China's Disturbing Desert Creep

Forest clearing to create more farmland has destroyed the precarious balance of a fragile ecosystem

The yellow dunes on the drive north from Minqin County, Gansu Province, are impossible to miss. They appear one after the other among the wheat fields and are dotted with dead trees.

At one point, small white shells can be seen, marking the edge of what was once a lake. The water was 40 meters deep here in the 1950s.

"There were many fish in the water and reeds on the bank. My children grew up playing there," said a septuagenarian resident named He, one of less than 10 people still living in the county's Huanghui village. In the early 1980s, the village had more than 140 inhabitants.

The problem of desertification is serious. The desert has virtually overtaken Minqin County, moving eight to 10 meters a year and eating up whatever spots are left of a chain of oases known as the Hexi Corridor. This once connected China's central plains with the grasslands in Xinjiang and separated the Tengger and Badain Jaran desserts. What's more, the arid land is making inroads in Beijing.

FEEDING A NATIONIronically, much of the problem has been caused by efforts to milk the land for more crops to feed a growing population. Forest clearing to create more room for farmland has destroyed the precarious balance of this fragile ecosystem.

In the 1950s, the government built the Hongyashan reservoir on the Shiyang River and in the three decades that followed, residents dug more than 10,000 wells. The positive economic impact was immediate: Minqin County became the top producer of wheat and corn in Gansu Province.

But in less than 20 years, the desert has taken away much of this prosperity and the Tengger and Badain Jaran could soon combine into one giant stretch of sand, said Han Yongxiang, from the Institute of Arid Meteorology at the China Meteorological Administration.

One third of of Minqin County has already been lost to the desert. Another 1,506 square kilometers of arable land are lost every year in northern China.

In this decade alone, desertification has been responsible for as much as US$7 billion in economic losses. If the encroachment continues, natural wonders like the Dunhuang Grottoes could be destroyed.

The government has become so concerned about the developments that it is planning to move 20 villages - 10,500 people - and replace them with freshly planted grasslands and new trees to restore the ecological balance.

These efforts have not come without controversy but provincial leaders are not deterred. In a recent interview with state media, Gansu's Communist Party Secretary Lu Hao said each migrant would be compensated US$650.

"We have to take decisive action," he said. "It is the quickest and most effective way to reduce the farmland."

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