China’s Dust Bowl Spreads Its Wings

Does China’s agricultural policy jeopardize the country’s future?

June 11, 2001

Does China's agricultural policy jeopardize the country's future?

In mid-April 2001, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, reported that a huge dust storm from northern China had reached the United States. This storm was “blanketing areas from Canada to Arizona with a layer of dust,” they observed.

All along the foothills of the Rockies, mountains were obscured by the dust which had come all the way from China. This dust storm did not come as a surprise.

On March 10, 2001, The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, reported that the season’s first dust storm — one of the earliest on record — had hit Beijing.

These dust storms, coupled with those of 2000, were among the worst in memory. They signal a widespread deterioration of the rangeland and cropland in China’s vast northwest.

These huge dust plumes routinely travel hundreds of miles to populous cities in northeastern China, including Beijing, obscuring the sun, reducing visibility, slowing traffic and closing airports.

Reports of residents in eastern cities in China caulking windows with old rags to keep out the dust are reminiscent of the U.S. dust bowl of the 1930s. Eastward moving winds often carry soil from China’s northwest to North Korea, South Korea and Japan, countries that regularly complain about dust clouds that filter out the sunlight — and cover everything with dust.

News reports typically attribute the dust storms to the drought of the last three years. But the drought is really only bringing a fast-deteriorating situation into focus. Human pressure on the land in northwestern China is excessive.

There are too many people, too many cattle and sheep — and too many plows. Feeding 1.3 billion people, a population nearly five times that of the United States, is not an easy matter.

In addition to local pressures on resources, a decision in Beijing in 1994 to require that all cropland used for construction be offset by land reclaimed elsewhere has helped create the ecological disaster that is now unfolding.

In essence, the fast-growing coastal provinces — such as Guandong, Shandong, Xheijiang and Jiangsu — are losing cropland to urban expansion and industrial construction. They are literally paying other rural inland provinces to plow new land in order to offset the farm area losses.

This provided an initial economic windfall for provinces in the northwest, such as Inner Mongolia (which led the way with a 22% expansion of cropland), Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia and Xinjiang.

But as these northwestern provinces — already suffering from overplowing and overgrazing — plowed ever more marginal land, wind erosion of soil intensified. Now, the resulting land abandonment is forcing people to migrate further eastward.

That population move is not unlike the U.S. westward migration from the southern Great Plains to California during the Dust Bowl years.

While plows are clearing land, expanding livestock populations are stripping the land of vegetation. These livestock populations grew rapidly following China’s economic reforms in 1978 and the removal of controls on the size of herds and flocks that collectives could maintain.

Today, China has 127 million cattle, compared with 98 million in the United States. Its flock of 279 million sheep and goats compares with only nine million in the United States.

Official estimates show 900 square miles (or 2,330 square kilometers) of land going to desert each year. And an area several times as large is suffering a decline in productivity as it is degraded by overuse.

In addition to the direct damage from overplowing and overgrazing, the northern half of China is literally drying out as rainfall declines — and aquifers are depleted by overpumping.

Water tables are falling almost everywhere, causing springs to dry up, streams to no longer flow, lakes to disappear — and rivers to run dry. U.S. satellites, which have been monitoring land use in China for some 30 years, show that literally thousands of lakes in the country’s North have disappeared.

The deforestation which is occurring in southern and eastern China is reducing the moisture transported inland from the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea, according to Wang Hongchang, a Fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. When tree cover is removed, the initial rainfall from the inland-moving, moisture-laden air simply runs off and returns to the sea.

What would be involved in reversing this degradation? It would require stabilizing population and planting trees everywhere possible to help recycle rainfall inland. It would mean converting highly erodible cropland back to grassland or woodland, reducing the livestock population and planting tree shelter belts across the windswept areas of cropland.

That, coincidentally, is no novel scheme. It is precisely what U.S. farmers did to end dust storms in the 1930s.

Reversing the spread of the desert will require a huge effort on China’s part. But if the dust bowl continues to spread, it will not only undermine China’s national economy. It will also trigger a massive migration eastward, further increasing social pressures in China’s coastal regions.

The options available to China are clear enough: Reduce livestock populations to a sustainable level or face heavy livestock losses as grassland turns to desert. Return highly erodible cropland to grassland or lose all of the land’s productive capacity as it turns to desert. Construct windbreaks with a combination of trees and, where feasible, wind turbines, to slow the wind or face even more soil losses and dust storms.

If China cannot quickly arrest the trends of deterioration, the growth of the dust bowl could acquire an irreversible momentum. What is at stake is not just China’s soil, but its future.