Yet another inconvenient truth about rising China: its environmental disaster may be bigger and more complex than previously reported.
2006 has seen a number of unusually strong sandstorms in northern China. Beijing and other cities have days in which sand fills the air, blocking the sun and creating long-lasting health hazards. Those who have been through the storms compare the experience to walking into a flour mill. Breathing is extremely difficult. Reports of residents in affected areas caulking windows with old rags to keep out the dust recall the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
The worsening problem threatens to drive up the price of food and cause tens of millions of desperate Chinese to become environmental refugees.
Dust storms have been recorded in China for more than 2,000 years, but they are now increasing alarmingly both in size and in number. Some gigantic dust clouds have reached North America. Early this spring, Beijing residents woke one morning to find that 300,000 tons of sand had been dumped on their city. The sand was whipped up by fierce winds in the Gobi desert more than 1,000 miles away.
The potential for catastrophic damage--in China and other countries--is real and significant.
Desertification is partly--perhaps even largely--to blame. Basically, a giant dust bowl is forming in northwestern China, as overgrazing, overuse of land, and drought combine to created the biggest transformation of productive land into desert that world has ever seen.
It's a vicious phenomenon. Once the vegetation has been removed by overgrazing, strong winds that blow in from Siberia and Mongolia dry the land and kick up dust; after the small particles are gone, the sand blows.
Official estimates say the deserts, advancing by thousands of square kilometers a year, now make up between 18 and 27 percent of China's surface.
Land abandonments are forcing massive migrations of people, also reminiscent of the American migration from the southern Great Plains to California during the Dust Bowl years.
Adding to the direct damage to soil, the northern half of China is becoming drier and sources of natural irrigation more scarce. Aquifers are being depleted by overpumping.
Falling food production could become a serious issue. The United Nations estimates that 400 million Chinese people live in areas threatened by expanding deserts, which could force many into cities in search of jobs. The Asian Development Bank says at least 4,000 villages have already been buried by sand and their occupants forced to move to greener areas.
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