In April in the Gobi Desert, herders like Buyintegedele plant corn that they’ll harvest in October—if it survives. April is also high season for sandstorms, a result of desertification—the transformation of arable, hospitable land into desert. These fierce storms can occur three to 10 times per month, destroying crops and damaging infrastructure.
Buyintegedele lives in the Tengger Desert, at the Gobi’s southern edge in Inner Mongolia, China. But the increasing frequency and intensity of sandstorms is forcing Buyintegedele and others who call the region home to make a choice: stay and continue trying to eke out a difficult living or join other climate refugees in cities.
“It’s like in the beginning of the recent movie ‘Interstellar,’” says Feng Wang, associate professor at the Institute of Desertification Studies at the Chinese Academy of Forestry, of the 2014 film that depicts an increasingly inhospitable planet due to environmental catastrophes. “Strong winds blow sand everywhere, even inside [of buildings].”
In fact, Wang adds, the film contains real interviews with people who lived in Northwest China during the 1980s and 1990s, when a severe drought forced many people to leave and find better jobs in cities.
Deforestation, overgrazing, and overuse of water by people are some of the leading factors responsible for desertification. In China, the problem has been occurring along four types: "aeolian desertification," which is caused by wind erosion after vegetation is destroyed; "water and soil loss," due to water erosion that is mainly distributed in the Loess plateau; "salinization" due to poor water management; and "rock desertification,” distributed in the Karst region of southwestern China.
Currently, 27.4 percent of China is desertified land, affecting about 400 million people.
“The main problem [China faces] is an oversized population living in the drylands that surpasses the ecological carrying and restoring capacity of this area,” Wang says.
But the problem isn’t unique to China: 24.1 percent of the Earth’s surface is made up of desertified lands, which are home to about one-sixth of the world’s population, Wang says.
According to a 2013 report by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), desertification, land degradation, and droughts have accelerated globally during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, particularly in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas. Throughout the past 40 years, the Earth has lost a third of its arable land to erosion and degradation.
In a 2016 interview with Al Jazeera, Monique Barbut, executive secretary of the UNCCD, says land loss is growing more severe, not less, despite some rising awareness.
“We are losing more land every year,” Barbut said. “Today we are losing more than 12 million hectares of land every year, so the situation is worsening.”
The Great Green Wall
China has been battling large-scale desertification since at least the 1950s, when the young People’s Republic went on a nation-building spree, razing farm and wild lands to build cities and create infrastructure to accommodate a growing population. Such human activity left much of the land unprotected against wind erosion and deposition from the surrounding deserts.
“[It’s like what the] American farmer did to cause the Dust Bowl in the 1930s,” says Xian Xue, a leading expert on aeolian desertification in China and professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
In a big move to address the problem, in 1978, the Chinese government implemented the Three-North Shelterbelt Project, a national ecological engineering effort that called for the planting of millions of trees along the 2,800-mile border of northern China’s encroaching desert, while increasing the world’s forest by 10 percent. Also known as the “Great Green Wall,” the project’s end date isn’t until 2050; so far, more than 66 billion trees have been planted.
However, some say the Great Green Wall hasn’t been the perfect solution.
“With the Great Green Wall, people are planting lots of trees in big ceremonies to stem desertification, but then later no one takes care of them, and they die,” says Jennifer L. Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson Center.
Additionally, afforestation can exceed the land’s carrying capacity, dooming the trees to an eventual death without constant human intervention.
“People crowded into the natural sand dunes and the Gobi to plant trees, which have caused a rapid decrease in soil moisture and the groundwater table,” Xue says. “Actually, it will cause desertification [in some regions].”
Beyond the Great Green Wall, China has taken other measures against encroaching deserts. A series of laws starting in the early 2000s also targeted the problem, including efforts to return some farm and grazing lands to a more natural state of forests or grasslands.
In 1994, China’s forestry administration started monitoring the status of desertification nationally. Their research shows that deserts expanded in China from 1994 to 1999, but they shrunk from 1999 to 2014. Still, some scientists have questioned the reliability of the state science data, citing methodological inconsistencies and discrepancies.
Impact of Changing Climate
Scientists predict desertification will increase in some areas as the Earth’s climate changes, particularly where it gets hotter and drier. Already, in northwest China, decreased precipitation and increased temperatures are causing grasslands to be less productive, says Sun Qingwei, formerly a China water and energy expert for the Woodrow Wilson Institute.
“Global warming creates more unstable conditions for human activities and for the ecosystem,” Qingwei says. “And northwest China is one of the most sensitive areas to global warming because it is super arid—the annual precipitation in most places is below 100 millimeters.”
But we can stop desertification, Qingwei says.
“The term ‘desertification’ implies it’s caused by human action, beyond the resilience of the environment and ecosystem,” Qingwei says. “By removing the [human action] and giving [enough time], the environment and ecosystem can be restored.”
Back in the Tengger, Buyintegedele examines his future.
“Of course a place without sandstorms would be nice,” he says. “There will be more people to hang out with, and the view would be nicer; this place is not very scenic [now].”
For now, he is sticking it out, hoping conditions around his home will improve.