Map showing areas of moderate and high sandstorm severity in the deserts across China. Graphic: The New York Times

By Josh Haner, Edward Wong, Derek Watkins, and Jeremy White
24 October 2014

In the Tengger Desert, China (The New York Times) – 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.

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.

Map showing expansion of deserts in China, as moderately populated areas expand toward them. Graphic: The New York Times

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.

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.

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.” [more]

Living in China's Expanding Deserts

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