Land desertification is the most important ecological problem in China.


Photo credit: Sixth Tone

Cheng Zhe plays with a large pile of harvested cotton, Awat County, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,Nov. 21, 2016. Li You/Sixth Tone

From Tufts to Dust, Cotton Accelerates Xinjiang Desertification

by Denise Hruby and Li You

In front of a steep, meter-high sand dune, Cheng Zhe stops his pickup. So far, the only obstacles he’s come across during the 50-kilometer drive from his home to the edges of the Taklamakan Desert have been potholes the size of his truck’s tires.

A fence made from reeds to each side was meant to protect the asphalt from the encroaching sands, but from here on, the road belongs to the desert.

“It’s our way of stopping the desert from expanding,” Cheng said, eyeing the fence. In the face of the growing desert, the little reed fence had a short life span: Sand has gobbled it up, then spread out onto the bumpy road that leads through the Taklamakan Desert.

After the Sahara, the Taklamakan Desert is the world’s largest moving-sand desert. It covers vast swaths of northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region and stretches all the way to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan in the east, making it roughly the size of Germany. In the winter, temperatures can drop below minus 20 degrees Celsius.

And like other deserts in China, the Taklamakan is growing. The Gobi Desert, for example, devours 3,600 square kilometers of grassland each year.

Climate change is one reason for desertification. Another is human activity, such as overgrazing and deforestation, and a third can be attributed to farmers like the Chengs, who came to Xinjiang in the early ’90s to grow a crop that is among the most water-intensive in the world: cotton.

Read the full article: Sixth Tone

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

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

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