An Asian Sahara of sand is moving closer every year to Beijing, blackening the sky, and producing environmental refugees and social unrest in Inner Mongolia and throughout China.
"Desertification is not a natural function," said John D Liu, an American-born journalist, researcher and director of the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP) for China, a 10-year-old environmental organisation based in Beijing. "Scientifically what's happening is that the grasslands are losing natural infiltration and retention of water, which is altering respiration and evaporation rates. That affects relative humidity, and potentially precipitation in other regions."
"Socially and politically, what you are talking about are policy decisions made in earlier eras — from the 1950s to the 1990s — and now those mistakes are really biting them," added Liu, who's lived and worked in China since 1979. "They have to deal with the decisions made in those years. And in Inner Mongolia those decisions have produced some horrific consequences. Large areas of the region have been massively devegetated."
As Beijing prepares for the 29th Olympic Games in August 2008, the dust storms and deteriorating condition of Inner Mongolia's grasslands have also become a priority of Chinese environmental scientists and agronomists.
During the first of week of July, China will host the International Grassland and Rangeland Congress in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, a high-plains city of 2.3 million people. Hong Fuzeng, head of the preparatory committee of the 2008 Congress and a grasslands scientist, said the conference will focus the attention of 3,000 rangeland experts from around the world on the environmental, demographic and industrial trends that are turning Inner Mongolia's grasslands to desert.
The blowing sand, in short, is more evidence of the consequences of the irrational duel China fights daily as it promotes rapid industrial development while exposing land, water, communities and people to levels of pollution, waste and resource diminishment never before seen on the planet.
China is the most polluted country on earth. Its air and water consistently rank among the dirtiest anywhere. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that pollution causes an estimated 750,000 premature deaths annually in China, the majority among the elderly and children.
There are economic costs as well. Earlier this year, the World Bank conservatively estimated that the cost of China's environmental degradation is 3.5% to 8% of the gross domestic product annually. The cost of desertification caused by water scarcity alone, said the bank, is roughly US$31 billion a year. While many finance theorists predict that China may become the pre-eminent industrialised nation this century, environmental economists say China is outrunning the capacity of its natural resources to sustain such rapid development, and could instead experience a frightening ecological collapse.
Blowing sand has attracted environment advocates of all stripes in China. One of them is Chen Jiqun, an artist who specialises in landscapes and portraits. Chen was 20 years old in 1967 when he went to East Ujumchin Banner, a section of eastern Inner Mongolia 600 hundred miles north of China's capital.
Inner Mongolia during that period was a place of astonishing beauty and harshness. Though the air rarely was still and the ground was dry, great expanses of tall grass swept to the horizons, unfurling like a great waving sea beneath surpassingly huge skies. Summers were short and hot. Winters were ferocious, marked by blizzards and knife-edge cold. Thousands of Inner Mongolians, a people distinguished by sturdiness and stamina, followed the nomadic ways, freely herding livestock from one range to the next.
Chen Jiqun stayed for 13 years, working different jobs on the land as he painted. The grasslands of Chen Jiqun's student years live in his paintings: vast landscapes filled with horses galloping between herds of sheep, goats and cows grazing on foot-high grass on the banks of rippled rivers.
Those paintings, drawn from personal history and memory, could now just as easily fall into the category of artistic fantasy. The grasslands of Inner Mongolia and other northern Chinese provinces are dying, turning into mini-deserts that grow and connect, forming oceans of sand. In some regions of the province, 70% of the grasslands have turned to desert. Inner Mongolia, according to conservative estimates, is losing 1,500 to 2,000 square miles (roughly 3,900 to 5,200 square kilometers) annually to the desert.
The speed of the conversion of grass to dust is astonishingly fast. Inner Mongolia, China's third-largest province, stretches 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometres) east to west and more than 600 miles (965 kilometres) north to south in some places. As recently as the 1960s, according to estimates by the Chinese environmental agency, almost three-quarters of Inner Mongolia was grass. The province's thin soil, 15 inches (381 millimetres) of rainfall annually, and nomadic herders supported one of the planet's most robust wild ranges, a grass ecosystem nearly twice as large as France.
No longer. According to estimates by the United Nations, since 1980 desert has claimed two million acres (810,000 hectares) of cropland, nearly six million acres (2.43 million hectares) of rangeland, and 16 million acres (6.5 million hectares) of forests in northern China. Almost a quarter of China already is desert. The steady desertification of northern China has put the world's fastest growing economy, a nation of 1.3 billion people, at the frontline of the global freshwater crisis.
Indeed, the images of Inner Mongolia that Chen painted, galloping horses and moving herds, are largely gone, the result of ineffective and disputed policies to try to contain the spreading desert. In essence, the Chinese government forced the nomadic herders and their grass-consuming animals to stop wandering.
