Deserts Swallowing Up China's Grasslands and Cities

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In recognition of the grave perils of increasing desertification, the United Nations has declared 2006 the International Year of Deserts and Desertification and the theme of World Environment Day on June 5, 2006 is, "Don't Desert Drylands!". Deserts and other dryland ecosystems now cover a third of the Earth’s land surface, and worsening land degradation puts more than a billion people in over 100 countries at risk of poverty, political instability, and other related effects. In China, desertification threatens to uproot growing numbers of residents from their homes and livelihoods. In the country’s arid north, the Mongolian Desert is rapidly encroaching on Shenyang, an industrial city of more than 40 million people; today, the distance between city and desert has shrunk to only 48 kilometers, down from 100 kilometers in 2000.

One of the most visible consequences of China’s desertification is worsening sandstorms. While such weather events have long plagued the nation, they have increased in both scale and frequency as land degradation intensifies. The total degraded area in China is now estimated at 8–10 million square kilometers, and this destruction contributes to economic losses of more than 47 billion RMB (US$6 billion) a year, according to China’s national desertification program. Decades-long efforts to control and manage desertification have not produced adequate results, and experts worry that the pace of degradation will only accelerate given growing human pressures and climatic changes.

Excessive cultivation of farmland, particularly overgrazing, is recognized as the leading cause of land degradation in the nation, and the situation is getting worse, according to the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture. Some 130 million hectares of grassland are now degraded and have lost their vegetative cover, and this area is expanding at an annual rate of 2 million hectares.

China’s intensive grassland cultivation can be traced back to policies adopted under the planned economy between the 1950s and early 1980s, which emphasized self-sufficiency and food security. Farmers were encouraged to migrate to grassy areas in the north to raise more cattle, resulting in severe overgrazing. Although the government has since standardized the protection and use of grassland resources through its “grain for green” program, many local officials still lack awareness of the importance of grassland management, and tensions between conservation needs and wider economic benefits impede remediation efforts. Meanwhile, grassland productivity continues to decline: currently, an estimated 36 percent more animals graze northern China’s grasslands than the region can ecologically support, and grass output is one-third to two-thirds lower than in the early 1960s.

Scientists are studying the relationship between land degradation and climate change as well. A recent report by the Chinese state press found that global warming is melting glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau at the rate of 7 percent annually. The increased meltwater from the plateau is expected to trigger droughts and worsen soil erosion, leading to more desertification and sandstorms in lower-altitude regions. 

Realizing that existing desertification and grassland policies have been poorly managed and implemented, experts with China’s desertification program have called for greater attention at the policy level to address this challenge. Currently, only two national laws focus specifically on land loss and prevention of desertification, with other land-degradation regulations being subsumed under the Environmental Protection Law, Forest Law, Agriculture Law, and other legislation.

Meanwhile, the lack of practical plans for ecosystem restoration and desertification prevention has slowed progress. A 1998 national plan set overall targets for recovering desertified areas, but failed to account for vastly differing regional situations. China’s most severely degraded lands are in the northwest, a region that has faced serious water shortages for centuries. Thus, the national targets of restoring 22 million square kilometers of degraded land by 2010 and 40 million square kilometers by 2030 are likely unattainable in these areas.