Sun, Sep 24, 2006 - Page 19 News List

China' dangerous export

Desertification is eating up large swathes of the country, and storms are sweeping sand around the globe

By Jehangir Pocha  /  NY TIMES SERVICE , BEIJING

A farmer carries buckets of water in drought-stricken Shuang Jingzi village, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China.

PHOTO: EPA

A new Chinese export has been spreading quietly across Asia and America: dust.

Violent sandstorms from China’s expanding deserts have been battering Chinese cities, and their mustard-colored dust has begun reaching South Korea, Japan and the west coast of North America.

“People dusting off their cars in California or Calgary often don’t realize the sand has come all the way from China,” said Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, who was in Beijing recently. “There is a dustbowl developing in China that represents the largest conversion of productive land to desert of any place in the world ... and it’s affecting the world.”

China has always suffered from aridity. About 25 percent of its landmass is composed of deserts made famous in tales about the Silk Road, which traversed many of them.

But the situation is getting worse.

Overgrazing, along with persistent drought, indiscriminate use of ground water, and rampant logging, are eroding the edges of China’s deserts, allowing them to merge and spread. Recent satellite imagery shows that the Badain Jaran Desert in north-central China is pushing southward toward the nearby Tengger Desert to form a single, larger desert overlapping both northwestern Gansu Province and neighboring Inner Mongolia.

Expanding deserts swallow almost a million acres of land every year, China’s Environmental Protection Agency says. Soon, 40 percent of China could turn into scrubland, creating massive social, economic, and ecological challenges, including the problem of millions of “ecological refugees.”

“When I was a kid, the desert was 5km away, but now it’s right here,” said Li Liang, 19, gesturing to the sand lining the periphery of his family’s cotton farm just outside Dunhuang in Gansu. “Every year there are sandstorms, and every time there is a sandstorm our cotton is destroyed and we have to replant it, which costs a lot.”

The Li family’s diminishing profits are rooted in China’s increasing prosperity. The leading cause of China’s desertification is the growing number of sheep and goats reared in places such as Gansu for China’s increasingly prosperous 1.3 billion people, who are eating more meat.

China has 350 million cattle, sheep, goats, and yaks, up from 100 million in 1960. Since many of these animals are owned by traditional herders who graze them on ecologically fragile hills and steppes, the animals have uprooted and eaten up vast swathes of grassland. As the topsoil has loosened, strong winds have blown it away, creating massive sandstorms and turning the area into desert.

Across China, more than 200 million people are suffering from the health and economic impacts of desertification. Breathing and skin disorders caused by the dust are on the rise, and falling crop yields are lowering incomes. Officials estimate that desertification is costing China US$7.7 billion a year, and about 4,000 villages have been entirely swallowed by the encroaching desert and wordlessly stricken off maps.

Significantly, it’s not just tiny hamlets like Li’s that are being threatened. The legendary Gobi Desert in central China has expanded by about 64,749km2 since 1994, and its sands are now within 161km of Beijing.

The capital gets blasted by about a 454,000 tonnes of sand every year, often reducing visibility to the point where its soaring skyscrapers can barely be seen, air traffic is grounded, and people are forced to stay indoors. While such sandstorms seriously impair human health by causing or worsening breathing, skin, and eye disorders, they can be quite good for the earth. Often, the minerals transported during sandstorms provide new nutrients to inland ecosystems and the seas, according to the Asian-Pacific Regional Aerosol Characterization Experiment, an international campaign focused on understanding how dust particles affect the chemistry of the atmosphere.

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