Living in China’s expanding deserts

Source: NYT (10/24/16)
Living in China’s Expanding Deserts
People on the edges of the country’s vast seas of sand are being displaced by climate change.


Map of Chinese deserts.

IN THE TENGGER DESERT, CHINA — This desert, called the Tengger, lies on the southern edge of the massive Gobi Desert, not far from major cities like Beijing. The Tengger is growing.

For years, China’s deserts spread at an annual rate of more than 1,300 square miles. Many villages have been lost. Climate change and human activities have accelerated desertification. China says government efforts to relocate residents, plant trees and limit herding have slowed or reversed desert growth in some areas. But the usefulness of those policies is debated by scientists, and deserts are expanding in critical regions.

 Nearly 20 percent of China is desert, and drought across the northern region is getting worse. One recent estimate said China had 21,000 square miles more desert than what existed in 1975 — about the size of Croatia. As the Tengger expands, it is merging with two other deserts to form a vast sea of sand that could become uninhabitable.

Liu Jiali, 4, lives in the Tengger.

Like Jiali’s family, many people herd animals and run small tourist parks on the edge of the Tengger Desert.

Jiali lives in an area called Alxa League, where the government has relocated about 30,000 people, who are called “ecological migrants,” because of desertification.

Across northern China, generations of families have made a living herding animals on the edge of the desert. Officials say that along with climate change, overgrazing is contributing to the desert’s growth. But some experiments suggest moderate grazing may actually mitigate the effects of climate change on grasslands, and China’s herder relocation policies could be undermining that.

Officials have given Jiali and her family a home in a village about six miles from Swan Lake, the oasis where they run a tourist park. To get them to move and sell off their herd of more than 70 sheep, 30 cows and eight camels, the officials have offered an annual subsidy equivalent to $1,500 for each of her parents and $1,200 for a grandmother who lives with them.

Jiali’s mother, Du Jinping, 45, said the family would live in the new village in the winter, but return to Swan Lake in the summer.

Jiali’s mother, Du Jinping, 45, said the family would live in the new village in the winter, but return to Swan Lake in the summer.

The family charges each tourist $4.50 to visit Swan Lake. Visitors also rent camels and dune buggies. And they can pay to eat in the round Mongolian tents, called gers.

But the oasis, which is the main attraction, is shrinking. Many of the oases in the Tengger are drying up. Local governments in desert regions began relocating people away from the encroaching sands decades ago.

But China’s densely populated areas are pushing toward the deserts, as the deserts grow toward the cities.

Storms of wind-driven sand have become increasingly frequent and intense, reaching Beijing and other large cities. “We dread the sandstorms,” Ms. Du said.

Residents who live on the edge of the deserts try to limit the steady march of the sand. Along with local governments, they plant trees in an effort to block the wind and stabilize the soil.

Many people in this area are from families that fled Minqin, at the western end of the Tengger Desert, during China’s Great Famine from 1958 to 1962, when tens of millions died.

Guo Kaiming, 40, a farmer who also manages a tourist park at the edge of the Tengger Desert, planted rows of trees by a new cross-desert highway in June.

Mr. Guo took saplings that the government had left behind after it completed a tree planting operation.

He said he was not ready to join the climate refugees. He has his corn and wheat fields, plus income from running the tourist park.

Last year, the company that operates the park paid students to build seven giant sand sculptures as its centerpiece.

But strong desert winds steadily eroded them.

“They are all a mess now,” Mr. Guo said. “The wind is fierce.”

“It has messed up everything.”

The government encourages farmers like Mr. Guo because it says agriculture can help reclaim land from the desert. Officials offer subsidies: Mr. Guo gets $600 per year for “grassland ecological protection.”

But farming is also becoming more difficult. Huang Chunmei, who grew up in the town of Tonggunao’er and now farms there, said the water table was two meters, or about six feet, below ground during her childhood, and “now, you have to dig four or five meters.”

Ms. Huang planted more than 200 trees on her own last spring, in the hope that they would help block sandstorms and hold back the sand.

Ms. Huang, 38, grows corn and tomatoes, some in greenhouse structures.

“The soil is not as soft or good as it was before,” she said. “We use more fertilizer now.”

Ms. Huang and her husband have sent their 14-year-old daughter to a boarding school in a nearby city.

“I don’t want my girl to return,” she said.

“The sand and wind make life tough here.”

“We’ll see what she wants to do when she finishes school.”

About 17 percent of the population in Alxa League are ethnic Mongolians, whose lives and livelihoods have long been tied to the herding the government is trying to halt.

Mengkebuyin, 42, and his wife, Mandula, 41, grow corn and sunflowers, but their 200 sheep provide most of their income: They sell the meat to a hotel restaurant in a nearby city.

The sheep graze in the desert, where grass is growing scarce. They roam by his old family home, near the shores of a lake that dried up years ago. Mengkebuyin and his wife maintain the old home but do not stay for long periods.

They have moved to a village five miles away.

Mengkebuyin uses a motorcycle and a desert buggy to drive the sheep to graze. He would like to move to better pasture, but the government will not allow it. He herds the sheep toward the old family home, where he can give the animals water.

Mengkebuyin and Mandula have decided that they want their 16-year-old daughter to live and work in a city.

Four generations of Mengkebuyin’s family lived by the lake in a thriving community. But gradually, everyone left.

The desert has taken over.

Josh Haner and Edward Wong reported from the Tengger Desert, and Derek Watkins and Jeremy White from New York. Kiki Zhao and Sarah Li contributed research. Edited by Hannah Fairfield and Jodi Rudoren. Photographs and drone videos by Josh Haner. Photo editing by Meaghan Looram. Additional video editing by Taige Jensen.

Notes and sources: Arid regions saw less than 250 millimeters of average annual precipitation from 1981 to 2013. Sandstorm severity calculated as winter storm hours over frequency. Precipitation data from Climate Hazards Group, University of California, Santa Barbara, via the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, Columbia University. Sandstorm data from the Data Sharing Network of Earth Systems Science via the Center for Geographic Analysis, Harvard University. Population data from WorldPop. Satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe via Google.

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