The Han river, which flows through Shaanxi and Hubei provinces, is a tributary of the Yangtze, meeting the great river as it flows through the city of Wuhan in eastern China. Though the river that it feeds is of a far larger size, the Han is nonetheless an important feature in the both the history and geography of China, as it can be traced through time much like it can be traced through the plains and mountains through which it flows; the city of Hanzhong in Shaanxi, seen as the birthplace of the Han people themselves, took its name from the river, and the Han dyansty, who bequeathed the Han language – Chinese – took their name from the city in turn.

Sitting further upstream, near the border with Hunan province, is the town of Laohekou. By Chinese standards Laohekou is a relatively small town of half a million people and, typical of the subtropical provinces of southern and eastern China, it is swelteringly humid in the summer, and cooler in the drier winter months. Monsoons regularly come to that part of China, especially during the summer, and water is presumed to be so plentiful that the central route of the South-North Water Diversion Project draws from the Danjiangkou reservoir, a few miles to the north of Laohekou. Yet for many local residents, the newly-installed pipes in their houses don’t seem to bring any water, and sometimes nothing flows from the taps. This isn’t because of poor workmanship: this is because, for 70,000 residents of Laohekou, there just isn’t any water.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 21.15.26
Laohekou city, Hubei province, with the Danjiangkou reservoir to the north.

It wasn’t so long ago that the widest point of the Laohekou section of the Han river was 3 kilometres from bank to bank; today it is just half a kilometre. It is not always possible to even find the river: the uncovered river bed and alluvial plains are exposed to the winds, and you need to slide over the dunes, through the sand and the weeds, before finally reaching it. The sand is not something that is always associated with the south of China, moreso with the arid north; but the aridity that was slowly approaching the south is now rapidly arriving: in Laohekou, which should be inundated with monsoon rains, the yearly average rainfall has dropped from 800 mm to just 500 mm in recent years, leading to the decreased level of the Han, as well as the groundwater level under the plains dropping from ten metres to three.

Many of the Laohekou residents without water are drilling their own wells in the plains and hills around the town, as for them it is easier than travelling to the Han or the local reservoirs. Some residents complain that, even though the government has redirected rivers and built new reservoirs, those reservoirs are empty. Areas in the north of China that have encountered such aridity, and have seen rivers shrink much like the Han, have also suffered similar droughts: residents are having to drill deeper and deeper in order to find the dwindling aquifers. Those same areas in the north also suffer from the desertification that is blighting southern areas of China, with a large desertified area near Laohekou. The city itself is one fifth desert, according to the Laohekou Forestry Department Chief, Li Fangtan, and the “ecological environment is exremely fragile.”

The sand near the Laohekou section of the Han river is so deep that it is difficult to reach in and touch the ground it is covering; locals say that the average depth of the sand is 50 cm. The desertified area near Laohekou is 320,000 mu, or 213 km², affecting 150,000 people in the surrounding area. The impact of the desertifcation and drought on people’s livelihoods has been clear: the lack of drinking water, and the lack of water to grow and sustain crops. “These past few years the corn crop has failed, and the wheat yeild has only been 300 jin,” complained a villager from the area. This will only be increased by the planned heightening of the Danjiangkou reservoir dam as part of the South-North Water Diversion Project. If the dam is heightened, the water level of the Laohekou section of the Han river will decrease by around 1 metre, which will lead to a further increase of 60,000 mu – 40 km² – of the desertified area around Laohekou.

“The decrease in the water levels of the Han river will lead to an increase in the desertification area,” one Laohekou City Forestry Centre official said. The water flow of the Laohekou section of the Han river has already fallen from 24,000 m³/s during the wet season to 18,700 m³/s, whereas during dry season the flow has decreased from 2,000 m³/s to just 500 m³/s, resulting in the riverbed being exposed by a further 1 km. Yet the mooted increase in the Danjiangkou dam is deemed “timely, necessary, and relevant” by a Laohekou City government official, despite the obvious impact it will have on the desertification of the area and the livelihoods of the local residents. As funds that were to be used to combat desertification in Laohekou – as well as desertification in other southern provinces such as Jiangxi, Guangdong, Fujia, and Hainan amongst others – are cancelled, some call for desertification in the south of China to be taken more seriously. Though the areas of desertification themselves are not as large as those in the north of China, they are widely distributed throughout the supposedly wet southern provinces, and as these areas increase in size through drought, efforts to combat them will be more costly, more time-consuming, and more difficult.

Transforming desertified ground is a lengthy process, one that can take 10 to 15 years, according to the president of the Wangfuzhou Desertification Fruit Treet Association. Manure fertilizer is first put down on the desertified ground, and new soil is brought in from other, unaffected areas and stirred into the fertilizer and soil mixture. Trees can be planted in the new soil, at the cost of 800 yuan per mu of poplar trees, and 2,000 yuan per mu of fruit trees. The process to reverse the effects of desertification requires further water resources, putting more pressure on the water system, and due to the weakness of the soil, as well as the scarcity of water, the growth of the new trees is stunted, and they are only 10 or 20cm in diameter.

“Through many years of effort,” said someone responsible for the management of desertification-affected areas, “We have at this moment already invested 200m yuan to complete around 250,000 mu of desertification management, causing the sandy area to decrease by about 70,000 mu. But future maintenance, new trees, new land transformation and so on, will still need many hundreds of millions of yuan.” And it is not just monetary problems that will continue affect how desertification is managed and combated in China: legislation on preventing desertifcation is still incomplete, according to Wang Tao and Wu Wei of the Lanzhou Chinese Academy of Sciences, and there is no single, cohesive rule of law covering prevention. Many laws and regulations are scattered amongst other legislation, which makes enforcing desertification prevention difficult.

Whilst funds for combating desertification are being cut, those for economic development are not, and the rate of combating desertification lags far behind the rate of development. Since desertification started being monitored in China, in the 1970s, efforts put in to combat it have been dwarfed by the efforts to continue economic development, and much of this development has contributed to the creation of desertified areas in both the north and south of China. During the late 1980s and early 1990s in Yulin City in Shaanxi province, an area affected by desertification caused by wind erosion, a ‘belt, patch and grid system was introduced, in order to provide protection from the winds, as well as providing stability through the roots of trees and grasses. Grids of trees encircled farmland to provide this protection, and plantations of grasses were established to form part of the farmland protection system. Even sand dunes were encircled and enclosed in this way, with new parts of Yulin City built on top of them, alongside new trees and grasslands.

As a result of these efforts, the desertified land was broken up by the grids of trees and grasses; forest coverage increased from 1.8% to 37%, and 3,400 km² of sands were stabilized. The economy of Yulin City and the surrounding area improved due to the improved grazing grounds and reservoirs for fish that were introduced. Per capita income in nearby Qinhe township increased by 241% from 1985-1995, through both the combating of desertification and improvements in the Chinese economy of the time.

But these efforts to combat desertification still require large amounts of water, which is drawn off from other areas of the country, or from diverted rivers, which puts a great deal of stress on areas with already fragile ecological balances. According to desertification monitoring statistics from the State Forestry Administration, an area of 8,800 km² in the south of China is desertified; given that the population density of the south is far greater than the north, continued desertification will cause even greater ‘ecological imbalance, affecting production and livelihoods’ of the local residents, and will have an impact that echoes around the country.




Combating Desertification in China; Wang Tao and Wu Wei, Institute of Desert Researchm Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lanzhou.


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