Mainland must get more serious on desert menace

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 June, 2006, 12:00am

Nowhere is the strain being put on China's environment more apparent than in the northwest, where misused land has become desolate and prey to encroaching deserts. Too many livestock, poor agricultural practices, the cutting down of forests and rapidly growing urban sprawl are contributing to a looming catastrophe with grave implications for social stability.

Tens of thousands of people have already been forced from the land and if the lessons of the US in the 1930s and the Soviet Union in the 1960s are any guide, millions of people could be on the move in coming years. They will not only be looking for new homes - livelihoods will also be a top priority.

But the deserts pose another threat that is apparent every spring across northern China, in North and South Korea, Japan and sometimes even the west coast of North America - dust storms. Sand and dust carried by Siberian winds are more often and with greater intensity filling the air and blanketing the countryside with grit that is causing economic damage and affecting the health of tens of millions of people.

During the storms, airports and schools are sometimes forced to close. Transport networks grind to a halt. Shops lose business as people stay at home. Communications systems are disrupted. Crops blanketed with the yellow dust have to be doused with water. A steady stream of citizens make their way to clinics with respiratory ailments and allergies.

Direct economic losses from deserts and desertification are estimated by mainland officials at 54 billion yuan a year. With deserts spreading and the number of storms increasing, the figure is guaranteed to rise.

The central government well knows China is among the world's countries with the most severe desertification problem. Billions of yuan have been devoted to schemes aimed at keeping cattle, goats and sheep from vulnerable rangeland, ensuring more environmentally friendly cropping, tree and grass-planting projects and irrigation schemes. Last month, Beijing announced it would join forces with South Korea, Japan and Mongolia to install monitoring mechanisms and toughen soil management schemes to curtail the sand and dust storms.

But while the mainland is claiming success in winning back lost land, figures show otherwise; Beijing says its policies have seen deserts shrink an average of 1,283 sq km a year so far this decade, but an extra 3,650 sq km of land has become desertified each year. China has the resources to tackle the problem, but it is not using them properly. The government must substantially increase spending on environmental issues and ensure the allocation for preventing desertification is effectively used.

Neighbouring nations also have a role to play. Through co-operation and offering technical expertise they can work towards ensuring the social, economic and environmental health of the region.