When we last heard of China's renewed efforts to block a relentlessly advancing Gobi desert and claw back some terrain for its farmers, government officials seemed confident that their "green wall" would prove successful in accomplishing these difficult tasks. It now looks as though their optimism may have been misguided: local authorities across China are now sounding the alarms and ordering farmers and growers to leave so that their fields can be replanted with native grasses. They hope that the grasses will help revive the barren lands and stop the encroaching sand dunes.
While these officials have experienced some measure of success in reclaiming land over the past few years — primarily through the imposition of strict grazing and planting regimes — this latest call to retreat is an implicit admission of defeat for an increasingly beleaguered Chinese government. According to researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China has had an average annual land loss of close to 950 sq. miles to desertification — which, in combination with the country's rapid residential and industrial development, has resulted in more than 10,500 residents having to relocate over the next 3 years.
"Minqin is an example of what's happening all over China. If we lose villages here, we can expect to lose villages in other places," says Sun Qingwei, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Experts have laid the blame for the increased desertification alternately at the feet of deforestation and overfarming, though some are now concerned that global warming could play a larger role in the near future — a consequence of the melting Tibetan glaciers.
In addition to planting billions of trees, the Chinese government and scientists have urged villagers to adopt less wasteful practices such as drip irrigation to minimize the water intake and thus lessen the possibility of soil erosion. However, many fear that decades of unregulated, excessive development have already taken too large a toll and that current and future efforts may not prove sufficient.
Signs adorning the windswept communities read "Save Water, Protect the Environment." Let's hope it's not too late.