- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 7, 2004

HANGGIN QI, China — A decade ago, the grass grew tall around Erdung Geshige’s wooden house. The grasslands stretched for miles, feeding his goats and those of his neighbors. But, over time, after years of drought and overgrazing, the grass disappeared and the sand crept closer.

By last year, sand dunes had swallowed up his house. Half-buried, it is surrounded by a vast desert that looks as if it has been there for all of time. He now travels 25 miles to buy grass to feed his goats.

Neighbors have fled. But Mr. Erdung, an ethnic Mongolian, says he doesn’t want to leave. “If it rains, the grass will grow back,” he said, unaware that in China’s Inner Mongolia province, 386 square miles of grassland turn to desert each year.

China is fighting a losing battle with sand — a result in part of population growth, poorly managed land policies, overgrazing of grasslands and groundwater pollution. Its deserts are growing by 1,160 square miles annually and cover 27 percent of the country’s land surface.

The consequences can be seen every spring.

As the ground thaws and the Siberian wind kicks up, intense dust storms blow into western China and beyond, obscuring the sun and turning the sky to mud. From Beijing to Seoul, the dust has shut down airports and schools and forced residents to hide in their houses. It even has been known to spread a haze across the United States.

Scientists are concerned that the dust storms, growing in scale and intensity, are binding with increasing amounts of airborne pollutants to create a toxic soup that is being blown around the world.

“The dust in a sandstorm far exceeds the amount of matter in a hydrogen bomb,” said Quan Hao, director of the State Environmental Protection Agency’s sandstorm research group. “Imagine millions of tons of particles in the air, traveling so far.”

Desertification and other land degradation threatens China’s biodiversity, agricultural productivity, water quality and quantity, and the livelihoods of millions of people. The United Nations Environment Program estimates the direct economic losses at $6.5 billion annually.

The Chinese government is spending huge amounts of money on the problem, feverishly planting trees and grass to stop the encroaching desert.

But critics say it’s a losing battle, with the plantings targeting areas already lost to desert and much of the money misspent by corrupt local officials.

The State Forestry Administration has said it will spend $85 billion in the next 50 years to cover 180 million acres of land with trees and other vegetation “to turn China into an ecologically-friendly land,” said the official Xinhua news agency. In 2002 alone, 18 million acres of trees were planted, an area nearly the size of South Carolina.

“The problem is so massive, and it appears to be growing despite all the money the government has spent,” said Bruce Carrad, head of the environment and agriculture unit at the Asian Development Bank’s China office.

More effort should be spent on protecting at-risk farms and grassland and ensuring survival of trees already planted, specialists say. Trying to make the deserts bloom is an expensive mistake, Mr. Quan said.

In some places, the environment has become so desolate that it has turned thousands into ecological refugees. More than 800,000 farmers and herders have moved voluntarily or been relocated. Mr. Carrad likens the situation to the migration of farm families from America’s Dust Bowl in the 1930s, captured in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”

The population of Inner Mongolia has soared in the past 55 years from 5.6 million to 32 million, while the number of domesticated animals has grown even faster, putting immense pressure on the region’s environment. The booming international demand for cashmere has been a major factor in the rising number of goats.

In recent years, northern China has suffered extreme drought, its rivers shrinking and water levels in some places at their lowest in 50 years. China’s unclear definition of landownership, coupled with corruption and a bureaucratic mess — at least four government ministries receive funds to deal with land degradation — has made the problem more severe.

To many local officials, getting tree-planting funds is like hitting a jackpot. They plant a few trees for show, then spend the rest buying cars, hosting banquets and building showy projects.

“The central government has spent a lot of money on planting trees, but the local governments focus only on planting along the roadside so that visiting officials will see them,” Mr. Quan said. “If they can’t reach further in the interior, they just forget about it.”

A recent government audit found that agencies responsible for fighting desertification had misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars by claiming nonexistent employees and drafting phony projects.

Meanwhile, the farmers and herders of the Hanggin Qi area (population 130,000) on the edge of the Kubuqi Desert are among the poorest in China.

In Xinjian village, reachable only after traveling along bumpy paths and sand dunes, the average household income of its 10 families is less than $100 a year.

Xinjian chief Li San gets by with about 20 goats and a few pigs, turkeys and chickens. When the weather allows, he also can grow corn and potatoes. His main complaint is not the lack of water or other material comforts; what he’d most like to see changed, he said, is the government’s grasslands policy.

The government uses airplanes to sow grass seeds at a cost of about $10 per mu, or about one-sixth of an acre. But Mr. Li said less than 20 percent of the seeds even sprout, and villagers would have a higher success rate while spending less.

“If they could give that money to the people, that would be better,” he said. “The villagers would be happy with $5 a mu.”

Hanggin Qi officials insist that aircraft are necessary because much of the desert is so vast and remote. But one official said the practice is just another opportunity for corruption.

“They report the plane costs $10 a mu, but in reality it costs less,” the official said, insisting on anonymity. “They pocket the rest.”

Another factor is China’s “Go West” campaign of the past several years, designed to encourage economic development in provinces such as Inner Mongolia. It is meant to reduce the economic gap between the impoverished interior and the booming east coast.

In effect, it has sent polluting enterprises unwanted elsewhere in China to the west.

“In recent years, some areas in western China placed undue and blind emphasis on developing … projects that are highly energy-consuming and highly polluting,” said Li Zibin, an official in charge of the western development campaign.

In Inner Mongolia where water is more precious than oil, some factories have polluted the groundwater. One grassland that had remained relatively unharmed by grazing started deteriorating after a paper-pulp plant moved in and created a giant lake of waste water, the Workers’ Daily reported.

“Industries that are expressly prohibited by the national government are creeping into Inner Mongolia, an inherently vulnerable ecology that is facing another surge in pollution,” the newspaper said.

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