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Michael Reynolds / EPA

China’s desertification is causing trouble across Asia

Creeping desertification in China is swallowing thousands of square kilometres of productive soil every year. It’s a challenge of gigantic and unprecedented proportions.

The rate of desertification increased throughout the second half of last century and, although this trend has since stabilised, the situation remains very serious.

More than a quarter of the entire country is now degraded or turning to desert, thanks to “overgrazing by livestock, over cultivation, excessive water use, or changes in climate”. The Gobi desert alone gobbles up 3,600km2 of grassland each year. China’s own State Forestry Administration has identified land desertification as the country’s most important ecological problem, and climate change will only make things worse.

Ecological disasters have social effects. Desertification threatens the subsistence of about a third of China’s population, especially those in the country’s west and north, and could pose serious challenges to political and economic stability. It costs China roughly RMB 45 billion (US$6.9 billion) per year.

Research shows that “for seriously desertified regions, the loss amounts to as much as 23.16% of … annual GDP”. The fact that one third of the country’s land area is eroded has led some 400m people to struggle to cope with a lack of productive soil, destabilised climatological conditions and severe water shortages. Droughts damage “about 160,000 square kilometres of cropland each year, double the area damaged in the 1950s”.

Blaming the desertification on overgrazing and bad cultivation, the state has since 2005 started to reallocate millions of people from dry and barren territories under its controversial and hotly-contested “ecological migration” programme.

Deforestation has only made things worse. Greenpeace writes that only 3.34% of the country’s original forests remain intact, of which “only 0.1% is fully protected”.

A lone tree clings on among the sand dunes in Dunhuang, northwestern China. EPA

Despite extraordinary efforts by the government to reduce the rate of erosion, culminating in the largest reforestation project ever undertaken, the government itself conceded in 2011 that the “desertification trend has not fundamentally reversed”.

Stormy geopolitics

Dust and sand storms have intensified and now pose provocative geopolitical challenges. The Gobi desert which spans China and Mongolia is the world’s second largest dust source, after the Sahara. Whirling soil sediments are an annual plague in western China but also move all the way across the Pacific and beyond. Traces of China’s deserts have been found as far away as New Zealand or the French Alps, and “yellow dust” costs the Korean and Japanese economies billions of US dollars each year. Even worse off is Mongolia, which itself is facing desertification, and will be particularly affected by global warming.

‘Yellow dust’ from China fills the sky over Busan, South Korea in February 2015. Yonhap / EPA

Inhaling this dust has devastating effects on the health of animals and humans alike. Asian dust has in the past decade been linked to both cardiovascular and respiratory diseases while more recent research discovered “a statistically significant association between Asian dust storms and daily mortality”.

Dust storms also transport toxic pollutants, bacteria, viruses, pollen and fungi. Microbiologists looked at a dust storm in South Korea and found big increases in aerial bacteria.

Working together to fight the dust

Dust and sand storms don’t respect international borders, so it’s no wonder they have become a big worry for multilateral governance. Back in 2005 the Asian Development Bank, together with several UN agencies and regional countries, drew up a master plan to promote cooperative solutions.

More recently, dust was on the agenda at a 2015 trilateral summit attended by South Korea, Japan and China. Environment ministers from the three countries meet each year and have established special working groups to “improve forecasting accuracy and to develop measures of vegetation restoration in source areas in China”.

These are positive steps. China can’t pretend its desertification is its own problem as the effects on other countries are too obvious. Swirling dust storms have forced other states to take a direct interest in China’s desert sands.

A version of this article also appears on the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute Blog.

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