Taming the Yellow Dragon
    2009-08-25 10:45:43     CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Qin Mei

Drifting sand, Kubuqi Desert, Inner Mongolia [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com/Chris Gelken]

By Chris Gelken

The dramatic beauty of deserts has inspired generations of poets, painters, and adventurers. But experts say the risk of further desertification now poses one of the greatest environmental and ecological threats to sustainable development - not only to China, but also to the whole North East Asian region.

According to the latest reliable figures released by the government, a staggering 27-percent of China's total land area is now desert or suffering from land degradation. A decade ago more than 10,000 square kilometers of arable land was being lost to the sand or land degradation every year. The expanding deserts and the effects of climate change spawned ferocious sand storms that reached their peak in early years of the 21st century. Known in China as the Yellow Dragon, they swept eastward every spring, choking cities from Beijing to Seoul in a cloud of gritty dust.

Official sources say afforestation programs-the planting of trees, shrubs and desert grass - has slowed the shifting sands in some regions. In others, large areas of former degraded land or desert has been restored. But permanently halting and even reversing the process is a monumental task, and climate change experts say the clock is ticking.

Qu Haihua, an official with the National Bureau to Combat Desertification (NBCD) says their studies have revealed that the actual land area affected by desertification is contracting, despite evidence that some deserts are still expanding.

"Maybe the desert itself is expanding, and maybe the area subject to land degradation is expanding, but the total overall area of desertification is currently contracting." he said.

He explained apparent contradiction by saying that many of the afforestation programs are being conducted in selected areas in the interior of the desert. So while the edges of the desert continue to creep outwards, large areas of the interior are being restored.

Former South Korean Ambassador to China, Kwon Byong-hyon has been a leading figure in the fight against desertification since the late 1990s. The founder of Future Forest, he is under no illusions about the seriousness of the problem and that the time act decisively is running out.

"One third of the Earth's surface has become desertified, and still it is growing,"he said, "But there is a sort of inertia. People don't seem to realize just how serious it is or the fact that they can actually do something about it. The Earth itself is in real danger now. If we do not do anything, we are fast approaching the tipping point."

To a certain degree desertification is a quite natural process. Over history the sands have moved forward and they have moved back. In recent decades, however, experts say human activity and climate change has accelerated the progression of the phenomenon to the point where it can be justifiably describedCat least in part -as a man-made disaster. Ambassador Kwon is convinced that with the right resources and timely intervention, the process of desertification can not only be stopped, but far more degraded land can be reclaimed and returned to its original state.

"Because much of this has been caused by man, and if we have the will we can fight back," he said.

Working with local partners, including the All China Youth Federation, Future Forest has ambitious plans. They've recently launched a campaign to plant a billion trees in their Kubuqi Desert project area. This is just one part of the patchwork of afforestation programs that make up what has become known as the Great Green Wall.

"When we launched Future Forest and the Great Green Wall project about four years ago many people were skeptical, they said it couldn't be done. But the evidence is now there,"Kwon said, "the Great Green Wall is taking shape right in the middle of the desert."

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