Grit on the grasslands

It’s sandstorm season and on the plains of northern China, herders are suffering. Shu Ni recalls a personal encounter with Inner Mongolia’s “desert winds”.

It’s springtime and, in Beijing, the sandy winds are back again, blown down from the country’s far north. Six hundred kilometres from the Chinese capital, Inner Mongolia’s Ujimqin Grassland has already seen four sandstorms this year. Ujimqin is one of the autonomous region’s best-preserved grasslands, but even here damage is widespread.

People in the cities complain about the impact of sandstorms on urban life and take measures aimed at protecting urban interests. Several years of efforts have improved the situation in Beijing, but further afield environmental degradation is actually worsening.

I still clearly remember being caught in a sandstorm in east Ujimqin in the spring of 2010. I was staying with a herder named Yuandeng. His son and daughter-in-law had gone to the city, leaving him and his wife, Eji, alone on the pasture. A strong wind howled through the night, and I woke to see the dark sky tinged with yellow from the dust. After sunrise, the wind strengthened and the sky changed colour to match the ground. Yuandeng and Eji must have been in their fifties or sixties, but seeing the weather worsen, they put on clothes and goggles to protect themselves from the wind and readied their motorbike – it was time to get the sheep in.

The grasslands can be bitterly cold, but by March or April the weather starts to warm up. Once the temperatures of minus 30 or minus 40 degrees Celsius have stopped, local people say spring has arrived, though the grass still hasn’t started to grow, the ground remains barren and it may still snow or drop below freezing. Heading out in zero visibility in these conditions is dangerous – if you lose your way, you can end up with frostbite or even freeze to death. But despite the wind, Yuandeng and Eji, concerned for their sheep, set off on their motorbike. Before leaving, Eji made a point of warning me not to go outside – it was dangerous, she said.

Fortunately, that afternoon a little snow fell and the wind eased off, settling the sandstorm, and they both got home safely, with no loss to their herd. But Yuandeng spent the rest of the day glaring out the window – the sandstorm heralded bad news for the rest of the year.

The grasslands are affected by various types of sandstorm – different sand is blown in from different places and can be yellow or white, fine or coarse. For the herders there are two kinds: those that carry sand from afar, and those that carry local sand. The one I saw was carrying local sand.

There are three main reasons that sand is blown up from the grasslands. First, the arable land dries out in the spring sun, meaning the earth is easily picked up by the wind. Second, where the grassland is damaged by, for example, herders keeping their cattle in one place and allowing them to trample the same patch of land, sand can be blown up from the deteriorated land. And third, where water resources are disappearing, large quantities of sand in dry river and lake beds can be whipped up by the spring wind. A fourth cause can be added to this list: open-cast mining.

What is damaging Yuandeng’s grassland? For the answer, you need to look at his current pasture. It is a long strip of land, two to three kilometres wide and more than 12 kilometres long. When the household responsibility system was introduced and land was contracted out to households, this was often the way land was divided up, to ensure that everyone got a share of the best pastures. Previously the herders had been nomadic but, once the grasslands were divided up, they were tied to their strip of land and settled down. That meant the mobility of the Mongolian yurt was no longer an advantage, and they started to live in houses.

For several square kilometres around Yuandeng’s house, the constant treading of sheep and cattle has worn the ground bare. The grass never has a chance to grow, and the earth is exposed all year round. The livestock have also settled down, into barns 700 metres or 800 metres away, with a wide piece of damaged land between the house and the barns. When the policy of settling herders down was announced, experts warned that this would cause patches of damage – and this is a prime example.  

Not understanding this at first, I asked Yuandeng why he hadn’t built his home somewhere with better grass. “This is where we used to spend winter, the grass was fine!” Winter is the toughest time on the grasslands and, without enough grass, calves and lambs can easily die – and so the finest pastures were chosen for this season. But after 10 years here, everything has changed.

“It’s no good now,” said
Yuandeng. “As soon as the spring desert winds get up they blow away the manure and then the grass is no good.” Yuandeng calls the sandstorms “desert winds”, and he has plenty of complaints about them: “We never saw any of these when we were young, did we?” “The desert winds change the grass – now we get Russian thistle, which is only good for pigs, it doesn’t last any time at all.” “It’s no use looking after your own pasture; one bad pasture will ruin all the others.” What does all this mean? The first time I heard it I didn’t know, but it made sense once I’d seen my first sandstorm.

When the storm was over, I went outside to look around and found something strange – a downy grass on the bare ground by the door. Eji explained these were the roots of the grass, exposed after the soil had been blown away. It seemed almost like a covert attack: the damaged land still contained grass roots, but the wind had removed their cover, making it even less likely the grass could grow again.

Early the next day, I set out on foot to try to find the family’s herd of horses. I walked several kilometres to the east and saw that a layer of sandy soil had been left on the land. I took a photo to show Yuandeng: “That’s finished it! Russian thistle will grow there now,” he said. The forage grass eaten by livestock has a short growth period, and doesn’t grow in spring – when the winds arrive, it hasn’t started growing and cannot protect the soil exposed by animals. This means perennial grasses are needed to provide fodder and to fix the surface through autumn, winter and spring. However, sandstorms are causing the short-lived Russian thistle – which only comes once a year – to spread and the perennial grasses to recede.

In the past, we’ve heard it said that the patches of degradation caused by settled herders aren’t important, and that grasslands further away can be protected. We’ve also heard that mining has less of an impact on the grasslands than herding and so on. But this misses the point: sandstorms affect the entire ecosystem and create overall damage. As Yuandeng said, “It’s no use looking after your own pasture; one bad pasture will ruin all the others.”

Yuandeng’s village divided up the pastures in the early 1990s and started to settle down around 2000. His home is where the best winter pastures used to be, but now that area is damaged and will, in turn, affect other areas.

Several days ago, more strong winds swept through northern China. Not much sand reached Beijing, but things were different out on the grasslands. When the wind blows, I always think of the worried expression on Yuandeng’s face.

Shu Ni is a volunteer at Beijing Brooks Education Center’s Man and Grasslands project and a freelance writer with a longstanding interest in grasslands.

Homepage image from Shu Ni