Taming Shapotou’s Tengger Desert




Staff members of the Baotou-Lanzhou Railway use the “grass pane sandfence” to fix shifting sands around the railway line. 


By staff reporter ZHOU LIN


Shapotou of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, located at the southeastern edge of Tengger Desert, is a district of Zhongwei City; but it was once an expanse of endless sand dunes. The name Tengger, meaning heaven in Mongolian, vividly describes the vast quicksand that stretched as far as the eye could see. Shapotou receives a low amount of precipitation annually, an average of 184.4 mm; however, its annual evapotranspiration rate is up to 3,000 mm and big sandstorms are common.

Tang Ximing of the Forestry and Ecological Construction Bureau of Zhongwei City told us that in recent years, Tengger Desert had retreated by almost 20 kilometers. “In the past, sandstorms were frequent, especially on windy days in the spring. Thanks to a sand control method, they are much less common today.”


Grass Pane Sandfence

For generations, people in Shapotou have battled with the sand and nurtured a fruitful way of life. “Over the years, our attitude towards avoiding desertification has gradually changed from fear of encroaching sands to taking initiatives to control the dunes, and ultimately, better utilizing the desert to serve us,” Tang Ximing explained.

In the early days of the PRC, the central government resolved to build a railroad from Baotou in Inner Mongolia to Lanzhou of Gansu Province to promote Northwest China’s economic development. However, the Baotou-Lanzhou Railway was designed to intersect the Tengger Desert at six different points on the whole route. A total 55 kilometers of the line was to be constructed in the desert, the section at Shapotou being the most challenging because of immense, shifting sand dunes. A lack of experience in building railways in such harsh natural conditions made preventing the sands from destroying the newly-built railway a burning issue.

Li Minggang, a young scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and his colleagues led the Shapotou Desert Research and Experiment Station in the task of fixing the shifting sands. His team systematically conducted experiments on fixing sand around the railway line under poor conditions with no irrigation (groundwater lay 80 meters below the earth’s surface in the construction area). It also innovated a railway protection system for desert areas, the “grass pane sandfence,” that received worldwide commendation.

Today in Shapotou, one-square-meter crisscross grids of straw can be seen everywhere. The thriving district is testament to the method’s great power in preventing sand from devouring people’s cherished land resources.

The squares of straw are in fact the remains of wheat harvests. Dry straw is knocked into the sand and the stems above ground form a natural shelter. Each square-meter grid protects the sand inside from wind and serves as a bed for sand-fixing vegetation to grow. Three to five years later, the decomposed straw will reveal a fine layer of organic matter called a “sand crust.” Formation of the organic layer signifies a successful attempt at ecological protection and sand control.

When the Baotou-Lanzhou Railway officially opened on August 1, 1958, a system of desertification control was established to ensure that this artery of northwestern China continued to pulse for over 50 years. New Zealand-born writer Rewi Alley, an old friend of China, wrote after his visit to Shapotou that the success of the railway through the Tengger Desert was an example of railway construction in desert areas for the whole world to see.

The UN Conference on Desertification, held in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in 1977, concluded that the success of sand control using vegetation in regions with an annual precipitation of less than 200 mm and no irrigation was widely regarded as pioneering work. Experts and scholars from over 10 countries came to Shapotou to learn from the Chinese mode of sand control. 

“In 1982, National Geographic first introduced Shapotou’s grass pane sandfence to the outside world,” Li Xinrong, director of the CAS Shapotou Desert Research and Experiment Station, recalled proudly. “Countries including South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Egypt went on to adopt this distinctive method.” Nowadays, the station has established cooperation with multiple nations including the U.S., Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Israel, Japan, Turkmenistan and Mongolia

On July 5, 1994, World Environment Day, Shapotou’s desert ecological restoration program won the Global 500 Roll of Honour set by the United Nations Environment Programme.


