June 8, 2006


A Sea of Sand Is Threatening China's Heart (JOSEPH KAHN, 6/08/06, NY Times)

China's own favorite military strategist, Sun Tzu, surely would have warned against letting two mighty enemies, the Tengger and the Badain Jaran, form a united front.

Yet a desert pincer is squeezing this struggling oasis town, and China's long campaign to cultivate its vast arid northwest is in retreat.

An ever-rising tide of sand has claimed grasslands, ponds, lakes and forests, swallowed whole villages and forced tens of thousands of people to flee as it surges south and threatens to leave this ancient Silk Road greenbelt uninhabitable. [...]

Chinese leaders have vowed to protect Minqin and surrounding towns in Gansu Province. The area divides two deserts, the Badain Jaran and the Tengger, and its precarious state threatens to accelerate the spread of barren wasteland to the heart of China. [...]

[W]hile local officials have tried grandiose projects to rescue the outpost, environmentalists say it will probably have to be at least partly abandoned and returned to nature if the regional ecology is to be restored.

"We must find ways to live with nature in some kind of balance," said Chai Erhong, an environmentalist and writer who lives in Minqin. "The government mainly wants to control nature, which is what did all the harm in the first place."

Government-led cultivation, deforestation, irrigation and reclamation almost certainly contributed to the desert's advance, which began in the 1950's and the 1960's, and has accelerated. Critics warn that some lessons of past engineering fiascoes remained unlearned.

During the ill-fated Great Leap Forward in the late 1950's, Mao ordered construction of the giant Hongyashan reservoir near Minqin, which diverted the flow of the Shiyang River and runoff from the Qilian Mountains into an irrigation system. It briefly made Minqin's farmland fertile enough to grow grain.

But Minqin is a desert oasis that gets almost no rainfall. The Shiyang and its offshoots had been its ecological lifeline. With the available water resources monopolized for farming, nearly all other land became a target for the desert.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 8, 2006 8:23 AM

China is an environmental disaster. Fortunately, the government in Beijing realizes this and is starting to take fairly strong action. Unfortunately, it is not at all clear that the provinces are listening.

Posted by: China Law Blog at June 8, 2006 10:46 AM

Let nature heal itself.

Posted by: erp at June 8, 2006 6:55 PM

The Soviets killed the Aral Sea, and the surrounding area. The Chinese are just following the same path.

Will the anti-globalist enviro-whackos protest in Beijing in 2008? If they want to maximize their message, they should be there. But I doubt if they would risk it.

Posted by: jim hamlen at June 8, 2006 6:57 PM