What Is Desertification?
Desertification is the process by which land turns into a desert. In other words, desertification is when land degrades over time and becomes more arid, causing the land to be less fertile and productive.
Desertification threatens human subsistence, as it makes natural resources including food and water much more difficult to obtain.
China is currently one of the countries most affected by desertification, which will likely continue to worsen in future years.
Learn more: What is Desertification?
Table of Contents
Fast Facts about Desertification in China
- More than a quarter of China’s land is desert (The World Bank 2019).
- China’s Gobi Desert is the fastest growing desert on the planet, at a rate of nearly 2 miles per year (Rechtschaffen 2017).
Where Is Desertification Happening?
Desertification occurs in drylands, areas that get less rain than is evaporated or consumed by plants through part or the entire year. Drylands have very limited water and soil moisture. Because China has 6.6 million square kilometers of drylands, much of the continent is experiencing or at risk of desertification (Li et al. 2021).
China has many deserts, covering 27% of the country’s land area.The Gobi Desert in northern China and southern Mongolia is the sixth largest desert in the world and is still growing through desertification. In fact, the Gobi Desert is now encroaching on Beijing, with sand dunes forming less than 50 miles from the city.
Desertification is happening in many places in China, but northern China is one of the most impacted areas (Feng et al. 2015). According to a 2014 study, desertified land is expanding in northern China in large part due to aeolian desertification, in which wind erodes soil and blows sand into cropland (Tao et al. 2014). This degradation is caused by human activities, described below.
The map below shows the moisture index of China. Dry areas, shown in dark red, are most vulnerable to desertification. Desertification is most prevalent in 11 provinces and autonomous regions: Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang and Hebei (FAO 1997).
Source: European Space Agency 2004
Why Is Desertification Happening in China?
Desertification is caused by multiple factors, including natural causes and human activities. A 2015 study set out to measure whether human activities or climate change plays a larger role in creating desertification in China. They concluded that socioeconomic factors are the main factor affecting desertification, accounting for 79.3% of the effects, and that climate change accounts for 20.6% of the effects on desertification (Feng et al. 2015).
The factors discussed below are some of the major drivers of desertification in China, but do not represent a comprehensive list.
As climate change continues and temperatures rise, land becomes more arid and more vulnerable to desertification. The amount of precipitation (rain) that is occurring in deserts today is generally much lower than the amount of rain a half century ago (UNFCCC 2020).
Extreme weather events like drought are a major driver of desertification, and are becoming more intense and more frequent as a result of climate change (UNFCCC 2020). As much of China’s deserts are already susceptible to drought, climate change may cause more extreme drought in this area.
Climate change has been a major driver of desertification in the northeastern and northwestern parts of China, but human activity is a larger factor in areas near the Mu Us Desert in north-central China (Zhang et al. 2020). It is predicted that global warming will largely reduce soil moisture in Asia, which will cause further desertification (Seneviratne et al. 2010).
Population Growth and Urbanization
Higher urbanization and increased population growth leads to higher resource extraction and increased pressure on surrounding agricultural areas (Abdelbagi 1982). More resource extraction like logging, farming, and land clearing leads to faster desertification, as does land clearing.
Higher populations create higher vulnerability to desertification. China’s population is extremely fast-growing. In only 11 years between 1997 and 2008, China’s population grew by nearly 100 million people (Rechtschaffen 2017). Not only will a larger population contribute to desertification by stripping land of its resources, but it will also make it more difficult to provide enough resources for everyone, thereby becoming a human rights issue.
The map below shows land use in China. As desertification makes cropland less and less available, more people will be forced to move into cities or to live on infertile land without resources. For example, between 2003 and 2008, 650,000 people were forcibly moved from China’s Inner Mongolia province due to degraded land (Rechtschaffen 2017).
Source: Liu et al. 2009
Ineffective Land Management & Resource Use
There are many agricultural practices that degrade land and contribute to desertification. First, removing protective layers of vegetation on top through tilling erodes land and degrades the soil, leaving infertile soil levels below to dry out in the sun (Winslow et al. 2004).
The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides also works to degrade soil, as they kill off helpful microorganisms in soil and remove crucial nutrients for plant growth (Joko et al. 2017).
Overgrazing livestock additionally erodes land and makes it more difficult for new plants to grow.
As more land is degraded, more land must be turned into farmland and used more intensively. This increased land-use intensity in turn worsens desertification, as intensive agriculture works to degrade land.
