EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown, Janet Larsen, and Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts

Part 1. Deserts Invading China: Advancing Deserts Gaining Momentum

Desertification in China is the product of excessive human and livestock pressure on the land in a country whose population will reach 1.3 billion next year—nearly as large as the world population of 1.5 billion when the twentieth century began. Under this demographic pressure, China is running up ecological deficits on many fronts: overgrazing its rangelands, overplowing its land, overcutting its forests, and overpumping its aquifers. With little vegetation left in parts of northern and western China, the strong winds of late winter and early spring can generate a dust storm that removes literally millions of tons of topsoil in a single day, soil that can take centuries to replace. 11

Desertification is the degradation of land associated with the loss of topsoil that follows loss of vegetation. The fine particles in soil exposed to the wind are the first to blow away, creating dust storms. Once the fine particles are gone, leaving only the course particles or sand, then sand storms occur. Dust storms can cover vast areas and travel great distances, whereas sand storms are more localized.

This conversion of productive land into wasteland is not new in China. Historical accounts refer to dust storms some 27 centuries ago. What is new is their frequency and scale. Dust storms in 2001 and 2002 were more numerous, larger, and much more disruptive than in previous years. 12

The process of desertification itself directly affects 40 percent of China’s landmass, including Sinkiang Province and Tibet in the far west and Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, and Inner Mongolia Provinces in the north-central region. Although desertification is concentrated in these six provinces, it is now spreading into Sichuan, Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Hebei Provinces as well. 13

Scientists at the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (CAREERI) in Lanzhou, the world’s premier desertification research institute, believe that desertification is one of the most serious environmental problems. They have charted the nationwide growth of the area converted to desert over the last half-century. Each decade, the area has increased. Wang Tao, Deputy Director of CAREERI, reports that during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the average rate of desert spread was 1,560 square kilometers per year. During the 1980s, this expanded to 2,100 square kilometers a year—an increase of 35 percent. During the 1990s, the area converting to desert rose to 2,460 square kilometers per year—a further jump of 17 percent. 14

The scientists in Lanzhou are hoping that the area turning to desert will be reduced during this first decade of the new century. But with the dramatic jump in the number, severity, and size of dust storms in 2000–02, the growth of the deserts appears to be accelerating.

China’s Environmental Protection Agency reports that the Gobi Desert expanded by 52,400 square kilometers (20,240 square miles) from 1994 to 1999, an area nearly half the size of Pennsylvania. This figure does not include the spread of the large Taklimakan Desert, which is further west; the five smaller deserts in Inner Mongolia; or the many new deserts that are beginning to form. With the advancing Gobi now only 150 miles from Beijing, China’s leaders are beginning to realize the gravity of the situation. 15

Desertification is typically concentrated on the fringes of existing desert, simply because these are the areas of marginal rainfall with the least vegetation. Of even more concern, however, are the new desert areas, replete with sand dunes, forming spontaneously in so many communities in northwestern and northern China. Localized sand dunes forming within 80 kilometers of Beijing are alarming government officials. 16

Data for major dust storms as compiled by the China Meteorological Agency also indicate that desertification is accelerating. After increasing from 5 in the 1950s to 14 during the 1980s, the number leapt to 23 in the 1990s. The new decade has begun with more than 20 major dust storms in 2000 and 2001 alone. If this annual rate continues throughout the decade, the total will jump to 100—a fourfold increase over the last decade. (See Table 1–1.) 17

In addition to the land already converted to desert, 900,000 square kilometers (347,000 square miles) of the Chinese landscape show a clear “tendency toward desertification,” according to Qu Geping, formerly Minister of Environment and now Chairman of the Environment and Resources Committee of the National People’s Congress. This area of 90 million hectares, which consists mostly of rangeland but includes some cropland as well, is roughly equal to the area planted to grain in China. 18

There is a tendency in viewing desert expansion to think of it in linear terms, but it may not in fact be linear beyond a certain point. For example, as livestock numbers increase and the forage supply deteriorates as a result of overgrazing, the situation may reach a point where the degradation accelerates, leading to rapid, wholesale destruction. Once human and livestock populations start retreating from the advancing desert, the pressures from concentrating human and livestock populations on the desert fringe can become even greater. This, too, can accelerate ecosystem collapse. There is some evidence that this is now happening in China.


Table 1-1. Number of Major Dust Storms in China, by Decade, 1950-99, with Projection to 2009

*Preliminary estimate for decade based on more than 20 storms during 2000 and 2001.
Source: China Meteorological Administration, cited in “Grapes of Wrath in Inner Mongolia,” report from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, May 2001.


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11. Population from United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2000 Revision (New York: February 2001).

12. “Grapes of Wrath in Inner Mongolia,” op. cit. note 4.

13. Feng Jiaping for the State Forestry Administration, second national survey on desertification released in Beijing, cited in “Desertification Area Extends in China,” China Daily, 29 January 2002.

14. Wang, op. cit. note 6.

15. Environmental Protection Agency cited in French, op. cit. note 1.

16. Ibid.

17. “Grapes of Wrath in Inner Mongolia,” op. cit. note 4.

18. Qu cited in “China Adopts Law to Control Desertification,” report from U.S. Embassy in Beijing, November 2001, at <www.usembassy-china.org.cn/sandt/desertification_ law.htm>, viewed 6 June 2002.


Copyright © 2002 Earth Policy Institute