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Sand to soil

June 23, 2011

China has struggled to keep the deserts that cover more than a quarter of the country from gaining ground, but soil stabilization and sustainable livestock-farming are beginning to slow rates of desertification.

A grid for straw squares used to stabilize the ground at the edge of the desert
Straw helps grass to grow, which helps cultivate more vegetationImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The sand dunes in Shapotou, a town in the northwestern Chinese province of Ningxia, stretch for as far as the eye can see.

The town is located in part of the roughly 2.6 million square kilometers (1 million square miles) of China that are covered in sandy or rocky deserts - an area about seven times as large as Germany.

One strategy regional officials have developed to keep the desert from - literally - gaining ground is to stabilize sands at the edge of the desert with a grid of straw squares, measuring about 1 square meter each.

Sheep in a degraded landscape
Brown says over-grazing is a result of a 'classic tragedy of the commons'Image: picture alliance/dpa

Local official Yong Xu Cheng said the straw grid helps keep the sand from advancing on Shapotou, but adds that there are limits to how much can really be done.

"It's very difficult to stop the sand's advance everywhere," he said. "We can only work on the edges of the desert and stabilize the ground along the railroad tracks and streets and around the villages and towns."

Land reclamation

The grid, which looks like a massive fishnet over the sand, holds the ground together well enough to grow some hardy species of grass, which in turn provide enough stability to cultivate larger plants.

Fruit trees and grapevines now grow around Shapotou, which began the process or reclaiming land from the desert in the 1950s.

The Ningxia province wasn't always as dry as it is now.

Large portions of northern China were once covered in rich grassland, but climate change and unsustainable land- and water-use turned much of the once fertile land to desert.

When agriculture production was shifted in 1978 from team production to families, rampant livestock farming also began to play a role in desertification, according to American environmentalist Lester Brown.

"The government lost control of livestock numbers, and so we have a classic 'tragedy of the commons' where each family wants to keep expanding the number of sheep and goats but with no one looking at the entire effect," he said.

"Once the vegetation is removed entirely from overgrazing, once the land is bare, then the wind takes over," he added.

A worker builds biological barriers using hay to create grid patterns that stabilize sand dunes
Sand and rocky deserts cover abut 27 percent of ChinaImage: picture alliance/dpa

Ongoing fight

Until now, Chinese officials have fought the process of once-productive land turning into steppe, and finally desert, by forbidding shepherds to let their flocks graze freely.

China's State Council in December announced a plan to spend 220 billion yuan ($33 billion) over the next 10 years to protect the country's natural forests.

After seeing Shapotou's success, regional authorities have also started a Green Wall project that will plant millions of trees across northern China to push back the desert's sand.

From 2005 to 2009, the country reduced the area claimed by deserts and shifting sands by 1,717 square kilometers each year.

Compared to 2001, soil loss from wind erosion has been cut by 44 percent, according to an announcement in January by the Chinese State Forestry Administration's bureau.

Work to control desertification and reforest some 40,000 square kilometers of desert will be extended to 200 counties throughout China by the end of 2015, Du Ying, vice-minister of the National Development and Reform Commission, said at a desertification conference in April.

A man and his horse against a degraded background
China has slowed its rate of desertification, but progress will be slowImage: picture alliance/dpa

Prevailing over nature

Shapotou official Yong Xu Cheng said he was confident that the desert's expansion would continue to slow.

"People will prevail over nature and we will be in a position where we can effectively solve the problem of the sands," he said. "We don't have a choice. We have to control the sand to ensure people's survival here."

But it will likely be some time until the people of northern China are declared victorious over nature.

Official estimates have shown China could reclaim as much as 20 percent of its deserts, but it will take about 300 years.

Author: Ruth Kirchner / sms

Editor: Nathan Witkop