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Desertification and Sandstorms Challenge China's "Green" Olympics

Severity of sandstorms and desertification continues to increase in China

By Lin Ping
Sound of Hope
Jun 09, 2006

A villager plants trees to try and keep the sand from shifting to other areas in the Hobq Desert on May 5, 2006 in Hangjin Banner (County) of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, northern China. Desertification in some western and northern regions has accelerated in recent years due to drastic water shortage, destruction of grassland resources, pollution and other reasons, according to state media. (China Photos/Getty Images)

Beijing will hold the 2008 summer Olympics, for which Beijing has come up with the slogan, the "green" Olympics. The "green" Olympics is China's attempt to achieve an environmentally friendly Olympics by trying to improve environmental protection and reduce its increasing pollution. However, the severity of desertification and sandstorms is increasing in China, and may pose a challenge to the "green" vision.

Beijing's Xiao Kang magazine reported that coinciding with the opening of China's sixth Annual Environmental Protection Conference on April 17, 2006, was the most severe sandstorm in the history of communist China. In one night, 300,000 tons of sand dropped on Beijing and shocked even sandstorm-hardened Beijing residents. CCP number 2, Wen Jiabao, who joined the Environmental Protection Conference, expressed his concern at the severity of the sandstorm.

On this issue, He Ping, president of the International Fund for China's Environment (IFCE), said, "This is a signal that the environment is at breaking point after over 20 years of high speed economic development. The situation has steadily grown to this point and must now be managed."

Cyclists brave a sandstorm in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang. (AFP/Getty Images)

Overgrazing, Excessive Water Use, Bad Resource Management Add to Desertification

Zheng Yi, author of Old Well and Scarlet Memorial, continually follows news of China's environmental protection problems. In regard to Beijing's sandstorms, Zheng Yi believes the increasing problem to be mostly caused by humankind. He said, "Actually, sandstorms in Northwest China are already a very serious issue. It is not only a regional thing, as their severity has increased in line with the destruction of China's grassland and forests. It is basically a type of human-made disaster, not a natural disaster. There is no doubt that it is partly a natural disaster for there is relatively frequent dusty and windy weather in Northwest China. I think there is some contribution by the natural environment, but the majority is manmade."

Beijing's First Financial Daily said that experts at the Chinese Academy of Science recently said that destructive land use, over grazing and excess use of water all have increased desertification. In next 10 to 20 years, the frequency, intensity and dangers of sandstorms in most parts of China will likely increase.

A worker sticks straw into the Gobi desert to prevent sand movement in Yinchuan, China. (Katharina Hesse/Getty Images)

On the desertification issue, Zheng Yi believes that the main cause is inappropriate proprietorship of the land. He thinks the desertification of grasslands would be reduced if the grasslands had specific owners. Zheng Yi explains, "If the land had specific property rights, owners would normally not allow their own grassland to deteriorate to this point. For example, some areas are rented by others for opening up wasteland and planting. These areas have produced a harvest in the first two years, but malpractice results in the same land turning into a desert in few years. Those people using the land only want to reap a quick profit and then run away. This is destructive exploitation."

Funds for Dams, Not Environmental Protection

Zheng Yi concluded that the reason why there have been no positive outcomes to China's efforts at environmental protection, was that there is too little funding targeted at the environment. He said, "For example, building a dam can cost tens of billions of yuan. If the money were instead used to plant trees and forests, the benefits would be far greater than building a dam. Most people, however, are unwilling to do that."

A cleaner clears away sand from an overnight sandstorm originating on the border of China and Mongolia which covered Beijing, 17 April 2006. Millions of Beijing residents woke up to find their city covered in sand -- another reminder that the desert is moving closer to the Chinese capital. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

Yi continued, "Simply speaking, it is easier to make illegal money from corruption through a big capital project rather than a forest planting exercise, so directing funds to useful environmental projects is very tough. As everyone is looking for a fast buck, the environment will continue to suffer. It all has to do with perceived benefits."

According to First Financial Daily, the area of existing deserts, including the Gobi desert and desertification, is about 1.65 million square kilometers, of which modern desertification induced by human activities account for about 370,000 square kilometers.

(Transcribed and reorganized from Sound of Hope recording)