Tree by Tree, China Rolls Back Deserts

By Cheng Zhiliang (China Features)

Abdulla Arken needs to find a new line of work – and soon.

Every morning he takes firewood to sell at the market in Hotan county near the Taklimakan Desert, in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

But on most days, hours can drag by before he gets a customer.

"I'm considering other lines of business because fewer and fewer people are buying firewood now," says the Uygur man in his 40s who has been selling firewood for 12 years.

The stagnation of Arken's business is little surprise to Bisumihan Imin, a woman farmer in Bagqi town of Hotan, since she stopped using firewood and turned to methane gas 2 years ago.

She used to buy firewood once a month and annually burnt 500 kilograms of diversiform-leaved poplar and Chinese tamarisk that protected her hometown from desertification.

Rural residents in arid Hotan area burnt 170,000 tons of trees and shrubs for cooking each year.

"I don't need to buy firewood or coal anymore, for methane gas is cleaner and more convenient," Bisumihan says.

Since 2003, the Chinese government has invested about 200 million yuan (27 million U.S. dollars) in installing methane gas facilities that use animal dung and human waste as the main ingredient in Xinjiang so the people no longer need to chop down trees.

More than 300,000 families in rural Xinjiang, about 10 percent of the rural population, are using methane gas.

Residents are also being encouraged to plant trees that resist desertification, such as poplars, desert dates and sea buckthorns.

Xinjiang is one of China's worst affected areas when it comes to desertification. Statistics from the regional government show 75 million hectares of the region's land, or 45 percent of the total, is desert. At least 12 million people suffer the consequences, ranging from drinking water shortages to cropland infertility.

Before the 1980s, residents of Qira County on the southern edge of the Junggar Basin had to relocate three times from the path of the encroaching sands. The desert is now only five kilometers from the county seat.

Sand and dust blown by the wind choked Hotan more than 300 days every year, leading to a sharp rise of respiratory diseases.

"The desert in Xinjiang as a whole is expanding less rapidly now. We have managed to reduce the speed of expansion from 38,400 hectares to just 10,400 hectares a year, but the situation is still very severe," says Ismail Tiliwaldi, chairman of the regional government.

Rolling Back the Deserts

The situation in Xinjiang mirrors China's achievements and challenges in the fight against desertification.

The area of land in China vulnerable to desertification is dwindling by about 128,300 hectares per year thanks to years of afforestation efforts, compared with the annual expansion of 343,600 hectares before the end of the 20th Century, Zhu Lieke, deputy director of the State Forestry Administration (SFA) noticed.

China tops the world in afforestation with 54 million hectares of man-made forest.

Since the government began promoting voluntary tree planting and forestation 26 years ago, the Chinese people have planted 49.2 billion trees, he said.

The government has announced a budget of 18.7 billion yuan to roll back desertification in Xinjiang in the next eight years, aiming to prevent further expansion of the Gurbantunggut and the Taklimakan deserts.

The money will fund the creation of forest belts around cities and oasis areas, the upgrading of irrigation facilities, the establishment of monitoring stations and the training of professional staff, says Chairman Ismail Tiliwaldi.

Experts have warned that harmful human activities, such as overgrazing, over-logging and collection of firewood, still existed, and global warming hampers the fight against desertification.

In April, China imposed a nationwide grazing ban amid efforts to prevent further deterioration of its vast grasslands. A two-month-long ban has been imposed in certain areas but the ban will last a full year in other areas.

China banned grazing on 86.7 million hectares of pasture and forbade 30 million livestock from roaming on wild grasslands at the end of last year.

More than 400,000 farmers have been relocated from the edge of Mu Us and Hobq deserts in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region between 2001 and 2006, as human activity was primarily to blame for the degrading biological conditions there.

However, China remains one of the world's worst affected by desertification.

SFA statistics show 2.64 million square kilometers of land, or 27.36 percent of China's territory, are deserts which directly cost the economy about 54 billion yuan a year and affect 400 million people, while indirect losses are as high as 288.9 billion yuan.

Recent research has found ecological degradation at the headwaters of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, China's two biggest rivers, and signs of desertification have emerged in some parts of the river source areas.

During in April inspection tour of Ningxi, a sandy and drought-afflicted autonomous region in northwest China, Chinese President Hu Jintao said, "We should strengthen our efforts in desertification prevention and control by relying on the power of the public and advanced technology."

Hu asked local officials to ensure environmental improvement goals were met and to help with the creation of a "green wall" in the country's western regions.

China has being implementing a law on preventing desertification and treating sand areas since January 1, 2002, the first law of its kind in the world.

International Collaborations

China has cooperated with Africa, the world's most desertification affected continent, in combating deserts on the global arena, while Japan, the Republic of Korea and others have aided the campaign in China.

The Chinese government will continue to help African countries combat desertification, according to the Gansu Desert Control Research Institute (GDCRI), which trains technicians from developing countries in desert-control methods.

The institute, based in northwest China's Gansu Province, organized two training sessions in June and August this year on how to set up windbreaks, choosing plants for desert control, says Director Wang Jihe.

The training programs that lasted 45 to 60 days have attracted officials and experts from about 18 African countries, Wang says, adding that most of the expenses, including tuition and accommodation, were covered by the Chinese government.

Since the first program in 1993, more than 150 trainees from more than 30 African countries including Egypt, the Republic of Congo, Ghana, Angola and Tanzania, have taken part.

Last year's course was held in Minqin County in Gansu, one of the four areas in China from which sand storms originate.

The county saw 14 sand storms in 2006, down almost 50 percent on the previous year, after it brought 2,000 hectares of desert under control by encircling the sand with nets made of wheat straw and planting drought-resistant plants.

Ahmed Ashomakhy, a Liberian agriculture researcher at the 2006 session, said China's desert-control techniques are very practical, while Peter Seeiso from Lesotho said he was impressed by China's efforts to fight desertification.

Fujitsu, a leading Japanese electronics company, is to invest 10 million Japanese yen in the desert greening projects in China, under an agreement signed by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) and the workers union of Fujitsu last year.

This was the second such agreement between the two sides. From 2001 to 2005, the Fujitsu workers union sent more than 200 members to north China's Hebei Province and spent 12 million Japanese yen planting 170,000 trees. Under this project, 50 hectares of desert were made green.

The Republic of Korea has provided funds for environmental restoration near the Aiding Lake in northwestern Xinjiang, China's lowest land point, since 2001.

"I believe this area will eventually turn green," said a Korean expert who joined the program.

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