Stopping the sandstorms

Beijing is choking as dust sweeps in from China’s arid, ecologically-degraded west. Jiang Gaoming investigates, and finds that efforts to restore the western grasslands are failing.

In Beijing, the weather forecast says that more sandstorms are on the way. The capital was hit by four sandstorms in March, and even Shanghai was recently smothered by dust clouds from the north. Television reports now describe these events as “sandy weather”, rather than “sandstorms”. But whatever you call them, they are becoming ever more frequent visitors to Beijing in springtime.  

While everyone is cursing the weather, I find myself worrying: how many tonnes of soil are being lost? And how long will it be before there is nowhere in China for plants to take root? Academics argue to what extent these sandstorms are “imports” from Mongolia and the former Soviet Republics, or whether they are the “domestic” products of the arid deserts and damaged grasslands of China's west. But either way, there is no denying the degree of environmental degradation in western China over the last three decades. Regardless of whether the capital’s weather comes from beyond its borders, China needs to put measures in place to restore the grasslands and reduce the risk of sandstorms.  

Sixty billion yuan has been invested in projects to control the sandstorms that are hitting northeastern China. Tree-planting projects have also been running for 30 years across north China. But why haven't they worked? And more importantly – what will?

To answer this question, let’s first consider the difference between trees and grass. Ecologists look at vegetation in terms of its quantity and the area it covers. In China’s deserts and grasslands, grass is by far the most common form of vegetation, followed by scrub and then trees. On the Xilinguole grasslands, for example, trees account for only 0.87% of the total vegetation. The current strategy – to plant trees to help with problems caused by a lack of grass – contradicts principles of ecological management. In fact, our repeated calls for change have now resulted in more attention being placed on scrub. Scientists agree that millions of years ago these areas were once covered with trees, but this is the distant past – no amount of spending will bring ancient forests back. In fact, grass is much more effective than trees at stopping sandstorms, and it does not need to be planted. Simply protect it, and it will grow. Trees use up groundwater, while grass uses only rainwater. Grass is denser and fixes the soil in place; it also keeps the ground moist by retaining precipitation, meaning there is no dust to blow away – something trees cannot do. 

Secondly, we need to consider where we are focusing our sandstorm-control efforts. Currently, our work ends up being concentrated in areas that are easy to reach and monitor: regions that are accessible by road. Lots of money has been spent, with some good results. But nobody asks questions about the very remote, ecologically-degraded areas that are less accessible, but have more responsibility for sandstorms. I once asked a local forestry official why they were not using aerial sowing techniques to rehabilitate these areas. His answer was simple: “Who would notice?” Current schemes are designed to be seen by the officials who approve their funding. Do not get too excited by those recovered grasslands and forests you see alongside the highways; they only cover 10% of the total affected area. The other 90% causes the continuing sandstorms.

Thirdly, we need to look at the relationship between man and nature. Arid and semi-arid areas can only support one or two people per square kilometre. In China, population density in these areas is over 10 people per square kilometre. The original inhabitants were nomadic, and would move in search of grass and water, giving the grasslands a chance to recover. But now they have settled, increasing the pressure on the environment – and inevitably damaging it. Measures are needed to move this scattered population into towns and cities; funds for ecological management should be used to this end.

Fourthly, we must reconsider the relationship between ecological management and poverty relief. Sandstorms are caused by the consumption of grass by livestock, by the clearing of grasslands for crops and by deforestation. At present, sandstorm-control programmes have little regard for the lives of local people. The money that is being spent brings them scant benefit, and only helps the people that receive the funding directly. My rough calculations show that spending on major sandstorm control projects amounts to around 326 yuan (US$42) per mu (666.67 square metres). In the south of Inner Mongolia that works out to almost 500,000 yuan (around US$64,705) per household. If as little as one-tenth of that figure was actually spent on getting the locals to give up their livestock and plant trees, there would be no danger of sandstorms. And the locals would still end up better off – at present, none of this funding reaches them, and most struggle to earn 10,000 yuan (US$1,294) per year. In one part of Inner Mongolia, a fortune has been spent on restoring the grasslands, but no one can come up with the 10,000 yuan needed to retain it. 

Finally, we need to ask questions about the relationship between China’s east and west. At present, much of China's livestock is in the west, in ecologically-vulnerable areas such as Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet. Ideally, these animals would eat straw, which is a by-product of agriculture. But all of the straw is in the east, in provinces such as Shandong, Henan and Hebei, which have a far greater production capacity for animal fodder than the grasslands – 50 to 100 times greater, in fact. This holds back the development of livestock farming. Straw in the east is simply burnt off, while degraded ecosystems in the west struggle to support livestock. The largest source of income for the west is funding for reforestation and environmental protection projects, with highly marked-up animal products coming second. These products cost five to 10 times as much to produce than they would in agricultural areas with better conditions. China’s west should not develop its animal farming further, or sooner or later the grasslands will be grazed bare, leaving the rest of the country to pick up the bill for its recovery.

Can China stop the sandstorms? If we do not take heed, maybe not. Of course, it may not be too long before all the soil is blown away. That would put an end to the capital’s sandstorms, but it might also put an end to Beijing.


Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of the UNESCO China-MAB (Man and the Biosphere) Committee and a member of the UNESCO MAB Urban Group.

Homepage photo by Ben