0859-B5

Dust-sand storms in China: disastrous effects and mitigation strategies

Qi Lu and Sen Wang 1


Abstract

China is one of the countries most severely jeopardized by dust-sand storms and desertification (DSSD). The total area of desertified land in China amounts to 2.67 million km2, which is 27.9% of the country's landmass. Desertified land is mainly distributed in the Northwest, North and Northeast. Due to prolonged drought, growing population pressure and limited progress in re-vegetation, the process of desertification has accelerated, with an annual expansion rate of 1560 km2 in the 1970s, 2,100 km2 in the 1980s, 2,460 km2 in the mid-1990s, and 3,436 km2 in the late 1990s. DSSD has resulted in the degradation of ecological environment and threatened the survival space of the Chinese people. It is estimated that some 400 million people are affected by DSSD, and the direct economic losses caused by desertification are estimated at RMB¥64.2 billion or US$7.7 billion each year. Desertification is a major cause of poverty, as a significant number of economically underdeveloped counties are found in desertified regions. To mitigate DSSD-related disasters, useful experiences have been accumulated in China over the past five decades. Three major strategies have emerged, namely, the promotion of science and technology in combating desertification, the adoption of programmatic approaches, and policy and legislation support. While China has made fruitful efforts in controlling desertification, collaboration with neighboring countries in Northeastern and Central Asia is required in order to effectively halt the process of widespread desertification.


1. The state and trends of desertification

China is one of the countries most severely jeopardized by dust-sand storms and desertification (DSSD). Based on the definitions of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the area that is subject to the potential of desertification (i.e., arid, semi-arid and sub-humid dry area) is primarily situated to the west of the Greater Xing'An Mountains, the north of the Great Wall as well as the western and northern parts of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, covering a total area of 3.3 million square kilometers, which is 34.6% of China's territory. Involving 471 counties (municipalities or banners) of 18 provinces or autonomous regions, the total area of desertified land in China mounts to 2.67 million square kilometers, which is 27.9% of the country's landmass.

The principal agents of desertification include wind, water, alkalization/salinization, and freezing and melting processes, and these agents account for 1.88 million square kilometers, 0.27 million square kilometers, 0.36 million square kilometers and 0.17 million square kilometers, respectively. In terms of severity of desertification, of the total area of desertified land, 20% are slightly desertified, 33% moderately desertified, 21% heavily desertified, and 26% severely desertified. Due to prolonged drought, growing population pressure and limited progress in re-vegetation, the process of desertification has accelerated, with an annual expansion rate of 1,560 square kilometers in the 1970s, 2,100 square kilometers in the 1980s, 2,460 square kilometers in the mid-1990s, and 3,436 square kilometers in the late 1990s. Despite considerable success in a number of localities, the overall expansion rate of desertification across northern and northwestern China has outstripped the great efforts to stop desertification.

2. An assessment of DSSD-related disasters

China's northern and northwestern regions are characterized by highly fragile ecological systems. The major causes of desertification fall into four categories. First, precipitation is rather limited, generally below 400 millimeters per annum, highly variable from one year to another, and unevenly distributed between seasons, with a concentration of 60% - 80% of the annual precipitation in summertime, resulting in frequent spring drought. Second, strong wind is an important factor. Each year, the number of windy and dusty days exceeds 200 and severely windy days equivalent to force eight or even higher range from 30 to 80. Unfortunately, the majority of the windy period occurs in the winter and spring when ground vegetation cover is minimal. Third, the ground-level materials are primarily composed of loose sandy sediments. Fourth, ground vegetation cover is scarce and sparse in distribution, and simple in composition, which diminishes the capacity for ground protection. As Figure 1 indicates, since the beginning of the 1990s, North China has witnessed a sharp increase in the occurrence of dust-sand storms. Table 1 documents several most severe dust-sand storms.

Figure 1: Frequency of dust-sand storms in the past five decades

Table 1: Several Most Severe Dust-Sand Storms

Date

Affected region

Affected area (103 km2)

Estimated economic losses (109 yuan)

May 5, 1993
April 6, 2000
March 20, 2002

Hexi Corridor, Gansu province
12 provinces in North China
17 provinces in North China

1,100
2,500
1,400 - 2,700

0.66

DSSD has resulted in the degradation of ecological environment, threatening the living space of the Chinese people. Desertification is a major cause of poverty, as a significant number of economically underdeveloped counties are situated in desertified regions. It is estimated that some 400 million people are affected by DSSD. The annual direct economic losses attributable to desertification are estimated at 64.2 billion yuan (RMB), which is equivalent to US$7.7 billion. It is believed that the indirect economic losses arising from desertification mount to 288.9 billion yuan per year.

