Population boom, development quicken spread of desert in China

Julie Chao
Cox News Service

Hanggin Qi, China. A decade ago, the grass grew tall around Erdung Geshige's humble wooden house. The grasslands stretched for miles, feeding his goats and those of his neighbors. But over time, after years of drought and over-grazing, the grass disappeared and the sand crept closer.

By last year, sand dunes swallowed up Geshige's house. Half-buried, it is surrounded by a vast desert that looks as if it's been there for all of time. Geshige now has to travel 25 miles to buy grass to feed his goats.

Neighbors have fled. But Geshige, an ethnic Mongolian, says he doesn't want to leave.

"If it rains, the grass will grow back," he said, unaware that in his Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, 386 square miles of grassland turns to desert each year, an expanse about three times the area of the city of Atlanta.

China is fighting a losing battle with sand _ a result in part of population growth, poorly managed land policies, over-grazing of grasslands and groundwater pollution. Its deserts are growing by 1,160 square miles annually and now cover 27 percent of China's land mass.

The consequences can be seen every spring. As the ground thaws and the Siberian wind kicks up, intense dust storms blow into western China and beyond, obscuring the sun and turning the sky to mud. From Beijing to Seoul, the dust has shut down airports and schools and forced residents to hide in their houses. It has even been known to spread a haze across the United States.

Scientists are concerned that the dust storms, growing in scale and intensity, are binding with increasing amounts of airborne pollutants to create a toxic soup that is being blown around the world.

"The dust in a sandstorm far exceeds the amount of matter in a hydrogen bomb," said Quan Hao, director of the State Environmental Protection Agency's Sandstorm Group. "Imagine millions of tons particles in the air, traveling so far."

Desertification and other land degradation threatens China's biodiversity, agricultural productivity, water quality and quantity and the livelihoods of millions of people. The United Nations Environment Program estimates the direct economic losses at $6.5 billion annually.

The Chinese government is spending huge amounts of money on the problem, feverishly planting trees and grass to stop the encroaching desert.

But critics say it's a losing battle, with the plantings targeting areas already lost to desert and much of the money grossly misspent by corrupt local officials.

The State Forestry Administration has said it will spend $85 billion over the next 50 years to cover 180 million acres of land with trees and other vegetation "to turn China into an ecologically-friendly land," according to the official Xinhua News Agency. In 2002 alone, 18 million acres of trees were planted, an area nearly the size of South Carolina.

"The problem is so massive, and it appears to be growing despite all the money the government has spent," said Bruce Carrad, head of the environment and agriculture unit at the Asian Development Bank's China office.

More effort should be spent on protecting at-risk farmlands and grasslands and making sure trees already planted survive, the experts say. Trying to make the deserts bloom is an expensive mistake, says Quan.

In some places, the environment has become so desolate that it has turned thousands into ecological refugees. More than 800,000 farmers and herders have already moved voluntarily or been relocated. Carrad likens the situation to the migration of farm families from America's dust bowl in the 1930s, captured in John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath."

The population of Inner Mongolia has soared in the last 55 years from 5.6 million to 32 million while the number of domesticated animals has grown even faster, putting immense pressure on the region's environment. The booming international demand for cashmere has been a major factor in the rising number of goats.

In recent years, northern China has suffered extreme drought, with rivers shrinking and water levels in some places at their lowest in 50 years. China's unclear definition of land ownership, coupled with corruption and a bureaucratic mess - at least four different government ministries receive funds to deal with land degradation - has allowed the problem to become more severe.

To many local officials, getting tree-planting funds is like hitting a jackpot. They plant a few trees for show, then spend the rest buying cars, hosting banquets and building showy projects.

"The central government has spent a lot of money on planting trees, but the local governments focus only on planting along the roadside so that visiting officials will see them," said Quan. "If they can't reach further in the interior, they just forget about it."

A recent government audit found that agencies responsible for fighting desertification had misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars by claiming non-existent employees and drafting phony projects.

Meanwhile, the farmers and herders of the Hanggin Qi area (pop. 130,000) on the edge of the Kubuqi Desert, are among the poorest in all of China.

In Xinjian Village, reachable only by several hours along bumpy paths and sand dunes, the average household income of its 10 families is less than $100 a year.

Xinjian's village chief Li San gets by with about 20 goats and a few pigs, turkeys and chickens. When the weather allows, he can also grow corn and potatoes. His main complaint is not about the lack of water or other material comforts; what he'd most like to see changed, he says, is the government's grassland policy.

The government uses an airplane to sow grass seeds at a cost of about $10 per mu, or about one-sixth of an acre. But Li said less than 20 percent of seeds even sprout, while villagers would have a higher success rate for cheaper.

"If they could give that money to the people, that would be better," he said. "The villagers would be happy with $5 a mu."

Hanggin Qi officials insist airplanes are necessary because much of the desert is so vast and remote. But one official said the practice is just another opportunity for corruption.

"They report the plane costs $10 a mu, but in reality it costs less," the official said, insisting on anonymity. "They pocket the rest."

Another factor is China's "Go West" campaign of the last several years, designed to encourage economic development in provinces like Inner Mongolia.

It is meant to reduce the economic gap between the impoverished interior and the booming east coast.

In effect, it has sent polluting enterprises unwanted elsewhere in China to the West.

"In recent years, some areas in western China placed undue and blind emphasis on developing ... projects which are highly energy-consuming and highly polluting," said Li Zibin, an official in charge of the Western development campaign.

In Inner Mongolia, some factories have polluted the groundwater in a place where water is more precious than oil. One grassland that had remained relatively unharmed by grazing started deteriorating after a paper pulp plant moved in and created a giant lake of waste water, the Workers' Daily reported.

"Industries that are expressly prohibited by the national government are creeping into Inner Mongolia, an inherently vulnerable ecology which is facing another surge in pollution," the newspaper said.