Encroaching desert threatens northern China

LANGTOUGOU, China - When Du Hanchun was growing up in the 1930s, villagers had to cross a tangle of reeds and willows to get to the broad banks of the sparkling Chaobai river.

Today the encroaching desert has almost buried Langtougou. Golden sand drifts up to the eaves of its sturdy, one-story farmhouses and smothers fields

"There's not much to do these days. The corn fields are all gone," says Du, 75, who has seen the valley about 100 miles north of Beijing turn bare.

Prolonged drought, excessive grazing and timber cutting and the cultivation of grasslands, riverbanks and mountains with corn and other grains have made northern China a dust bowl.

Population growth and industrial development drain reservoirs and underground water tables faster than they can be replenished, leaving city residents and farmers alike without enough water to drink or irrigate crops. The scarcity threatens China's ability to feed itself and is a severe handicap for growing industries.

A dozen massive dust storms scoured northern China this spring as unusually strong winds swept through vast, arid deserts and sparse grasslands that stretch from Mongolia and northwestern Xinjiang, 1,500 miles to the northwest, right to Beijing's backyard.

In a rare television address this month, Premier Zhu Rongji described the sandstorms as "an alarm for the entire nation."

More than one-quarter of China, 1 million square miles, is desert. Nearly 1,000 square miles is lost to sand each year, mainly in impoverished areas like Langtougou, where inhabitants - ethnic Manchurians who raise corn, horses and goats - depend on the land to survive.

"Some of these people are having trouble making ends meet. They can't graze their goats. As you can see, there's no land to farm," says Cui Ruixiang, chief engineer for the local Forestry Bureau.

Much of the sand dumped on Langtougou comes from even worse-affected areas further north in Inner Mongolia, where burgeoning livestock herds have grazed bare the once-plentiful grasslands.

Drought a factor

Drought has hastened the long-term degradation of the land. Most river and stream beds between Beijing and Langtougou have dried up.

To the south, in central Anhui, Henan and Hubei provinces, only 10 percent of the normal rainfall fell this spring. Streams and small rivers have run dry; fish ponds and small reservoirs are cracked mud.

The mathematics of supply and demand add up to future trouble: More than 400 of China's 668 cities are short of water.

In arid Beijing, water consumption has grown 40-fold since the 1950s, along with a booming population, irrigation and industrial growth. With the city pumping out more water than flows in each year, the underground water table has dropped to about 135 feet below the earth's surface. Once it was only 15 to 30 feet below the surface.

In Langtougou, the water table has also dropped from just a few feet to about 13 feet below the surface.

Langtougou's troubles have drawn special scrutiny because the Chaobai River, which trickles to the sand's surface further down the valley, is the source of almost half of Beijing's drinking water, says Cui, the forester.

Cui is encouraging the villagers to sell their goat herds and buy milk cows to be kept in pens and fed with grass cut from the hillsides. He hopes to replant the valley with windbreaks of poplar alternated with patches of grass. Pastures are to be fenced off to prevent grazing.

The government has ordered bans on logging in many areas. Marginally productive fields are being taken out of cultivation and replanted with grass and trees.

Still, some conservationists believe those plans are unlikely to succeed unless they accompany broader changes in the cities, where water remains relatively cheap and the demand for fresh meat seems insatiable.

"There's a connection between the dust storms and ourselves," says Liang Congjie, head of the environmental group Friends of Nature. "People take eating mutton for granted these days. But the sheep are grazing pastures bare. To get something, you have to give something up."