Circular Economy in the Desert

Yang Fei, 43, a rural entrepreneur in Shapotou, made his fortune through innovative growing of watermelons in gravel and sand. The fruits of his labor were served up during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. After years of hard work, Yang is now chairman of Ningxia Xiangyan Group, the parent company of a number of brands ranging from watermelons and vegetables to organic milk, forming a typical circular economic industry chain in the desert.

Cultivated in gravel and sand in Shapotou, Xisha watermelons are rich in selenium, an anti-cancer anti-oxidant. Yang recalled that in 1998 two businessmen from Sichuan Province offered to buy his watermelons at an above-market price. Realizing his fruit’s vast potential, Yang set up his own business contracting 3.4 hectares of land to grow Xisha watermelons and transport them to other provinces. When Yang’s company finally established Ningxia Xiangyan Group with his own brand Xiangshan Lühao, his produce had already entered markets in Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and Kyrgyzstan.

With the help of local government, Shapotou’s Xisha Watermelons were specially served to sports delegations during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. This earned Yang a cool RMB 10 million. After accumulating certain economic strength, Yang began to build greenhouses to grow organic fruits and vegetables. By 2012, 133 hectares of vineyard, 3,000 greenhouses and 167 hectares of fruit trees had been established and planted.

When asked about the secret of his success, Yang said that both he and his wife were diligent and would work from dawn to dusk. Yang holds a strong belief that the desert is full of treasures to be discovered. Gifted with an aptitude in business and management, Yang said, “It takes at least five years to benefit from growing grapes and orchards, compared to which raising dairy cattle is a short-term business. In fact, it is a wise choice to rear cows on sand: The weather is so dry that insects and viral infections cannot thrive. The soft sand provides natural bedding for cows and cattle manure fermentation can save huge amounts spent on fertilization, equal to RMB 2-3 million.”

Yang showed China Today his plans for a circular ecological park. Wheat and clover are grown to feed both people and cattle, and form natural grass panes to fix the shifting sand in place. Stubble after harvest can become natural fertilizer. Yang explained, “Crops are cultivated on virgin land nourished by natural animal and plant fertilizer free of pollution, pesticides or chemical fertilizer. They are hence totally organic.”


New Technology Prospects

Gazing through Yang’s fruit forest, masses of solar panels can be seen extending into the endless desert, the location of Zhongwei Desert Photovoltaic Industrial Park. Owing to high exposure to the sun and strong wind power, the desert is an optimum area for building photovoltaic electricity power stations, an effective solution to surging power demands.

The Desert Photovoltaic Industrial Park covers around 4,333 hectares. It is divided into four areas: solar manufacturing, a photovoltaic electricity power station, photovoltaic electricity-powered agriculture greenhouses, and sightseeing areas, with a total investment of RMB 20 billion. According to the construction scheme, photovoltaic power generation is set up with an installed power generating capacity of about 1,500 MW. Today, 26 enterprises have been established in the industrial park.

Ma Tingli, secretary of CPC Zhongwei Municipal Committee, said that sound geographical conditions resulted in the setting up there of a cloud base data center. Using new advanced data technology, the cost of building the same size base in Zhongwei City was one third and the running capital half of that in major cities. Based on energy conversion, the data center could also use wind energy instead of electricity to cool the machines and buildings, thus saving on energy expenditure.

The four major industries in Shapotou – the fruit and vegetable industry, facility agriculture, new energy and desert tourism – are transforming Zhongwei City from an isolated and arid desert into a healthy and wealthy locale.

The desert, the Yellow River, mountains and oases form the distinctive landscape of Ningxia Shapotou, blending the grandeur of deserts in western China with the beauty of river towns in southern provinces.  

In 2010, the Yellow River wetland restoration and control program in Zhongwei City was awarded the Dubai International Award for Best Practices to Improve the Living Environment, jointly established by UN-Habitat and the Dubai municipal government of the United Arab Emirates in 1995. Its aim is to encourage outstanding contributions to human habitat improvement and sustainable development.