3. Mitigation strategies

To mitigate DSSD-related disasters, useful experiences have been accumulated in China over the past five decades. In recent years, three major strategies have emerged, namely, the promotion of science and technology (S&T) in combating desertification, the adoption of programmatic approaches, and securing policy and legislation support.

Promoting Science and Technology

China's framework of desertification control rests on the development of an effective S&T structure, which is comprised of basic research, application of appropriate technology and the establishment of monitoring, forecast and early warning systems. Specifically, basic research focuses on establishing a theory that is capable of explaining the geographical distribution and geological mechanisms of desertification, identifies the various climatic and biophysical elements that contribute to desertification processes, and analyzes the relationships between the various ecological features in desertified areas. The theoretical work has laid the foundation for a series of accomplishments, including an understanding about the state, causes and degrees of severity of desertification, a system that helps analyze the temporal and spatial patterns and trace the origins of dust-sand storms, and the establishment of a gene bank of the major plant species suitable for afforestation on sandy land.

The development of appropriate technology has made significant contributions to desertification control. Major achievements include breeding of superior planting materials, efficient utilization of water resources, desertification prevention and control materials, protection and rehabilitation of degraded grassland, disease and pest control systems, and integrated shelterbelt systems. Since the 1990s, a large number of models and techniques have emerged. For instance, an integrated system comprising trees, shrubs and grasses has proved to be highly successful in halting the spread of desertification and mitigating the effects of dust-sand storms.

As a result of concerted efforts, a national network of monitoring, forecast and early warning has been established. This network employs the products and services of NOAA, FY, ZIYUAN and other resources to monitor and forecast the occurrence of dust-sand storms. A nationwide desertification survey is undertaken once every five years. Having completed two such surveys over the past decade, several core institutions, including the National Research and Development Center for Combating Desertification, are in the process of upgrading their technological capabilities by enhancing the use of available technologies such as geographical information system, remote sensing and global positioning system.

Adopting a programmatic approach

China's efforts to combat desertification have found their way into a series of programs. The programmatic approach began in 1978, marked by the "Three-North" (Northeast, North and Northwest China) Shelterbelt Program, which is also known as the "Great Green Wall". This program covers some four million square kilometers and involves 551 counties of 13 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities. Significant results have been achieved in that the forest cover of the "Three North" region has increased to 6.06% from the 5.05% of the late 1970s. The program entered into its fourth phase in 2001.

The year 1991 marked the commencement of formalized programs for combating desertification in that the Chinese State Council approved a 10-year plan on desertification control that the Ministry of Forestry prepared and formally incorporated desertification control projects into the national economic development planning process. Entitled "A National Plan to Combat Desertification, 1991 - 2000", this plan involved 25 provinces and autonomous regions. The main objectives were to develop an integrated system of forests, shrubs and grasses using a combination of biological and engineering approaches in the vast North and Northwest.

In the spring of 2000, as many as one dozen powerful dust-sand storms swept across northern China, leaving behind extensive damage in more than 20 major cities. Triggered by the "Dust Storms 2000", a new program which was designed to address the worsening problem of desertification in areas surrounding Beijing was launched. This program involves 75 counties within the boundaries of Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia. The major control measures include tree planting on barren land, grassland development and protection of watersheds. In the next decade, a total investment of 57.7 billion yuan will be made and agreements on cost-sharing schemes have been reached between the central government and the governments at the level of the provinces concerned.

In addition to the above programs, the central government has launched an initiative to convert marginal croplands to forest and grass cover. Beginning in 1999 on a trial basis and becoming fully operational in 2002, this program is centrally concerned with the welfare of villagers in ecologically degraded regions. The primary instrument is food for work. Specifically, villagers receive 1,500 kilograms of grain and 300 yuan per year for every hectare that is converted. The duration of food and financial subsidy varies from one activity to another, specifically, two years for conversion to grass cover, five years for cash-crop forests, and eight years for ecological forests. Besides, a subsidy of 750 yuan for one hectare of wasteland afforestation is provided to cover planting materials. Villagers are entitled to the established forests for up to 50 years and the entitlement is renewable and inheritable. This program is highly popular among villagers, because it links desertification control with poverty reduction and emphasizes the economic incentives principle, i.e., "whoever provides financial and human input will be entitled to the benefits arising from the efforts to combat desertification."