Additionally, overuse of natural resources such as using wood for fuel destroys natural vegetation cover, allowing for wind to pick up dirt and sand and create wind-driven (aeolian) desertification (Tao et al. 2014). This has been a particularly big issue in northern China, where aeolian desertification is caused mainly by human activities, rather than natural causes.
A lack of vegetation cover due to deforestation may also contribute to desertification. Less vegetation increases the land’s albedo (the land’s ability to reflect sunlight), causing radioactive cooling, which reduces rainfall and therefore reduces soil moisture (Charney 1975).
Impacts of Desertification
Desertification is already having severe impacts, and will continue to cause harm both to human economies and subsistence styles, and the environment.
Reduced Food Security
As agriculture becomes more difficult on increasingly degraded and desertified land, food scarcity increases. China lost 6.2% of its farmland between 1997 and 2008 while its population continued to grow (Rechtschaffen 2017).
Desertification is also linked to a lack of water, both for drinking and irrigation. For example, agriculture is the activity that uses the most of the Yellow River’s water supply (80% of water use is for agriculture), but the river is drying out. The annual discharge of the Yellow River’s water decreased by 40% in the 2000s compared to 1950-1999 (United Nations University 2017). This lack of water desertifies land and makes it more difficult to grow food crops.
Desertification may cause increased risks of water and food-borne diseases. This is partially due to a lack of clean water (Mirzabaev et al. 2019).
Increased dust in the air can result in respiratory problems or heart disease (Zhu et al. 2022).
Restricted Economic Development
Desertification is most prevalent in underdeveloped areas of China. These areas are where desertification is taking the greatest economic toll.
Increased wind storms and desertification in northern China is causing economic losses, as agriculture, forestry, and animal husbandry are no longer as profitable or productive. For example, a sandstorm in 1993 in four Chinese provinces caused soil loss due to wind erosion, and caused a loss of 560 million RMB yuan (FAO 1997).
For more information on the impacts of desertification, read “Desertification: Definitions, Causes, Impacts, and Solutions.”
Solutions to Desertification in China
Many solutions have been developed and some have been implemented to try and address desertification in China. This article discusses a few solutions, but a wide variety of community-based approaches are needed to address the problem of desertification.
The Green Great Wall
China’s “Green Great Wall,” officially known as the Three Norths Shelter Forest Program, is an attempt to build a wall of trees to slow the “spread” of the Gobi Desert. The initiative was started by the Chinese government in 1978 and aimed to plant 88 million acres of trees by 2050. The wall of trees is currently 4,500 kilometers long and it is estimated that the wall includes between 3 and 6 billion trees.
While desertification has slowed in some areas, it has not been affected in other areas, which brings into question the project’s success. In some areas, dunes have been successfully stabilized to decrease soil loss through wind. However, many of the trees planted do not live very long. This effort has been criticized due to the difficulty in planting trees in arid areas without enough rain to allow the trees to grow in the long term (Petri 2017).
Implementation of Regenerative Agricultural Practices
Regenerative agriculture is a set of agricultural practices that restore the land, rather than depleting the land of vital resources.
Regenerative practices that restore soil health include agroforestry (planting trees among crops), low or no-till farming, planting cover crops, and using natural, chemical-free fertilizers and pesticides.
Planting drought-resistant crops may additionally work to protect communities against the effects of desertification. For example, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change projects the crops millet and sorghum to decrease in yields by only 5% and 8% respectively by 2050 under the worst climate change scenario due to their resilience to high temperatures (UNFCCC 2020). Rice and wheat, however, are expected to experience yield decreases of 12% and 21% respectively by 2050.
Read more: What Is Regenerative Agriculture?
Several large-scale projects have been implemented to address desertification in China that use agricultural techniques specific to a location’s unique characteristics. For example, an US$80 million World Bank project was undertaken to control desertification in China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northwestern China, where desertification is a big problem. Because the area is surrounded by desert, sand was being blown into the river, increasing flood risk and reducing plant survival.
The World Bank project worked to control sand through the use of straw checkerboards, straw planted in a grid around sand to fix sand in place. The project also encouraged new planting strategies like spot sowing (directly placing seeds in the ground rather than small plants) and broadcast seeding (scattering seed by hand). This helped restore vegetation by 40% and create a 70% crop survival rate (The World Bank 2019).