It is estimated that desertification, a process of land degradation that occurs in dryland ecosystems due to overexploitation and land mismanagement, now costs China about $2-3 billion each year. China’s experience is not unique. In Africa, for example, worsening soil conditions could mean that the continent could only feed a quarter of its inhabitants by 2025.
Minqin County is one of the driest places in China, and it stands on the front line of China’s battle against desertification. Up until recently, Minqin acted as a natural barrier between the deserts and the rest of the country. But within the next decade, the Tengger and Badain Jaran deserts are expected to swallow Minqin county.
In Minqin’s “lake district” (named after a lake that dried up in 1957), 70% of the land has been lost to desertification or destroyed by the saline-alkaline soils that are produced by the overexploitation of groundwater. Additionally, violent sandstorms are a common occurrence, covering homes and roads in their wake. These sandstorms often spread to North and South Korea and have been linked to respiratory problems in California. At a rate of 10m per year, the encroachment of desert upon Minqin is fearsome, and government-led cultivation, deforestation, irrigation and reclamation are all being blamed.
Historically, Minqin County depended on the Shiyang River for its water needs. But in the late 1950s, government officials diverted the Shiyang river to construct the Hongyashan Reservoir in an effort to boost food production. As a result, Minqin County is now forced to rely on groundwater and water from the reservoir.
In 2004, the Hongyashan went completely dry and had to be refilled by emergency water diversions from the Yellow River. Groundwater resources are also drying up from overuse, wrecking the natural systems ability to provide ecosystem services such as soil formation. Groundwater levels are dropping by up to a meter each year, and best estimates predict that at this rate, groundwater will completely run out in 17 years. This overexploitation of groundwater, along with the insufficient re-supplying of surface water, has led to such serious water quality problems that the majority of water in Minqin is undrinkable. More than a million people are now facing a drinking water crisis.
Recently, the Chinese government has taken action to halt desertification in Minqin. Since 2001, they have spent nearly $9 billion trying to restore ecosystem services by planting forests, establishing desert vegetation and creating a 330-km belt of trees to manage the advancing desert. Unfortunately, a large portion of the vegetation has died, the belt of trees lays stranded by sand, and the desert now extends over 40,000 hectares of the county. The government has also been funding more than 30,000 farmers to leave their ancestral homes due to the encroaching desert. In Northern Minqin, entire villages have been abandoned.
Still, some people see reason for hope. Shi Shuzu, a resident of Songhe Village who is over 70 years old, has discovered methods to enable trees to survive in Minqin. After more than half a century of experimentation, Shi has established a patch of green land in Songhe Village - Minqin’s first in 10 years.