U.S. Water News Online
ZHENGXIN, China -- Half a century after Mao Zedong's
"Great Leap Forward" brought irrigation to the arid grasslands in
this remote corner of northwest China, the government is giving up on
its attempt to make a breadbasket out of what has increasingly become
a stretch of scrub and sand dunes.
In a problem that is pervasive in much of China, over-farming has
drawn down the water table so low that desert is overtaking farmland.
Authorities have ordered farmers here in Gansu province to vacate
their properties over the next 31Ú2 years, and will replace 20
villages with newly planted grass in a final effort to halt the
advance of the Tengger and Badain Jaran deserts.
"I don't want to move," said Chen Ying, 58, sitting in a sparsely
furnished bedroom dominated by a red, wall-sized poster of Mao, the
communist founding father who sought to catapult Chinese farming and
industry into modernity with the so-called Great Leap Forward.
"But if we keep using the groundwater, it will decline," said
Chen. "We have to think about the next generation."
It is not just Chen's home region that is at risk.
The relocation program is part of a larger plan to rein in China's
expanding deserts, which now cover one-third of the country and
continue to grow because of overgrazing, deforestation, urban sprawl
The shifting sands have swallowed thousands of Chinese villages
along the fabled Silk Road and sparked a sharp increase in sandstorms
-- dust from China clouds the skies of South Korea and has been
linked to respiratory problems in California.
Since 2001, China has spent nearly $9 billion planting billions of
trees, converting marginal farmland to forest and grasslands and
enforcing logging and grazing bans.
The policy is driven in part by concerns over food, as farmland
yields not only to the deserts but also to pollution and economic
development. China has less than 7 percent of the world's arable land
with which to feed 1.3 billion people -- more than 20 percent of the
world's population. By comparison, the United States has 20 percent
of the world's arable land to feed 5 percent of the population.
But the initiative is also a tacit admission by the government
that the effort to feed the country at all costs may have backfired.
Chen was just a child when the government turned the rugged
grasslands on the edge of the Tengger into an oasis.
In the 1950s, as part of Mao's scheme to boost food production,
the government built the Hongyashan Reservoir in Gansu province with
the goal of irrigating nearly 1 million acres.
But over the past two decades, new reservoirs were built farther
up the Shiyang River, sapping the Hongyashan Reservoir. It even dried
up in 2004 and is only about half full today. Farmers responded by
drilling thousands of wells, causing the water table to drop hundreds
of feet and the soil to become contaminated with salt.
Worried the desert could reach the city of Minqin, 35 miles away,
authorities decided to return the land to its natural state.
"If the government does nothing, it is scared that the entire area
will become a desert," said Sun Qing-Wei, a desertification expert
with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "There are alternative
solutions like introducing new plant species or conserving water. But
this is the quickest solution. The government can show the people
they are doing something."
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