China’s Desertification Issue

In the 1960’s, the Chinese landscape underwent massive deforestation as a consequence of the government’s industrial buildup. Loose soil resulting from deforestation allowed the Gobi Desert to expand and created the Taklimaka Desert. The Chinese government realized their mistake in 1978 and quickly embarked on an extensive reforestation campaign known as “The Great Green Wall”. This project set out to add 405 million hectares of new forest, raising the forest area in the world by 10%. However, a lack of proper environmental considerations in “The Great Green Wall’s” early stages actually exacerbated the issue. Only 33% of the trees planted after 1970 as part of the reforestation effort are still alive today. By planting certain pine trees and covering areas with a single species of tree, the government allowed China’s peripheral deserts to expand.

Increasing desertification has threatened nearly 400 million Chinese citizens living on the nation’s agricultural periphery. Communities of displaced “ecological migrants” have sprung up in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia. These communities were set up by Beijing to house those who had to evacuate previously arable land due to expanding deserts. A substantial portion of those directly threatened by encroaching deserts are ethnic minorities, raising concerns about a possible increase in ethnic tensions in peripheral regions. The increase in migrant workers and changing economics have already created an incredibly fragile environment in rural China, as we have read about in Hessler. The additional danger of desertification only servers to exacerbate the fragility of these areas. Arable land losses and questions over water distribution are serious issues Beijing will need to combat or risk instability in its peripheral regions.

The effects of desertification are not felt solely in remote regions in the north and west. As Chinese urban areas continue to grow outward, the deserts become closer to large centers of population. Devastating desert sandstorms in Inner Mongolia have been felt as far away as Beijing. Growing deserts and urban areas are currently on a crash course; the effects of which should prove to be an interesting development as Beijing attempts to bolster their reforestation efforts.








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9 Responses to China’s Desertification Issue

  1. Ryan Curto says:

    The desertification effect is something that we have seen before, in Hessler. He mentions the deserted and dry towns he would drive through that had names like White Orchard Valley and Red Dragon Spring. We also read about the failures of some of these tree planting initiatives. Hessler witnesses village officials pocket the money designated for planting tree’s. This could possibly also be linked to the failure of the Great Green Wall Project. A massive project like this would need to be executed by a national task force and shouldn’t be left to the discretion of local officials who have questionable morals.

  2. zhengm18 says:

    Similar to Will’s article, desertification is an issue that needs to be addressed by the Central government. Hessler’s first hand experiences give clear visuals to the extent of this issue. His opinion of this problem is reflected by Ryan’s comment that tasks like these should not be left to local officials with “questionable morals”. Again, the central government needs to address this problem, and they must recognize this as a critical factor that plays into the overall structure of the current China. As history shows, if the people are suffering (which desertification seems to show that people really are), then the government’s hold on legitimacy becomes weaker and weaker.

  3. Alden Schade says:

    Something else to consider how this problem ties into China’s other commitments to the environment. We saw earlier in the semester that China has made large investments in sustainable and renewable energy, one would think that this issue requires just as substantive investment, though perhaps more thoughtful than it has been in the past.

    • sackettm18 says:

      I think that often China’s environmental awareness only kicks into gear once there is an immediate and defined threat to economic growth.

      • feldsteinp18 says:

        I agree with Matthew, I think that a continued trend that we are seeing is that China puts growth and short term success first and pays the price with natural degradation, pollution, natural resource depletion etc down the road. It becomes somewhat of a call and response with the Chinese government perpetually behind the eight-ball with these issues. In addition, it seems as though their efforts to curtail the problem are necessarily always successful. I think that it will be important going forward to consider the geological and natural impacts that these projects have before embarking on them. If not, we will continue to see this trend of issues being created but they will only become worse and worse in scope.

  4. tylerc18 says:

    Regarding endangered species, other environmental issues aside from desertification pose threats: “habitat loss and the resulting drop in biodiversity”. While spending time in China, one of my Chinese friends told me the only thing more rare than pandas is Chinese twin brothers. The panda are losing their environment to deforestation for farmland, timber, fuel, and infrastructure. Although there are myriad reserves dedicated to preserving the giant panda, it will be interesting to follow developments in desertification and other environmental problems in China.

  5. masonw17 says:

    I agree with your take on the issue: China’s deserts are ticking time bombs both as increasing ecological migration strains ethnic relations and as desertification threatens urban areas and productive capacity in north China. I wonder if a revised ‘Great Green Wall’ project, armed with more sophisticated environmental science, is in the future. I think such a project might fulfill China’s dream of serving as an example for other countries in facing the economic and environmental issues of the 21st century.

    • choia18 says:

      After China became the leading solar panel installer, I would not be surprised if China becomes the example country for the environment. The United States did a fantastic job cleaning up the environment back in the 70s and 80s but now it may be China’s turn to take up the mantle and clean up their own country with modern technology. China has so many goals and problems that sometimes, I wonder where they can find the money to fund everything they propose to do.

  6. Charlie says:

    An effort as massive as reforestation of 10% of the world’s forest area seems a task that was nearly doomed to fail from the start. The level of biodiversity in most forests and jungles would be difficult for humans to replicate even on a small scale, let alone across such a massive area as the one in question.

    To call it impossible might be excessive, but to call it preposterously difficult I feel is accurate.

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