(Jun 19, 2007)

Deserts expanding in China, creating sandstorms

By Michael Casey
From AP

Throughout the province, treeless, wind-swept plains stretch for miles in all directions. Gone are the knee-high grasses and the Qingtu Lake, replaced by sands from the expanding Tengger and nearby Badain Jaran deserts and with soil scarred white from salt.

The only signs of civilization in many areas are the herds of sheep munching on thorn bushes, the clusters of mud and straw homes and the burial mounds. Billboards promoting the country's one-child policy compete with those pushing slogans like ''No Reclamation, No Overcultivation.''

Many communities have been emptied altogether, leaving behind crumbling homes and empty courtyards.

The battle against deserts is playing out across much of western China. Desertification has caused as much as $7 billion in annual economic losses, the China Daily reported.

Over the past decade, Chinese deserts expanded at a rate of 950 square miles a year, according to Wang Tao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Lanzhou.

''There are quite a few countries with this problem but none on the scale of China because it is so big,'' said Lester Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute. ''You only have to go to northwest China and see that the numbers and size of dust storms are increasing.''

Expanding deserts have contributed to a nearly six-fold increase in sandstorms in the past 50 years to two dozen annually, Wang said.

Global warming will worsen the problem, as rising temperatures lead to widespread drought and melt most glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau, depriving lakes and rivers of a crucial water source, according to the U.N.-funded Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Hotter, drier land is more vulnerable to soil erosion, Wang said. ''This is the same problem the United States faced in the 1930s with the dust bowl.''

Global warming also threatens to make a huge dent in grain production, which Brown said has already slipped from 432 million tons in 1998 to 422 million tons in 2006 because of desertification. At the same time, grain consumption has risen about 4.4 million tons a year to 418 million tons, in part because of rising demand for beef, chicken and pork.

The production declines have forced China to draw down its grain stocks, and eventually it will need to buy a massive 30-50 million tons a year on the world market, Brown said.

''It's not that they are likely to face famine in the next few years. But what they may face is rising food prices, and that can create political instability,'' he said.

In Dongyun village, Wei Guangcai and his deaf wife may offer a glimpse of that future. Once part of a thriving village of 200 people in Gansu province, they are the only ones left after neighbors fled two years ago.

Walking past the empty homes, Wei, 58, recalls the days when his village hummed with farmers chatting over a game of cards and the school was packed with children. Now, the only sounds are the wind whipping through the empty doorways. His son has left for a job in Beijing over his objections.

''We're the last people,'' Wei said. ''It is lonely. It would be better if my son lived with us. But if he did, he wouldn't be able to find a wife.''


On the Net:

United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

Begin Footer Information
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
 1  |  2 

WWF warns desalinization could contribute to climate change »
« Greece fines people responsible for sunken ship pollution

Issue 25

Sign up for Plenty's Weekly Newsletter