China's desertification control strategies are comprised of priority program areas. Not necessarily following an order of ranking, these priority program areas include:

Securing legislation and policy support

In recent years, China has intensified legislation and law enforcement relating to environmental protection and ecological restoration. The Chinese National People's Congress (NPC) passed the Law on Preventing and Combating Desertification (LPCD) on August 31, 2001, and the Law took effect on January 1, 2002. Comprising seven chapters and 47 clauses, this legislation serves the purpose of providing a legal framework for promoting desertification control across the country. It provides a legal basis and provisions for handling various aspects concerning desertification control.

China's new vision to combat desertification emerged in September 2001 during the Work Meeting on the enforcement of the LPCD. This vision is characterized by a three-step approach, namely, (1) using the first decade of the 21st century to achieve the intermediate goal of containing the spreading of desertification, (2) during 2010 - 2030, making efforts to reduce the size of desertified land, and (3) during 2030 - 2050, developing a sound ecological system in areas that are prone to desertification.

To operationalize the new vision, especially in regard to the programs of work for the first decade of the 21st century, China's efforts to combat desertification will fall into three broad levels. The first level is to control desertification and reduce its impact by concentrating resources in focal areas. This level of activities will receive massive funding support from the central government, which means that the Combating Desertification in the Vicinity of Beijing program will be a top priority and the fourth phase of the "Three North" Shelterbelt Program will also be on the priority list. The second level is to focus on desertified land that is of regional significance, and the activities in the major river systems of Tibet and in the desertified land along the old courses of the Yellow River in Shandong and Henan provinces are cases in point. And the third level refers to activities aiming at addressing the problem of land degradation in other parts of the country, such as along the coast and rivers and around major lakes in southern China.

4. Discussions and Conclusion

China has a number of strengths to build upon in combating desertification. The major strengths include: (1) strong political commitment to sustainable development principles at the top leadership level, (2) recognition of the urgent need to increase budgetary allocations to ecologically-oriented efforts, (3) experience with large-scale ecological programs, and (4) a high level of enthusiasm on the part of farmers to get involved in programs such as the conversion of marginal croplands to forest and fodder.

Despite the strengths, there are a number of constraints. The number one constraint is the issue of co-ordination. At present, as many as 18 ministries and agencies of the central government are involved in various aspects of policy formulation concerning desertification control. Although the State Council has made it clear that the State Forestry Administration (SFA) is responsible for coordinating among these ministries, SFA's limited authority has prevented an effective implementation of integrated approaches at the local levels.

The second major constraint is the problem of under-investment. Although the Chinese government has allocated considerable financial resources to control desertification, the investment still falls short of the actual needs. Specifically, in the mid-1990s, under the "Three-North" Shelterbelt Program, the expenditures were merely 45 - 75 yuan per hectare, and the level of spending was as low as 35 - 42 yuan per hectare under the national combating desertification program. However, the real tree planting cost was 225 yuan per hectare in the 1980s and 750 yuan in the 1990s. Currently, planting one hectare of trees would cost 1,500 - 3,000 yuan. It is gratifying that the level of investment by the central government will be increased dramatically under the desertification control program around Beijing.

The third major constraint is the difficulty in shifting toward a bottom-up approach from the traditional top-down approach. This is a fundamental issue, because a successful implementation of sound plans eventually boils down to concrete action at the grass-root level. However, large efforts are needed to transform government-sponsored programs into people-centred activities. This transformation requires, among other things, a change in management style on the part of decision makers at all levels.

Desertification has become one of the gravest environmental threats to China in the 21st century. A course of action has emerged, especially in the context of the unfolding Western China Development initiative. Dust-sand storms do not originate in China alone and they do not stop at the Chinese borders. While China has made fruitful efforts in controlling desertification, collaboration with neighboring countries in Northeastern and Central Asia is required in order to effectively halt the process of widespread desertification. The challenges of combating desertification are enormous. Collaboration with the international community will generate benefits that go beyond national boundary and contribute to a better global environment.

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1 National Research and Development Center for Combating Desertification, Chinese Academy of Forestry, Wan Shou Shan, Beijing 100091, China; luqi@forestry.ac.cn