Reversing Desertification in the Ever-Expanding Gobi Region
Every year, almost 1,400 square miles of the Chinese steppes turn into barren soil and enlarge the already-inhospitable Gobi Desert.
This relentless “desertification” has consequences: the loss of productive soil makes farming difficult if not impossible, and the water shortages can lead to the endangerment and even extinction of species. What’s more, the massive sandstorms that arise from the vast Gobi Desert affect populations as far away as China’s coastal cities and in Japan and Korea.
The Gobi Desert is the largest in Asia, covering more than 500,000 square miles across China and Mongolia. The name “Gobi” means “very large and dry” in Mongolian, and its hard-packed surfaces made it suitable as a trade route.
Its rocky and varied terrain covers steppes, deserts and semi-deserts. Its largest sand dune ranges are more than seven miles wide, 112 miles long and 262 feet high. Temperatures are extreme—they can reach above 104 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and fall below -40 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. It has rainfall of between two inches and eight inches every year, which is very low. Only about 58,000 people live there.
Desertification and Its Causes
“The sand transformation of China’s territory is furthered by decades of deforestation,” Marijn Nieuwenhuis, assistant professor at Durham University, said in an article called “The Geopolitics of Desertification in China,” published in 2016 by the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute. He cited Greenpeace, which today claims only 3.34% of China’s original forests exist.
It isn’t just deforestation that is to blame—activities like allowing animals to overgraze and building infrastructure for mining also damage the land.
But it isn’t just deforestation that is to blame—activities like allowing animals to overgraze and building infrastructure for mining also damage the land. The situation is only likely to get worse with climate change, as more of the region becomes affected by low levels of rainfall.
Davaasuren Davaadorj, senior lecturer at the Department of Geography at the University of Mongolia, outlines the causes locally: “The Mongolian Gobi region is covered with barren land with shrubs and gravel covered soils. The dominant land degradation source is mining, … coal transporting, and climate change … with regional impacts. Some saline lakes are shrinking [because of] water support, … precipitation, and evaporation issues.”
Effects of Desertification in the Gobi Desert Region
The effects of desertification are devastating, leading to unproductive soil, causing income loss for those who live there and potential displacement. Its water shortages also impact biodiversity in plants and animals.
As the desert expands, dust and sandstorms become more intense, affecting those in China and Mongolia and others further afield—for example, in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. The storms can have a negative impact on the health of animals and humans and are linked to cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses and even mortality.
As the desert expands, dust and sandstorms become more intense, affecting those in China and Mongolia and those further afield—for example, in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.
In their paper, “Desert Dust and Health: A Central Asian Review and Steppe Case Study,” Troy Sternberg and Mona Edward from the School of Geography at the University of Oxford, UK, found that the Gobi Desert in Mongolia was among the main sources of dust storms in Central Asia, with mining in the area having the potential to contribute to the problem.
Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, commented in Sand and Dust Storms Compendium: “SDS [Sand and dust storms] are natural phenomena with multiple impacts on both the environment and people. […] Although some SDS impacts can be positive, unfortunately many are negative and highly damaging. They include impacts on health, transportation, agriculture, air and water quality, and industrial production and other sectors. Such impacts disrupt daily life in the affected areas, disregarding political or geographic boundaries and affecting men and women, young and old alike.”
The primary solution for desertification is forest restoration and “green wall” programs.
One Billion Trees Program
Previous initiatives—such as the Mongolian Green Wall Plan, launched in 2005 and aiming to establish a green belt forest of 3,000 km (1,864 miles)—were unsuccessful because of poor planning and management and a lack of funding. According to Mongolian government officials, a million saplings were planted in 2005, but, few, if any, young trees survived.
It is expected that over 105,000 trees will be planted over thirty-seven hectares, creating 20,000 square meters (4.9 acres) of green space.
In October 2021, Mongolia President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh initiated a One Billion Trees program, which is expected to counteract desertification and land degradation. Thirty-four projects out of about 200 linked to the program are receiving funding totaling 1.3 billion Mongolian Tugrik (about $370,000) in 2023. It is expected that over 105,000 trees will be planted over thirty-seven hectares, creating 20,000 square meters (4.9 acres) of green space.
Initiatives to balance animal husbandry and a healthy ecology are also being established through “ecology-based overgrazing restoration technology,” as Davaadorj puts it. This means improving land management by regulating pasture use, reducing the number of livestock, developing small-scale reservoirs, assessing land degradation, and introducing drought-resistant crops.
China’s Great Green Wall
China’s Great Green Wall program started as early as 1978 and is expected to continue until 2050. It involves planting trees along the northern border of China to halt the desert’s expansion and provide a windbreaker against the sandstorms. Seeds are sown by spraying them by plane, helicopter or drone, and farmers are paid to plant trees and shrubs in arid areas. Sand-resistant vegetation and gravel aim to hold down sand. Since 1990, China had increased its forest cover from 16.74% to 22.5% by 2015.
But some have criticized China’s approach. For example, the World Bank advised the Chinese government to prioritize the quality of its stock after storms in 2008 destroyed 10% of the forest. And Hong Jiang, associate professor at the Department of Geography and Environment at the University of Hawaii, expressed concerns about unintended groundwater loss in her paper, “Taking Down the ‘Great Green Wall’: The Science and Policy Discourse of Desertification and Its Control in China.”
Other initiatives have included the Beijing-Tianjin Sandstorm Source Control Project, which combines reforestation, grassland management, water and soil conservation as well as sand fixation. Recently, this reduced the number of sandstorms in Beijing from an average of thirteen a year to two or three a year.
Recently, the Beijing-Tianjin Sandstorm Source Control Project reduced the number of sandstorms in Beijing from an average of thirteen a year to two or three a year.
Meanwhile, a program to tackle desertification in the Liangzhou District in Gansu, China, part of which lies in the Gobi Desert, includes forestation initiatives, restoring and protecting land and preserving wildlife. New technologies are used, such as pre-treating seedling roots in mud and creating grids so sand can be fixed before planting. More than seventy square miles of desert have been reclaimed.
Decisive Action is Needed
In Global Land Outlook, Thiaw sums up: “It is no longer enough to prevent further damage to the land; it is necessary to act decisively to reverse and recover what we have lost. Restoration also prepares us for an uncertain future. Regenerating our land resources provides multiple benefits for people, climate, and nature in the form of improved food security and human health, meaningful green jobs, and drought resilience, just to name a few.”
*Yasmin Prabhudas is a freelance journalist working mainly for non-profit organizations, labor unions, the education sector, and government agencies.