FEATURE STORY July 4, 2019

Curbing Desertification in China

World Bank Group


STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • China is severely affected by desertification, with more than a quarter of its territory covered in desert.
  • A World Bank-financed project has been helping to control desertification, rehabilitate natural vegetation, and introduce other ecological protection measures in Ningxia in northwestern China.
  • The project has also helped create jobs and increase incomes for the local communities.

China is severely affected by desertification, with more than a quarter of its territory covered in desert. A combination of environmental and human factors are to blame, but climate change is making things worse.

Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northwestern China is surrounded by three major deserts. It has been fighting desertification for over six decades. As of 2010, 57% of its territory, or 2.97 million hectares, had been affected by desertification.

The encroaching deserts threaten to destroy farmland and bury villages, forcing people to abandon their homes.  

Since 2012, a US$80 million World Bank-financed project has been helping to control desertification, rehabilitate natural vegetation, and introduce other ecological protection measures in seven counties and cities in Ningxia.

Fixing sand dunes and restoring vegetation

Located in Lingwu county on the edge of the Maowusu Desert, the 75,000-hectare Baijitan forest farm had annual rainfall of only 160 millimeters but an evaporation rate of over 2,000 millimeters. Sand, blown into the nearby Yellow River, raised the river bed and increased flood risk.

The effort to control sand received a boost in funding from the project. Based on experience accumulated over the past six decades and site-specific conditions, a 1+4 approach to restoring vegetation has been adopted.

“‘1’ means the use of straw checkerboard to fix the sand, which is the foundation. ‘4’ refers to planting in Spring and Autumn, supplemented by spot sowing, container seeding, and broadcast seeding in the rainy season,” said Wang Xingdong, director of the farm. 

A 70% survival rate of planted materials has been achieved, and vegetation cover has been restored to 40%. This has effectively stopped the sand dunes from shifting. The approach has helped bring about 6,667 hectares of desert under control.

In Yanchi county, also on the border of the Maowusu Desert, a once sandy area is now lush with trees, grass and flowering shrubs thanks to extensive straw checkerboards combined with a grazing ban.

Yanchi is known for its Tan sheep which produce high-quality wool and tender mutton. But overgrazing was a primary cause of land degradation and desertification. Now the sheep are kept in corrals. Farmers received subsidies for sheep sheds and benefitted from improved roads and other basic infrastructure. Information campaigns were carried out to help farmers understand the need to keep their sheep off the degraded land.

“As a result, the forest cover has increased by 2%, and the number of dusty days in a year has decreased by 11 days on average. Biodiversity is also improving. Some multi-year pasture grasses are reappearing,” said Chen Zhidong, a deputy director of the Yanchi County Environment and Forestry Department.

Zhongwei, a city bordering the Tengger Desert, has long been under the threat of desertification. Its first attempt to control the sand dates back to the 1950s when the Baotou-Lanzhou railway, China’s first railway through the desert, was built nearby.

Today, the scale of straw checkboards in Zhongwei is impressive. It looks like a huge net covering a vast sea of sand, keeping the sand dunes in place.

Making straw checkboards is labor-intensive work. Working in pairs, a woman lays the straw on the sand and then a man presses the straw half into the sand with a spade. The invention of a portable tool has increased the survival rate by 20%, while cutting the labor cost in half.

Supported by the project, more than 21,333 hectares of desert has been placed under this network of straw checkerboards, and 3,333 hectares of grass and shrubs have been planted, creating a barrier for the city and key infrastructure including the railway and highways. The city has a booming tourist industry as visitors from all over China come to see and experience the desert.


"Calcium fruit is a one-time investment and doesn’t need much care. One mu (1/15th of a hectare) can produce 150 kilograms of calcium fruit. Selling six yuan per kilogram, I can make about 1,000 yuan (US$149) for every mu. "
Wang Xuebao
a local farmer from Luoquan village

Creating jobs and sources of income for local communities

Local communities have benefited from additional jobs and sources of income associated with desertification control efforts.

Like many fellow villagers, Wang Wenqing, a farmer living in Xiatan village, grows “desert chives” and sells them to cities as far as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

“I have four greenhouses and make an income of more than 100,000 yuan ($14,886) a year,” he said.

Caragana, a major sand-fixing shrub species that needs to be pruned regularly, is good fodder for sheep and goats. Chopped and fermented, it is rich in protein. “Sheep breed more when they eat caragana-based fodder,” said Zhao Yanji, head of a local farmers cooperative who runs a feedstock business. He sees a promising market in caragana and plans to expand production next year.

Making straw checkerboard also represents a good job opportunity.  “In the last six years, we hired some 700 to 800 farmers to make straw checkboards each day from May to August, paid a total salary of almost 70 million yuan, and also spent 16 million yuan to buy straw from farmers,” said Tang Ximing, head of Zhongwei’s project management office.

Some farmers even make a living on straw checkboards. They work not only in Ningxia but also in other provinces such as Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Xinjiang and Gansu.

Zhongwei’s sweet selenium-rich watermelon is a best seller across the country and a major source of income for local farmers. However, the soil in the gravel-mulched watermelon field gets degraded after a few years of use. In response, the project helped farmers switch to wolfberry and “calcium fruit,” a cherry-like, calcium-rich fruit that grows in dry, sandy soil.       

“Calcium fruit is a one-time investment and doesn’t need much care. One mu (1/15th of a hectare) can produce 150 kilograms of calcium fruit. Selling six yuan per kilogram, I can make about 1,000 yuan (US$149) for every mu,” said Wang Xuebao, a local farmer from Luoquan village who grows four hectares of “calcium fruit.” The bush also helps hold water, prevents soil erosion, and improves the environment.

Sharing experience with the world

According to the United Nations, desertification is a global issue, with serious implications worldwide for biodiversity, eco-safety, poverty eradication, socio-economic stability and sustainable development.

While fighting desertification, China shares its experience and good practices with other countries facing similar challenges.

Every year, dozens of officials and technicians from other countries visit Ningxia to learn about local sand control and prevention.

Bashir Daoud from the meteorological department of Jordan appreciated the opportunity to join the training program. “We have received good information that we can use in our own countries as we have the same climate as Ningxia,” he said.

Curbing desertification to benefit the people

“The project has played a big role in curbing the environmental degradation in Ningxia,” said Li Zhigang, head of the project management office of Ningxia. “53,000 hectares of desert have been brought under control. Vegetation coverage has reached over 30% in the project area with straw checkerboard, and 60% in the shelterbelt forests. It has contributed to the improvement of the local environment and protection of the key infrastructure in the neighborhood. Local people have also improved their lives by participating in the project.”

80-year-old Lan Zesong, lead advisor to the project, has devoted his life to fighting desertification and witnessed how the desert has been transformed into green land. To him, the project’s main achievements – environmental change, livelihood improvements, and scaling up – will continue to make a positive impact long after the project closes.

Overall, 3 million residents are expected to receive direct environmental benefits in the project areas. These improvements will also indirectly benefit a large number of people living as far as Beijing and Tianjin, since project areas are located in a wind corridor that is a major source of sandstorms affecting major parts of northern China.



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