Desertification in China and effects in Asia

Photo credit : The Convrersation

A lone tree clings on among the sand dunes in Dunhuang, northwestern China. EPA

China’s desertification is causing trouble across Asia

Creeping desertification in China is swallowing thousands of square kilometres of productive soil every year. It’s a challenge of gigantic and unprecedented proportions.

The rate of desertification increased throughout the second half of last century and, although this trend has since stabilised, the situation remains very serious.

More than a quarter of the entire country is now degraded or turning to desert, thanks to “overgrazing by livestock, over cultivation, excessive water use, or changes in climate”. The Gobi desert alone gobbles up3,600km2 of grassland each year. China’s own State Forestry Administration has identified land desertification as the country’s most important ecological problem, and climate change will only make things worse.

Ecological disasters have social effects. Desertification threatens the subsistence of about a third of China’s population, especially those in the country’s west and north, and could pose serious challenges to political and economic stability. It costs China roughly RMB 45 billion (US$6.9 billion) per year.

Research shows that “for seriously desertified regions, the loss amounts to as much as 23.16% of … annual GDP”. The fact that one third of the country’s land area is eroded has led some 400m people to struggle to cope with a lack of productive soil, destabilised climatological conditions and severe water shortages. Droughts damage “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.

Deforestation has only made things worse. Greenpeace writes that only 2% of the country’s original forests remain intact, of which “only 0.1% is fully protected”.

Read the full article: The Conversation


Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

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