China's ambitious nationwide efforts for ecological restoration
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2023-04-27  ·   Source: NO.18 MAY 4, 2023
A pair of oriental white storks and their nest on a steel tower in a wetland in Tangshan, Hebei Province, on March 19 (XINHUA)

The memory of early spring 2023 for many residing in north China might be tinted a sandy yellow—as days when the air was filled with sand and dust were a frequent occurrence in this region.

Information from the National Meteorological Center (NMC) showed that the first sandstorm of the year hit north China on January 12, about a month earlier than it had in recent years. As of April 24, China had experienced several bouts of similar sandstorm whiplash, including two serious ones in March and April.

The "flare-ups" put China's desertification control efforts under scrutiny and many Chinese worried that new rounds of severe sandstorms might occur in the following years.

Aerial view of Erhai Lake and the villages on its bank in Dali, Yunnan Province, on December 21, 2022 (XINHUA)

Hold the sand! 

"Many have simple assumptions about sandstorms and what human beings can do in this regard," Wu Bo, an expert from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences told news portal

He revealed the three main conditions for sandstorm formation in north China: a large amount of loose sand on land surface, strong and persistent gales, and atmospheric instability due to the collision of cold and warm air masses.

Yet human activities such as overgrazing, over-cultivation and over-extraction of groundwater can only influence the first condition. Even by adjusting their activity, humans can never wholly prevent sandstorms; they can only reduce their harm.

Asia has three main dust source areas for sandstorms. One in Mongolia and two in China—the Taklimakan Desert in northwest China and the Badain Jaran Desert in the west of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Zhang Xiaoye, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, said during an interview with China Newsweek magazine.

He added north China has more than 1.7 million square km of desert areas and the southern part of neighboring Mongolia has over 300,000 square km of desert. The combination of both leads to the former often falling victim to spring sandstorms.

Official data from the NMC showed that the two strongest dust storms in March and April this year mainly carried dust from Mongolia.

"The lower level of precipitation in the southern part of Mongolia, resulting in a decline in vegetation coverage, has played a role in this year's weather conditions," Ding Ting, an expert with the National Climate Center, told China Daily, adding how a rare temperature rise in early March also contributed to the sandy and dusty weather as frozen soil and sand thawed rapidly.

The National Forestry and Grassland Administration revealed in March China still has some 2.6 million square km of desertified land and 1.7 million square km of sandy land.

Wu touched on the public misunderstandings regarding desertification control as many people assume planting more trees will suffice to fight desertification. But most of the sandy lands are located in arid and semi-arid areas with extremely limited precipitation. The annual rainfall in some extremely arid areas is below 50 mm, far from enough for trees to grow.

Trees forcibly planted in those areas will exhaust water from the soil, which will in turn further deteriorate the soil condition. "Afforestation in places that are not suitable for afforestation is not sustainable," Wu said.

Another misunderstanding is to consider deserts something to eradicate from Mother Earth. "A desert is an important geographical landscape on the surface of the globe," Wu said. "It is one of Earth's major types of ecosystems, supporting a community of distinctive plants and animals specially adapted to the harsh environment. It has a unique structure and functions different from ecosystems such as forests, grasslands, and wetlands."

He added that only desertified land resulting from climate change and human activities needs to be rehabilitated and the necessary transformation method involves more than the planting of trees. Shrubs and grasses should also be considered. But never should restored vegetation exceed water resources' carrying capacity, defined as the level of human activity that can be withstood by the available water resources without major degradation of aquatic environments.

The Three-North Shelter Forestation Project, launched in November 1978, is a landmark project of China's battle against desertification. Over the past 40 years, this project has afforested roughly 31.7 million hectares of land.

This project has played an important role in sand and dust control, Gui Hailin, an expert from the NMC, said. "This is one of the 16 major ecological restoration projects that China has launched over the past 40 years."

As of 2015, those 16 projects, covering an area of 6.2 million square km, have received a total investment of $370 billion, an unprecedented effort in the world.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a press conference on April 13 that the onslaught of dusty days this year had once again demonstrated how stepping up sand control, conducting multi-pronged science-based desertification control and enhancing ecological conservation "remain uphill and long-term tasks that call for persistent and unremitting efforts."

A bigger map 

The issue of China's sand and dust storms indicates that international cooperation is a must in solving environmental problems. The theme of this year's Earth Day, on April 22, is Invest in Our Planet—same as last year.

It marks the first time in its decades-long history for a theme to be carried over from the previous year, underlining the importance and urgency of global action on environmental issues.

On April 22, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment announced "ecological redlines" to identify crucial ecological zones covering 3.15 million square km that will enforce strict protection measures, such as nature reserves.

In December 2022, the United Nations recognized China's Shan-Shui (literally Mountain-Water) Initiative as one of the world's 10 ground breaking projects, honored as a World Restoration Flagship.

The 10 World Restoration Flagships, designed to prevent and reverse the degradation of natural spaces across the planet, were selected under the banner of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a global movement jointly coordinated by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. These efforts aim to restore more than 68 million hectares of degraded land worldwide and create nearly 15 million jobs in the process.

The Shan-Shui Initiative, launched in 2016, combines 75 large-scale projects to restore 10 million hectares of natural spaces, from mountains to coastal estuaries, across China by 2030.

"The initiative involves agricultural and urban areas as well as natural ecosystems," Zhang Keqin, a professor with Yunnan University in southwest China, said at a forum in Dali, Yunnan Province on February 14.

"As well as restoring ecosystems, the projects also aim to lend local industries a helping hand in creating sustainable development."

The forum discussed the restoration and preservation of the ecosystem of Erhai, a lake occupying more than 240 square km in Dali. As one of the initiative's projects, it involves an investment of over 5 billion yuan ($722 million).

Shen Qirong, a professor from Nanjing Agricultural University, also attended the forum. "The black soil on the banks of Erhai Lake has rich biomass," he said. "If we can create products from the organic biomass, this can help develop the organic fertilizer industry in Dali and also serve as a solution in organic farming elsewhere."

The Oujiang River Headwaters Project in Lishui, east China's Zhejiang Province, is another one of the initiative's undertakings. With an investment of over 5 billion yuan, it integrates scientific knowledge with traditional farming methods to make land use more sustainable.

Under this project, villagers in Yunhe, a county affiliated to Lishui, cleared quite a few abandoned hillside rice fields and made the land productive again by weeding out invasive plants and building walls to prevent soil erosion.

So far, the Shan-Shui Initiative has brought 5 million hectares of land under restoration—half of the 10 million goal set for seven years from now.

"Transforming our relationship with nature is the key to reversing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste," Danish environmentalist and UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said in December 2022.

"The Shan-Shui Initiative demonstrates the tremendous economic benefits that can come when humanity lives in harmony with nature." Andersen added. "Investing in nature gives people not only an opportunity to see nature's amazing power but also to reap other benefits like improved livelihoods and health and to mitigate the effects of the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution," she concluded.

(Print Edition Title: A New Green-Print) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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