Anti-Desertification Exemplar


By special correspondent DUAN HAIWANG


HAIXI Mongolian and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai Province is located on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Desert lands in the prefecture are on average over 3,000 meters above sea level. Haixi, with its harsh natural environment, sparse vegetation, and soil eroded by freezes, thaws, strong winds, and salinization, is one of China’s few high-altitude areas of land desertification.  


Local government efforts have established a natural shield for the ecological system in recent years, and a balanced industrial system. Focusing on desertification prevention and the development of sand industry in Haixi, China Today interviewed Liu Shu, former vice chairman of the China Association for Science and Technology, and member of a senior expert panel on China’s anti-desertification project.  


Liu Shu is former vice chairman of the China Association for Science and Technology and member of a senior expert panel on China’s anti-desertification project.


China Today (CT): In September 2016, you attended the China Haixi Desertification Prevention and Control and Green Ecological Industrial Development Seminar. What impressions did you gain from the trip to Haixi?


Liu Shu: It was very impressive. I was amazed to observe there the extent of social and economic progress, improved living conditions, environmental protection awareness, and the achievements of desertification prevention and control. I found people in Haixi to be industrious, motivated, and willing to accept public opinions on local development. 


Although living in a frigid climate amid wide areas of desert where there are frequent droughts, Haixi people have done their utmost to develop green and ecological industries. Their efforts include establishing natural reserves, breeding fine livestock, protecting grasslands, and planting Chinese goji berries and cistanche grafted on sacsaoul.


CT: Criteria and rules are needed when carrying out anti-desertification projects. In recent years, the policies that Haixi local authority has launched include the contingency plan on major sandstorms and rules on protection of vegetation in desert areas, among many others. How would you evaluate the achievements that have been made in this regard?


Liu: This is an important issue. The year 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the United Nations (UN) Conference on Desertification. Over the past decades, combating desertification has been the common task of the international community. Established in 1994, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa, defines desertification and sets a desertification control and prevention goal. According to the convention, desertification means land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities. It thus reveals that “land degradation” is the main element of desertification.


In Haixi, demands for energy are rising as the local population continues to expand. Consequently, plants growing in desert areas are often chopped and used for firewood. Besides, grassland vegetation cannot support any increase in numbers of livestock. Arable land is moreover eroded by secondary salinization, and strong winds degrade the soil.  


Research carried out by Wang Tao from Chinese Academy of Sciences shows that areas of degraded land have expanded dramatically since 1970. It took until 2000 to control this trend. Areas of land desertification had decreased by 8 percent in 2010 compared to the 2000 figure. Preliminary results have been achieved through Haixi’s actions to rehabilitate the local ecological system; also by local government endeavors to balance environmental protection and economic development. For instance, ecological industries such as goji berry plantations and medicinal herbs have brought economic benefits to locals. The measures, although still at an exploratory stage, conform to the spirit upheld by the UN Convention, of which China is a signatory party. Our anti-desertification efforts and projects reflect the country’s contribution to the convention.


CT: Your academic anti-desertification career started in 1960 when you joined the Chinese Academy of Sciences desertification control team. Over the decades, your position in this field has changed several times. This has provided you with opportunities to keep broadening and refining your perceptions. In a sense, your research is “based on the earth.” Could you talk about the idea whereby “poverty alleviation is a prerequisite to desertification control” which you once put forward? How would it relate to Haixi?    


Liu: Thank you for your research on and understanding of my work. After working on the research team for a time, I was transferred to the local government of Gansu Province. This was my chance get to understand the social reality in arid areas. From my daily work, I see how persistent droughts challenge human life. I also understand better the interrelationships between arid environment, human survival and development, and desertification. As far as I can see, desertification usually goes hand in hand with poverty. Amid a state of overwhelming backwardness, reckless actions are often taken in hopes of boosting development. However, this is often harmful to nature. Environmental degradation, in turn, worsens poverty. We have often observed this vicious circle in arid areas. Therefore, the ultimate way to prevent and control desertification lies in incorporating desertification control into poverty alleviation targets, and encouraging people to participate.  


The UN Convention, praised as an innovative document by then UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, vows to integrate strategies for poverty eradication into efforts to combat desertification and promote sustainable development. The people of Haixi welcome this strategy, and are proactively engaged in planting goji berries on areas of land desertification and taking an ecological approach to animal husbandry.


Israel, whose lands consist mainly of arid deserts, has made remarkable achievements in ecological industry. The country engages high-caliber personnel to explore an all-win approach to a balanced ecological system, social benefits, and economic progress. Its experience in initiating new industries with innovative theories and technologies merits close study.   


Desertification prevention plays an important role in the UN Convention, and is at its foundation. Measures may include, but are not limited to, raising public awareness about environmental protection, issuing related rules and regulations, establishing nature reserves, and formulating reasonable plans for land use that comply with local conditions. In recent years, several such projects have been launched in Haixi.


CT: Do you have any suggestions for Haixi’s future development?


Liu: Covering an area of 325,000 sq km, Haixi is 15 times the size of Israel. Most of the prefecture is surrounded by mountains. The Qaidam Basin in the prefecture enjoys abundant water resources and strong sunlight. Haixi also has rich inorganic salt reserves, and produces more potash fertilizer than anywhere else in the country. Equipped with rich resources, a distinctive location and geographic features, Haixi is the nation’s crucial strategic reserve area.  


There was much comment about President Xi Jinping’s remarks at the seminar last August during his inspection tour of Qinghai. According to Xi, ecological resources constitute Qinghai Province’s greatest value, responsibility, and potential. This statement enlightened me about the status of Qinghai and Haixi – a treasury of ecological resources and an ecological shield. I would like to discuss a few points based on what I have seen during my trip to Haixi.  


The Qaidam Basin is a unique geographic feature. As different facets of this area are highly interrelated, an integrative development strategy should be carried out. Local growth must be facilitated by a high-level coordinative administrative structure, relevant regulations and laws, and effective supervisions. Promoting development through an integrated system is both a method and a target for ecological restoration and industrial growth that is determined by natural conditions in the Qaidam Basin. For instance, an independent hydrographic net in this area calls for an overall coordination of water use.  


On top of that, natural resources in Haixi must be well protected. I suggest that clusters of national nature reserves be established. Haixi boasts hundreds of wildlife and plant species, along with a good range of landforms. Different types of nature reserves may form clusters that could serve as shields for an ecological system. Established on a certain scale and under strict standards, national nature reserve clusters are expected to incorporate such functions as environmental protection, research, ecological education, and sightseeing.


In my view, setting development strategies and goals based on 21st century rates of scientific and technological growth is essential. We should review the industrial restructuring and upgrading that has taken place in the light of development trend in the new era, and stimulate new industrial formats highlighted through modern information technology. Scientific and technological progress this century has unlocked the potential of certain resources yet to be fully exploited. In-depth development of salt lake resources and sand industry in Haixi has promising prospects. What’s more, goji berry plantation should not be confined to large-scale coverage. The adoption of advanced technologies, including drop irrigation, is advised. Meantime, goji berry plantation should be encouraged to develop in combination with other industries, including photovoltaic agriculture.


In the 1990s, China’s distinguished scientist Qian Xuesen put forward the idea of making the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau into a world leading “highland paradise.” He added that full play should be given to modern scientific and technological outcomes, and emphasized the need to take a long-term perspective. According to him, we should look towards the year 2049, or even the end of this century. I believe his strategic philosophies are of value to Haixi Prefecture as it ponders and devises its future development plans.