Still, the desert and the sand storms are growing. Chen's goal is to help the nomadic herders he knows find solutions to the spreading sand. He believes herders have some answers, drawing on centuries of accumulated knowledge of the land and local conditions, and not on technical theories, many of them failed, mandated over the last four decades by Beijing.
There is little disagreement in China that changes in patterns of precipitation in an already parched region, leading to severe shortages of freshwater, plays an integral role in the spread of desertification. But agreeing on the underlying socioeconomic drivers and solving the problems have fostered divisions in the Chinese scientific community, and between the government and its people. The efforts to stabilise sand dunes, which have varied in their success, include aerial seeding, and planting a 74-million-acre (30-million-hectare) "Great Green Wall" of trees, 2,800 miles (4,500 kilometres) long, stretching from the northeast through Inner Mongolia to Xinjiang in the far west.
Chinese officials also have responded with various, sometimes conflicting, policies. In 1994, China joined the newly formed UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Two years later, it began to publish a series of management plans that, among other things, called for China to plant 95 million acres [39 million hectares] of grass, shrubs and trees to reduce desert conditions on 190 million acres [77 million hectares] of land by 2050.
Few are confident it will stabilise the land, and Chen is especially sceptical. "The scientists fence off the grasslands to run their experiments, but that's not natural, and so it doesn't work in the real world."
Though conceding that Chinese scientists have made some progress, he bitterly recalled past policies. "They planted poplar trees everywhere! The grasslands didn't have any trees, so how could they think that poplar trees were appropriate? Furthermore, practices that worked in one area were often taken as model practices to be implemented everywhere, regardless of whether the amount of rainfall or soil or climate were different!"
Other policies, some of them sources of intense disagreement, are meant to influence human behavior. None is more contentious than the "ecological migration" program, initiated in Inner Mongolia in 2001, which requires removing 640,000 Mongol, Kazakh and Tibetan herders from the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet into towns and cities.
The forced movements, said the government, were intended to reduce pressure on the grasslands from overgrazing. But Mongols viewed the policy as discriminatory, a programme designed to make water, minerals and land more accessible to Han Chinese businesses and immigrants.
The relocation program has prompted frequent and sometimes violent protests. Still, almost every current assessment, even those by the Chinese government, indicates the technical and policy programs have not stopped the deserts. Each time Chen Jiqun returns to Inner Mongolia, he sees more ground where grass once grew. The stretches of sand expand, the water holes and rivers run dry.
In 1998, Chen felt he needed to respond. "I kept reading about what was happening on the grasslands, but it was never from the viewpoint of the Mongol herders. Actually, they were always cast as the cause of desertification rather than as the victims," he said.
Chen turned to his artistic spirit, finding a reservoir not only of empathy, intelligence, and anger, but also expert visual and communications skills. He had, in other words, the makings of an activist. Chen already was fluent in Chinese and Mongolian. He wrote well and painted superbly. His first step in responding to Inner Mongolia's human suffering and environmental deterioration was to start a bilingual Mongolian and Chinese website, Echoing Steppe, to help represent the views of the Mongol herders.
Echoing Steppe began as a free-form site, posting paintings and short text reports filled with anecdotes from herders, many by Chen, about what was happening. The site attracted the attention of Friends of Nature, an education and advocacy organisation formed in Beijing in 1994, and China's first legal nongovernmental organisation (NGO) specialising in environmental issues.
Liang Congjie, a professor at the Academy of Chinese Culture and the co-founder and president of Friends of Nature, took a personal interest in Chen's work, describing in words and pictures Inner Mongolia's deteriorating condition. Chen's reportage and images were fast turning him into one of the foremost experts on Inner Mongolia desertification.
By 2002 Chen found himself leading tours of Chinese students, activists, and interested citizens to the grasslands. He also studied laws that focussed on property rights, grasslands and desertification. Using the proceeds from the tours as well as his own money, Chen began translating and publishing those laws on Echoing Steppes.
"How can China become a nation of laws when its people can not even read the laws?" Chen said. He eventually added English translations to his website in order to raise international awareness about the situation in Inner Mongolia. He distributed copies of the laws to herders during his frequent trips to Inner Mongolia.
"Desertification is complex, and we have to hear all sides," said Chen. "But people have not heard the side of the Mongol herders. I want people to understand the history of the Mongolian grasslands from the herders' viewpoint, because if we don't understand the history of the grasslands, the grasslands don't have a future."
W. Chad Futrell is a PhD candidate in development sociology at Cornell University in the United States. He recently completed two years of fieldwork on transnational environmental cooperation to prevent desertification and protect wetlands in Northeast Asia.
This article is an excerpt from “Reign of Sand: Inner Mongolia”, published by Circle of Blue, a Pacific Institute project that addresses the earth’s diminishing supply of fresh, clean water. It is republished here with permission.