Research shows that currently, 27.4% of land in China has undergone desertification, affecting about 400 million people. Studies are increasingly focusing on the effects of widespread desertification, which affects food security, people’s livelihoods, and the environment, destroying habitats and contributing to biodiversity loss. We take a look at the causes and effects of desertification in China and what the country is doing to halt it.

What is Desertification?

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) defines desertification as “land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities,” while Carbon Brief describes the phenomenon as a “catch-all term for land degradation in water-scarce parts of the world”.

Desertification is the result of complex interactions between several factors, some of which include climate change, poor hydrological conditions, poor quality vegetation and soil, and sandstorms. To top this off, human activities are speeding up the process through unsustainable exploitation of the environment and crucial habitats through deforestation. 

Drylands reportedly cover approximately 54 million square kilometres of the world – that’s 40% of the global land area – and over half of them are located in Asia and Africa, continually increasing in extent. 

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desertification in china

Green Cover in China (1984-present). Source: Earth.Org 

Drivers of Desertification in China

Growing research has explored the extensive desertification in China and the measures being put in place to combat it. The country is affected by severe desertification – which has rapidly increased since the 1980s – with the World Bank reporting that over one-quarter of the country is now covered in desert.

According to scientists and policymakers, behind such  widespread desertification in China is a combination of human and physical drivers.

It is easier to discuss desertification by acknowledging the huge influence that climate change has had across China to date. The land surface across the whole of the Earth is warming faster than we have seen before, and declining rainfall can allow soils to dry out and become more likely to erode. As human-induced climate change intensifies, the situation for those already affected by desertification will only worsen. 

In Northwest China, historical overgrazing of vegetation has led to dunes losing their protective vegetative cover and therefore becoming extremely unstable. Livestock overgrazing is often cited as one of the main causes of desertification but the intentional removal of vegetation by humans also has widespread repercussions on the land. In many rural areas, the issue is worsened due to the fact that most agricultural systems are rain-fed, and weak irrigation systems worsen land degradation in the area. Once the dunes are bare and vegetation has been destroyed, physical drivers will kick in as wind erosion catalyses the process of desertification and the issue unfolds. 

desertification in china

Overgrazing has been cited as one of the main causes of China’s desertification.

Poor water management is also a huge driver of desertification, as a lack of water retention in the ground below also compounds the issues caused by overgrazing. For example, water and soil loss due to water erosion in the Loess Plateau in western China is commonly cited by researchers. With the local environment unable to retain water, and anthropogenic activities exacerbating the problem to support livelihoods, the soil has little potential to recover or replenish moisture. 

In August 2022, an experiment by Rob Thomson (a research scientist from the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading) went viral as it demonstrated just how much longer it takes for parched soil to soak water to soak, compared to wet grass. 

The Impacts of Desertification in China

Under the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) – the international legal framework for tackling desertification, land degradation, and drought – 169 of the 194 Parties have declared they are affected by desertification, and China is one of them. The UNCCD describes desertification as a “silent, invisible crisis” that destabilises communities on a global scale. 

Desertification has proven to have extensive impacts on both people and the environment in China, as food production zones shift, leading to crops failing, livestock dying, and water sources drying up.

Desertification hinders progress toward sustainable development and has forced entire communities out of their homes, often having to enter new countries and communities as climate refugees. Internally displaced people and forced migrants may turn to other countries for help. The difficult situation, however, may also result in resource-driven wars for survival in response to food insecurity and water scarcity, jeopardising whole communities’ well-being and security. Without a clear path to adaptation, the prospect of conflict becomes more of a reality.

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For those who have not yet been forced from their homes, sandstorms and dust pollution have become a regular occurrence in people’s lives – and this is only set to worsen. In early 2021, the Guardian reported that sandstorms “shrouded Beijing in a post-apocalyptic orange haze” as they “pelted the capital and spread as far as central China”. The storm reportedly affected about 380 million hectares of land across 12 Chinese provinces, posing a huge threat to human health as the huge amount of particulate matter (PM) in the air can damage external organs and the respiratory system.

The Great Green Wall of China

In 1978, the Chinese government rolled out the Three-North Shelterbelt project which aimed to plant millions of trees along the 2,800-mile (4,506 kilometres) border of northern China’s encroaching desert while also increasing the world’s forest cover. The Great Green Wall is predicted to cost up to US$8 billion, with a $1.2 billion oversight system of mapping and databases.

This project was initiated with the goal that the trees would act like a barrier (a ‘green wall’, as the name suggests) to combat desertification and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In addition, aforestation would help to combat soil erosion and slow the pace of desertification.

The ambitious project is due to be completed in 2050, by which time approximately 88 million acres of forest will have been planted – this year it was reported that the project is actually running ahead of schedule, having already raised forest coverage in the zone from 5%, to 13.5% of the 15% target. This is helped by an annual event on 12th March, as the country celebrates “Tree Planting Day”, reminding people aged over 11 years old to fulfil their legal duty to plant three saplings per year. 

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Next Steps

As global players continue to focus on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the run-up to their 2030 deadline, it is important to understand how policy and developmental plans will link with desertification. For example, SDG 15 seeks to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”. This has been strengthened by the fact that ‘The Future We Want’ – a declaration on sustainable development and a green economy adopted at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio in 2012 – recognises the importance of “scientifically based, sound and socially inclusive methods and indicators for monitoring and assessing the extent of desertification”. 

The livelihoods and security of many people are resting on the progress that global leaders make in tackling both climate change more widely, and desertification as a specific issue. The impacts of desertification have clearly caught the attention of policymakers, but more must be done to make a meaningful impact.

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