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The Economist May 18th 2019


Taming deserts

Dust to dust MINQIN, GANSU

A “green Great Wall” being planted to control north China’s deserts may not be doing much good


n ex-army lorry chugs across the desert outside Minqin, a town in the north-western province of Gansu. It is delivering water to a team of about 20 people planting saxaul—a squat, spiky tree native to the area—on the banks of towering dunes. The hope is that the vegetation will anchor the ground and help prevent sand from sweeping through Minqin during wind storms in spring. Without these efforts, says one of the planters, the oasis town could be “eaten by the sand”. Minqin is the seat of a county of the same name which is half the size of Belgium. It is surrounded on three sides by the Gobi desert (see map on next page). On a warm evening the town’s neat central plaza is thronged with locals practising dance routines for exercise and entertainment. But their livelihoods are threatened by the desert, which in recent decades has been advancing on the town at an average rate of several metres a year. To help hold it at bay, officials plan to have shrubs and trees planted in the county. These will eventually form a belt more than 400km long, say reports in the state-controlled media. The planting in Minqin is one small part

of a huge afforestation project that has been under way for four decades. It aims to form a belt of trees and shrubs along the edge of the Gobi, which covers a vast area of northern China, and of the Taklamakan desert in the far western region of Xinjiang. The scheme involves about one-quarter of China’s provinces. Officials call it the Three North Shelterbelt Programme (“three north” refers to the country’s north, northeast and north-west). They liken it to building a “green Great Wall”. China wants to promote its desert-taming expertise around the world. But there is little evidence that the green wall is working as well as the government claims. Some scientists believe that it may be making the desertification problem worse. Eating up farmland The Communist Party began battling deserts not long after it seized power in 1949. Mao believed they could be beaten back with grand engineering projects, and that arable land thus created would boost har— Chaguan is away


vests and create space for ethnic-Han settlers in border areas (who, officials hoped, would help fend off the Soviet Union and keep restless minorities under control). In fact, China’s deserts slowly expanded. Fragile environments on their fringes have been damaged both by climate change and human mismanagement. Governmentsponsored research found that between the 1950s and the 1970s China lost about 1,500 square kilometres of land to deserts each year, an area the size of Houston. By 2000 the rate had more than doubled. Work on the green wall began in 1978, the year Deng Xiaoping became China’s paramount leader (a decade later Deng showed support for its progress by writing the characters for green Great Wall in calligraphic brush strokes—a gesture still recalled with pride by forestry officials). By the time the project is completed in 2050, tree cover in areas near the Gobi and Taklamakan is supposed to increase from 5%, as it was 40 years ago, to 15%. The government says the target has nearly been reached. Officials hope that the forest belts (the one around Minqin is planned to be 1km wide) will prevent dust-storms, control the spread of deserts and help turn desertified areas back into farmland. Officials say more than 300m people have helped with green-wall building by planting trees across an area the size of Italy. Spending on the project this decade is expected to exceed 90bn yuan ($14bn). The work around Minqin is funded by the government and donors. Much of it is outsourced to the private sector. The work- 1

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The Economist - 18.05.19  

The Economist - 18.05.19