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China 2.0

In Minqin, China's Green War On The Encroaching Desert

Farmers in Minqin doing whatever they can against rapid desertification
Farmers in Minqin doing whatever they can against rapid desertification
Harold Thibault

MINQIN — Here, where the sand threatens to encroach, China is waging a long-term war against desert expansion. Just a few steps beyond the cultivated fields, the desert stretches as far as the eye can see. Minqin is menaced by the Tengger Desert to the west and by the Badain Jaran Desert to the east, both emanating from the larger Gobi Desert. Unfortunately for Minqin, the two have grown closer together over the past few years. Rain here is extremely scarce, just 120 millimeters per year, in this windy region.

In this relentless fight, China is banking on a green barrier, a vegetal front, to protect its arable lands. Roots and branches are used to stabilize the sand and prevent it from advancing. Around Minqin, a buffer zone has been established between cultivated areas and the sandy ones.

Over several kilometers, sand dunes are surrounded by straw to create a sanctuary around desert plants. The techniques being used here are destined to be tried elsewhere in the country, as China is witnessing rapid desertification towards its biggest cities. On April 15, the Beijing area suffered its worst sand storm in 13 years.

The most controversial part of this policy to contain the desert is the relocation of village populations that are on the front line. That's what happened in the small town of Huanghui in 2007. Because the sand was on its doorstep, the government ordered that all activity be moved further away, including the waterworks. For Zheng Julian, a 65-year-old farmer, moving was wrenching. "When the time came to leave, I cried so much I thought I'd go blind," she says, adding that her last wish will be to be buried in her old village, whether or not it’s been swallowed by the desert.

Displaced, then misplaced

The people displaced by the encroaching desert are often twice victimized, once by the desert and again by the failings of their government. While the traditional farms of this western Chinese region are made of thick bricks covered with thatch and mud, the walls of their new homes are so thin that people freeze inside during the long and difficult winter months. The kang, or Chinese bed-stove, at Zheng Julian’s house has sunk by half, and the walls of a nearby house are threatening to collapse.

The new location is very far away from the main road yet, paradoxically, very close to the desert they were supposed to be moving away from. The inhabitants believe the location was very poorly chosen, especially given that the fields surrounding the new village are as dry as the old ones and are regularly affected by sand storms. Many Chinese researchers acknowledge that the relocations have had mixed results.

“The migrations are only displacing the problem," says researcher Xue Xian from the Laboratory of Studies on Desertification in the Gansu province, which includes Minqin. "There can be positive results in some places, but the deterioration worsens in others." Making matters worse, some farmers aren't able to produce enough to live on these new lands, which forces them to abandon the fields.

A few kilometers from the relocation site, the old Huanghui is now nothing more than a hamlet with four houses, those of the families who dared to say no when the authorities came to force them out eight years ago. They’re paying a heavy price for their rebellion. They’re no longer benefiting from anti-poverty subsidies and are forbidden from cultivating the earth. "They're not letting us grow anything anymore. We used to have watermelons that big," says Li Ya, 78, stretching her arms wide. Their resources from agriculture gone, Li Ya's son was forced to become a migrant worker. The fear that this discontent might spread is probably what motivated the local propaganda office to follow us with two cars during three days here.

Government missteps

But first and foremost, Minqin and China's dry regions are paying for major human errors. Starting in the 1970s, the central government encouraged agricultural development in the region, whose soil is rich despite the lack of water. "All of this agriculture depends on the Shiyang River,” explains Xue Xian. Which means less water for Minqin, an oasis that draws its water from a huge reservoir fed by the river and used for the whole region.

But because this water wasn't enough, Minqin’s farmers dug countless wells to use groundwater tables. The reserves then shrunk and could no longer guarantee the survival of the plants that formed a natural barrier.

Now, billboards along the road that crosses the county offer reminders that it’s absolutely forbidden to dig new wells, 3,000 of which have already been closed up. Despite the ban, the families of Changxing, another village in Minqin County, have each sent one of their members to help dig a new 60-meter-deep well, with the blessing of local authorities. It's a real dilemma for Minqin. "We know very well that this risks worsening desertification, but if we don't dig a well, we can't grow anything," says one farmer.

In addition to these human factors, there's also the question of how climate change will affect not just Minqin but northern China's deserts in general. "The causes of desertification lie first and foremost with the soil management policy, but also with development and climate change," says Sun Qingwei, a former member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences who went on to work for Greenpeace and the Chinese edition of National Geographic. "Rainfall and snowfall patterns have changed in recent years."

To slow down the desert’s progress, it's been necessary for the central government to intervene in the affairs of the region’s different counties fighting over their scant water resources. Volunteer workers have also planted bushes capable of surviving in the desert on the barrier that protects the fields from the approaching sand dunes.

"Some of the methods that were used are not perfect, especially the migrations," notes Xue Xian. "But others are showing results. The number of sand storms has decreased, and the level of humidity is rising again. And that's data, not stories. The environment is improving."

Still, new problems are already arising in this little county. The government must find a way to encourage local farmers to preserve the green barrier around Minqin. Though it doesn't produce food, it's important to water it well and to ensure that the straw doesn't disappear under the sand.

After then-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited the region in 2007 and promised that Minqin would become "a second Lop Nur," in reference to a lake that disappeared under the desert, Beijing allocated $650 million to the restoration of Minqin. These funds have since dried up.

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Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

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Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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