The Green Belt of World's Longest Desert Highway


Noburu Ogata

China's massive public works projects and geoengineering efforts are unparalleled. Pruned points us to an impressive emblem of both: The Tarim Desert Highway crosses the Taklamakan desert from north to south at a length of 552km, approximately 446km of which traverses, says Wikipedia, "uninhabited areas covered by shifting sand dunes, making it the longest such highway in the world."

And it's lined with green.


Photo: George Steinmetz/National Geographic

The highway's extension in 1994 to the Tarim Basim in Xinjiang Province was as much a stroke of economic savvy as of political control: the basin contains the largest oil-gas field in China, and mainly-Muslim Xinjiang happens to be a place over which Beijing is eager for more influence. Two birds, one piece of asphalt.

Fortunately this manifestation of economic development is also a green artery.

To protect the highway from encroaching sand dunes, local governments have assigned workers to plant and tend to rows of vegetation on both sides for most the road's length. Underneath, an extensive irrigation network sustains this artificial ecosystem. Despite the system's use of water with a high saline content, the greenbelt has been mostly successful.


Photo: dmcooper_onechib

How this desert garden survives is unclear. But China, beset by water scarcity and growing deserts, has been researching afforestation and robust agriculture for decades. According to the People's Daily:

In 1994, scientists and technicians started experimental afforestation project in the desert oil-gas field, found high-mineral-content underground water there for planting forests and selected a batch of tree plants suitable to grow in desert.

In 1999, a pilot project of sand protection afforestation belt along a 6.3-kilometer section of the highway was completed and in 2001, a demonstration project of protective afforestation belt along 30.8-km section was built.

In 2003, approved by the state, the highway tree belt project was in operation with an investment of 220 million yuan. Up to now, a 72- to 78-meter-wide tree belt along a 436-kilometer highway has been built, covering a total area of 3,128 hectares.

Pruned, meanwhile, wants to know more, as would many others.

We might, for instance, find out some new techniques that would help plants survive extended periods of drought. We're also interested in their plant list. Perhaps they have discovered that some species, previously not known for their hardiness, actually have a high tolerance for sandy soil and salty water, and then later, have genetically modified them to improve their survival rates. And who knows, maybe their experiments are paving the way for food crops, not just ornamental ones, to be cultivated in deserts and watered with sea water.


Pruned and People's Daily

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