(Jun 19, 2007)

Deserts expanding in China, creating sandstorms

By Michael Casey
From AP

ZHENGXIN, China (AP) - Half a century after Mao Zedong's ''Great Leap Forward'' brought irrigation to the arid grasslands in this remote corner of northwest China, the government is giving up on its attempt to make a breadbasket out of what has increasingly become a stretch of scrub and sand dunes.

In a problem that's pervasive in much of China, over-farming has drawn down the water table so low that desert is overtaking farmland. Authorities have ordered farmers here in Gansu province to vacate their properties over the next 3½ years, and will replace 20 villages with newly planted grass in a final effort to halt the advance of the Tengger and Badain Jaran deserts.

''I don't want to move,'' said Chen Ying, 58, sitting in a sparsely furnished bedroom dominated by a red, wall-sized poster of Mao, the communist founding father who sought to catapult Chinese farming and industry into modernity with the so-called Great Leap Forward.

''But if we keep using the groundwater, it will decline,'' said Chen. ''We have to think about the next generation.''

It's not just Chen's home region that's at risk.

The relocation program is part of a larger plan to rein in China's expanding deserts, which now cover one-third of the country and continue to grow because of overgrazing, deforestation, urban sprawl and droughts.

The shifting sands have swallowed thousands of Chinese villages along the fabled Silk Road and sparked a sharp increase in sandstorms; dust from China clouds the skies of South Korea and has been linked to respiratory problems in California.

Since 2001, China has spent nearly $9 billion planting billions of trees, converting marginal farmland to forest and grasslands and enforcing logging and grazing bans.

The policy is driven in part by concerns over food, as farmland yields not only to the deserts but also to pollution and economic development. China has less than 7 percent of the world's arable land with which to feed 1.3 billion people _ more than 20 percent of the world's population. By comparison, the United States has 20 percent of the world's arable land to feed 5 percent of the population.

But the initiative is also a tacit admission by the government that the effort to feed the country at all costs may have backfired.

Chen was just a child when the government turned the rugged grasslands on the edge of the Tengger into an oasis.

In the 1950s, as part of Mao's scheme to boost food production, the government built the Hongyashan Reservoir in Gansu province with the goal of irrigating nearly 1 million acres.

But over the past two decades, new reservoirs were built farther up the Shiyang River, sapping the Hongyashan Reservoir. It even dried up in 2004 and is only about half full today. Farmers responded by digging thousands of wells, causing the water table to drop hundreds of feet and the soil to become contaminated with salt.

Worried the desert could reach the city of Minqin, 35 miles away, authorities decided to return the land to its natural state.

''If the government does nothing, it is scared that the entire area will become a desert,'' said Sun Qingwei, a desertification expert with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. ''There are alternative solutions like introducing new plant species or conserving water. But this is the quickest solution. The government can show the people they are doing something.''

Chen, a grizzled farmer who sports a Mao cap, blue coat and baggy, mud-spattered pants, has planted dozens of trees outside his home to prevent the desert dunes from overrunning his property. He also switched from wheat to less thirsty cotton and fennel.

But he appears to have met his match in the government, which already banned the use of well water for irrigation and threatened to cut the electricity ahead of the scheduled move of his village later this year to a new location about 12 miles away.

Talk of the impending moves dominates the conversations of villagers, gathered around their coal-fired stoves to ward off the springtime chill. Most are reluctant to leave. Authorities are offering up to $784 per family to move 10,500 residents from Gansu Province, but the villagers don't trust the government to compensate them fairly.

Their ancestors are buried on their land, and their crops continue to earn a tidy income, they say _ even though the canals that once transported water to the area are bone-dry, and the wheat that thrived here is a distant memory.

''The government is taking this action against desertification, but we are the ones being forced to pay for this policy,'' said Li Jianzhu, a father of three in the village of Waixi, whose population has dropped nearly two-thirds to 60 residents.

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