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.