Residents of Inner Mongolia Find New Hope in the Desert

August 14, 2007

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Every year, gusting winds from Inner Mongolia’s sprawling desert—a 150,000-square-kilometer area the size of the U.S. state of Georgia—threaten China’s capital Beijing with damaging sandstorms. Inner Mongolia is also one of the country’s most impoverished areas. But these days, local peasants are benefiting from the region’s gusting winds and challenging environment. Not only do they generate renewable wind power, but they are also producing timber and biomass energy from the desert, all while slowing the desertification process.

Haystack Hill Village is located deep in the Inner Mongolia grasslands. In the spring of 2006, when a severe windstorm coated Beijing with a thick blanket of yellow sand, the village was situated right at the origin of the storm. But some villagers now like the wind. Zhang Jian, 34, is the head of a local wind farm. In 1996, Huitengxile Wind Farm installed its first wind turbine here. Today, some 100 turbines operate around the clock on the grassland, generating 130 million kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity annually, enough to power a city of 3 million people for a month.

Power generation at Huitengxile Wind Farm doesn’t just turn wind into electricity—it has changed this remote village profoundly. Before the facility was set up, there were no roads accessing the outside world. Today, giant white wind turbines rise up one after another across the lush and boundless grasslands, attracting growing numbers of tourists. Villagers have set up 14 tourism sites, and herdsmen earn as much as US$600–700 a year driving horse carts to move the visitors around.

By the end of 2006, the total installed capacity of wind turbines in Inner Mongolia exceeded 500,000 kilowatts—one fifth of China’s total and a 50 percent increase over 2005. By 2010, this capacity is expected to exceed 5 million kilowatts.

But wind power isn’t the only recent blessing. Pojianghai, a small village in Erdos City at the center of the desert, has been inflicted by chronic drought. Villagers are often sealed indoors by sand that has blown against their doorways during the night. As the deserts march ahead, many residents have fled the village.

In the early 1990s, to bridle the wind and prevent the sand from drifting, the city government called for the planting of sand willows (Salix psammophila). The desert greened for the first time. More importantly, local residents quickly discovered other uses for the bushes, such as making packaging planks. They established several local plank processing factories.

The sand willow has a fast growth cycle. It matures in three years and regrows quickly when cut, making it a high-yielding and cheap source for the planks. As market demand for the planks rises, many firms are now buying sand willow timber from villagers at a price of 240 RMB (roughly US$30) a ton.

Because local residents can earn money from it, they have begun planting more sand willows. In Pojianghai Village, plantations of the bushes are expanding quickly over the vast desert. Within 100 square kilometers of plank factories, sand willows have become the major income source for many peasants, and some households make as much as US$4,000 a year from them. This makes local pockets bulge, and has intensified the bridling of drifting sands.

Others have discovered new energy sources from the multi-use bushes. Li Jinglu, a businessman from Beijing, found out that the heat generated from burning sand willows is equivalent to that from burning coal. In early 2007, the first desert biomass thermal power plant was constructed near to an existing methanol chemical plant, two kilometers away. The power plant uses the waste water from the methanol plant, and the biomass residue can be further processed into potassium fertilizer. The power plant is slated to begin operation early next year and will generate some 180–210 million kwh of electricity annually, according to Li.

Wulan Dalai, who lives in the Mu Us Desert, is the first resident to provide raw materials to the biomass plant. Last October, before the construction of the plant, he signed a contract with the investor, leasing out 3,500 mu (roughly 233 hectares) of his land for sand willow plantations. He will receive 20,000 RMB (US$2,500) a year in land rent alone.

The invisible hand of the market is bringing new hope to Inner Mongolia’s expanding desert. In the past, the local government had to hire people to plant trees to hold back the drifting sands, and the trees seldom survived. Today, seeing the returns on sand willows, local villagers are treating their bushes like their babies. So far, more than 1,300 households in the province have treated over 1,000 mu (67 hectares) of deserts. Residents are not only benefiting from the market, but they have also found an effective way to save the ecosystem.

Renjie Zhou and Yadan Wang are journalists with China Central Television. Outside contributions to China Watch reflect the views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Worldwatch Institute.

China Watch is a joint initiative of the Worldwatch Institute and Beijing-based Global Environmental Institute (GEI) and is supported by the blue moon fund.