Better plan needed to halt burgeoning deserts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2001, 12:00am

China urgently needs to devise a comprehensive plan to curb desertification, according to a government adviser.

Cai Qiangguo said the usual approach of planting new forests along the desert fringe did not always work. Instead, Beijing needed to formulate and implement a comprehensive plan taking into consideration landscape, rainfall and the herding habits of local populations, said Professor Cai, of the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Prompted by the sandstorms that lash Beijing each spring, the Government asked researchers and enterprises to devise ways to protect the capital from the spreading desert, Professor Cai said.

Ten contracts were put out for tender. The academy's team won one to conduct a three-year study on how to better use natural resources in a 250,000-square-metre area of land near Beijing.

The professor said reforestation - a conventional method for halting the march of deserts - was not the right solution everywhere because the amount of rainfall often could not always sustain tree growth.

Saplings often stopped growing at two metres - too small to protect farmland from sandstorms. A more sophisticated strategy combining economic development and environmental protection was needed, he said.

He blamed overgrazing - a result of the blind pursuit of economic growth by local officials in the past two decades - and warming for rapid desertification.

The professor urged the Government to adopt a more flexible approach to win support from the local population instead of imposing a quota on the size of herds.

'It is very important to provide economic incentives for local populations. It is difficult to ask them to keep a small number of sheep and one thing we can do is to teach them rotational grazing,' he said.

Professor Cai said that if people in areas at risk from desertification were asked to grow shrubs and trees, the plants should be commercially viable ones, such as those used in Chinese medicine.

In April, the team conducted a field trip to six anti-desertification experimental zones - with different landscapes and ecological features - in Hebei and Inner Mongolia. The zones were set up by the Government last year and enterprises were awarded the contracts to initiate projects that combined business and environmental protection

The professor said the findings of the trip were alarming - the size of desert in some of the zones had doubled in the past two decades.

He said the Government was deeply worried about the sandstorms, which are getting worse each year, and much more funding had been set aside to solve the problem. 'Last year the Government set aside 700 million yuan (HK$658 million) . . . for the anti-desertification programme. This year the funding will exceed one billion yuan,' he said.

He admitted better co-ordination and supervision of the funds was necessary and that the money needed to go directly to grassroots officials. 'The fewer levels the money has to go through the better. Some people even suggested the State Development and Planning Commission to despatch the money directly to counties and townships.'

Despite the need for action, the professor dismissed claims Beijing might be devoured by deserts within decades. He said the nearest desert to Beijing - the Tianmo area, just 60km away - was caused by wind-blown sand from a dry river bed, and was unlikely to spread.

'It is impossible for Beijing to become a desert. But sandstorms are definitely a major worry for us,' he said. He expected that sandstorms would continue to hit Beijing in the next few years.