China has no master plan in place to halt its advancing deserts, said a new book published by the US-based Earth Policy Institute. Desert encroachment has accelerated since the 1950s, with the Gobi Desert expanding by 52,400sq km between 1994 and 1999 according to China's Environmental Protection Agency.
The primary cause of the problem is overploughing and overgrazing. With little vegetation remaining in parts of northern and western China, strong winds can remove millions of tonnes of topsoil in a single day. These dust storms create huge problems in the northern cities of Beijing and Tianjin and can travel as far as Korea and Japan.
However, the impact on farmers is even greater. According to a report by a US embassy official in 2001, one-third of the terrain in Xilingol county in Inner Mongolia appears to be desert, despite the fact that 97 per cent of the region is officially classified as grasslands. A more recent embassy report stated that satellite images show two deserts in north-central China expanding and merging to form a single, larger desert overlap- ping Inner Mongolia and Gansu. As a consequence, millions of farmers may be forced to migrate eastward as the drifting sand covers their land. The Asian Development Bank estimates that 4,000 villages in Gansu province alone risk being submerged by drifting sands.
The report concludes by saying that China is taking the right steps to halt the advancing desert. However, considerably more resources are needed to address the problem. Qu Geping, chairman of the Environmental and Resources Committee of the National People's Congress, estimates that the remediation of land in the areas where it is technically feasible would cost Yn234bn.