundreds of oasis lakes in the Tengger. In 1950, there were over 800 lakes in Alashan. Now there are less than 200. Many suggest that indigenous Mongols are not causing the problem, but it is the large number of Han migrants, who filtered into Alashan during the 1950s, whose goats have led to overgrazing and deforestation in the Helan Mountains, the water source for the artesian spring-fed lakes and aquifers.

    Photographer: James Whitlow Delano/Bloomberg

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    A Han herdsman searches for his 10 horses that he has let out to pasture at the foot of the Helan Mountains. 

    Photographer: James Whitlow Delano/Bloomberg

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    A deep well that taps into an ancient aquifer delivers life-giving water to desertified fields. Tongu-lugu-lar/Taorimu Tuhasha sits on the boundary between the vast Tengger Desert and desertified dry steppe. This village, which is a mix of Mongols and Han settlers, was originally built in the 1970s by the central government, which ordered ethnic Mongol herder families to give up their nomadic lifestyle and take up farming.

    Photographer: James Whitlow Delano/Bloomberg

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    Mongols farming in their cornfield, which is completely dependent upon a village well that taps into an ancient aquifer. 

    Photographer: James Whitlow Delano/Bloomberg

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    A Mongol farmer in her cornfield.

    Photographer: James Whitlow Delano/Bloomberg

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    A Mongol woman at the front gate of her home in a resettlement project south of Bayanhaote. The central government has a program to actively resettle mostly ethnic Mongol herders from the grasslands, which have been overgrazed and desertified, so that the lands can be restored. 

    Photographer: James Whitlow Delano/Bloomberg

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    Bayanhaote has a nightly water show not unlike the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas. The response to prolonged drought and the drying out of the aquifer that lies directly below the city seems to be to build artificial reservoirs. Meanwhile, the ponds further overuse water in a region suffering from desertification.

    Photographer: James Whitlow Delano/Bloomberg

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    Covering up against the strong Tengger Desert sun, men go fishing in one of several large artificial ponds constructed in the past decade in desertifying Bayanhaote.

    Photographer: James Whitlow Delano/Bloomberg

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    Making lemonade from lemons: Schoolchildren take advantage of desertification with a day trip to the “Swan Lake” desert adventure theme park. 

    Photographer: James Whitlow Delano/Bloomberg

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    A Mongol farmer walks into his home’s compound past tons of sand that has accumulated against a wall that faces the desert.

    Photographer: James Whitlow Delano/Bloomberg