China is working to tackle the severe problem of deforestation by turning desert green. The nation had implemented a project in 1978 known as the ‘Great Green Wall of China.’ It was implemented to hold back the Gobi Desert’s expansion and supply timber to the local population. A quarter of all landmass in China is covered by deserts, expanding rapidly.
Desertification can have severe impacts on the environment, such as aeolian desertification- caused by wind erosion after vegetation is damaged, soil and water loss- caused by water erosion primarily distributed in the Loess Plateau, salinization- caused by inefficient water management, and rock desertification- mostly occurring in the Karst region of Southwestern China.
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How Did It Start?
Desertification is growing rapidly all around the world; however, the issue is notably worse in China. According to Chinese governmental officials, the country loses approximately 3,600 km2 of farms and grasslands to sands and deserts every year. However, a recent remote sensing study found out that the area of land being lost to deserts each year exceeds over 4 million hectares (15,500 square miles).
China has been withstanding large-scale desertification since the 1950s. Ever since the young People’s Republic’s nation-building spree of tearing down forests to construct cities and create infrastructures to shelter a growing population. Human activity of development has left many lands unprotected against wind erosion and deposition from the surrounding deserts.
People are abandoning their towns and cities due to desertification. Environmental refugees are growing in number to at least millions. The government of China estimates economic losses of around $50 billion per year. Furthermore, the issue is contributing to worsening dust and sand storms.
Massive dust storms, larger than the American dust bowls of the 1930s, produce severe weather effects like mud rains and black winds. Each year, the dust from China’s northern deserts is lifted by the wind and whipped eastward towards Beijing. A blanket of dust coats the cities’ houses, cars, and buildings and clogs airport shutters, machinery, and destroys crops.
As the problem in China worsened, the government needed to find a solution to avoid further ecological and economic damages. In 1978, the government’s responded with the creation of the ‘Three-North Shelterbelt Project‘, also known as the ‘Green Wall Project‘- a 2,800 mile (9 million acre) tree-planting effort. The project was the greatest environmental restoration effort in history. But how exactly is China turning deserts green?
Great Green Wall of China
China is turning deserts green through the Great Green Wall of China project. It is expected to continue till 2050 and aims to plant approximately 88 million acres of forests around the Great Wall, stretching around 3000 miles and as wide as 900 miles in a few areas. So far, over 66 billion trees have been planted.
The Chinese government has funded and implemented several new major afforestation projects during the last few years, leading to massive tree-planting projects ever recorded. So far, the projects have led to satisfactory results, as frequent moving dunes have now stabilized, while the brutal sandstorms fell by one-fifth between 2009 and 2014.
According to a recent report to the United Nations, Chinese government officials estimated that the project would end the expansion of desertification caused by human activity within a decade or so. The officials also claim that much of the dry regions will be restored to a more sustainable and productive state by 2050.
By 2010, scientists expect the green cover to stretch from outer Beijing through inner Mongolia. In order to build the green wall, the government of China has launched a two-part plan: Usage of aerial seeding to cover large tracks of land where the soil is less dry and paying farmers and landowners to plant shrubs and trees in regions that need closer attention. The Chinese government will set up an oversight system comprising land surveillance databases and mapping- costing around $1.2 billion. The Chinese government has also implemented a dust monitoring network along with Korea and Japan.
The green wall will have an outer belt- stretching from 775 to 1,765 feet wide– with a sand fence along the perimeter. Inside, sand-tolerant and low-lying flora, arranged in a proper pattern, will create an artificial environment to stabilize the moving dunes. The government will construct a 6-foot-wide gravel platform to hold sand down and encourage a soil crust to form.
The Chinese government has funded several studies to examine the use of genetically engineered plants, grass strains bred in space, chemical dune stabilization, and agricultural techniques that will allow rice to grow in sandy soil.
Desertification is a complex process. Issues such as water erosion, overgrazing, wind erosion, drought, air pollution, climate change, and global warming all have a part to play. According to a few scholars and experts, the project implemented by the Chinese government is not designed efficiently and is weakening due to corruption. Of all the trees planted so far, only a few survive.
According to Jennifer L. Turner, director of the China Environment Forum, people are planting big trees to prevent desertification; however, no one takes care of the trees after they are planted, and eventually die. Afforestation activities can also exceed the land’s carrying capacity, resulting in the destruction of vegetation without constant human intervention.
The trees planted in the Gobi desert can lead to the rapid decline of groundwater and moisture in the soil. Several trees and plants grown in the area are not native and indigenous species; as a result, they soak up large amounts of water that the native plants and grasses need. It can lead to severe soil degradation.
It is difficult to tell whether or not the Green Wall of China is damaging or helping current ecosystems. A study was conducted in 2014 by American and Chinese scientists on China’s major tree-planting programs. According to the study, the extent to which the projects have altered ecological and socioeconomic conditions is still poorly understood, as local data and statistics are unknown.
There is an urgent need for collaborative efforts among international scientists, scholars, and decision-makers. The solution to ecological problems isn’t just planting trees in any random location. Careful and strategic planning should be taken considering location, native plant and tree species, climatic conditions, groundwater, etc.
Dr. Emily Greenfield is a highly accomplished environmentalist with over 30 years of experience in writing, reviewing, and publishing content on various environmental topics. Hailing from the United States, she has dedicated her career to raising awareness about environmental issues and promoting sustainable practices.