Desertification in China


Photo credit: Univ. of Nottingham

The Geopolitics of Desertification in China

Written by Marijn Nieuwenhuis.

The Transformation of China’s Territory

China’s territory is in the process of historical change. And by that I mean to say that its material foundation, the very stuff of territory, is in the process of a literal transformation. I am referring to the creeping desertification that swallows every year thousands of square kilometres of productive soil.Desertification at present takes place at more than twice the pace it did during the period from 1950 to 2000. The Gobi desert alone is said to gobble up “3,600 square kilometres of grassland each year, creating powerful sandstorms, robbing farmers of food-producing land, and displacing people from their homes.”Some speak of “one of the greatest environmental disasters of our time” while others argue that it is “probably the largest conversion of productive land into sand anywhere in the world.” The State Forestry Administration has identified land desertification as “the most important ecological problem in China” and it likely that climate change only furthers that importance.

Many accounts have rightfully pointed out that the threat to the subsistence of about a third of China’s population, affecting especially those in the western and northern territories, could pose serious challenges to both political and economic stability. The total damage of desertification to the national economy is estimated at roughly RMB 54 million per year but that burden is not equally shared by all regions. Research shows that “for seriously desertified regions [in the country’s north and west]…, the loss amounts to as much as 23.16 percent of… annual GDP”. The fact that one-third of the country’s land area is eroded has led some 400 million people to struggle to cope with a lack of productive soil, destabilised climatological conditions and severe water shortages. Droughts damages “about 160,000 square kilometres of cropland each year, double the area damaged in the 1950s.” Blaming the desertification on overgrazing and bad cultivation, the state has since 2005 started to reallocate millions of people from dry and barren territories under its controversial and hotly contested “ecological migration” programme.

The sand transformation of China’s territory is furthered by decades of deforestation. Greenpeace writes that only two percent of the original forests in China have remained intact – “that’s just 55,448 square kilometres, of which only 0.1 per cent is fully protected.” Despite extraordinary efforts by the Chinese Government to reduce the rate of erosion, culminating in the largest reforestation project ever undertaken,reports showed that the “desertification trend has not fundamentally reversed.” A senior official recently was quoted saying that it would “take 300 years to turn back China’s advancing deserts at the current rate of progress.” It is not an understatement to suggest that the Government’s challenge of confronting the material transformation of its own territory is one of gigantic and unprecedented proportions. One could argue, and I would concur, that the state is faced with the material limits of its territorial politics.

A Swirling Geopolitics

Read the full article: Univ. of Nottingham

Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.