China 's Encroaching Desert

From Independent by Clifford Coonan.

China is losing a million acres a year to desertification. In Dunhuang, a former Silk Road oasis in the Gobi, the resulting water shortage has become critical.

Jiang Zhenzhong 's cotton fields are close to the dwindling Crescent Moon lake in north-eastern China. The lake is famous throughout China, attracting a million visitors a year, but now it looks more like a village pond, encircled by railings and fading fast as the desert sucks up more and more water. In the 1960s, the lake used to be 10 metres deep – now it is barely one metre.

The disappearing lake at this point of the Silk Road is the most powerful symbol of an emerging water crisis. The fields around the village are brown and desolate, and it is hard to imagine how anything could grow here. Many of Jiang's friends have already left for the city, joining the ranks of millions of migrant workers leaving poor provinces like Gansu, but Jiang is defiant, saying he's planning to stay until the last drop of water is gone.

However, the pressure to find the money to send his nine-year-old daughter to high school is making life hard.

The government in Beijing acknowledges desertification as the biggest environmental challenge holding back sustainable development, and has pledged to control the country's spreading deserts, which already cover a fifth of its land.

Millions of tons of sand from the Gobi desert are dumped on Beijing by sandstorms every spring, and Chinese dust makes its way into the skies above cities as far away as Los Angeles. China suffers from a shortage of 30 billion cubic metres of water for irrigation every year. And while China has more than 20 per cent of the world's population, it has only 7 per cent of its arable land, precious farmland that the desert is slowly but surely eating its way into. This could result in higher food prices throughout China, a potential disaster given 750 million people live on less than £1 a day and can ill afford more expensive rice and other staples.

In the past few decades, Dunhuang's main rivers have been drying up, its lakes have been disappearing, its underground water supplies have shrunk and its oases have degenerated. The city has also had to withstand stronger and more frequent winds and sandstorms.

The desert also threatens to swallow up the Mogao grottos near Dunhuang, a centuries-old site known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, which house cave-temple murals and manuscripts dating back to ancient times.


As China Rises, Pollution Soars.

The Globalization of Hunger.


blog comments powered by Disqus