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Times Past | Anchoring the Desert

An unusual plant, the seeds of which sprout in about four hours given the right temperatures and humidity is now being grown to provide cover for deserts in many parts of China. Workers on the desert restation schemes have had seeds start to germinate in their hands while walking 10 to 20 kilometres. The seeds of the Saksaul plant sown in recent years by aircraft or by men riding on camels have grown into sturdy shrubs anchoring large expanses of shifting sand.

A recent tour brought me to the UIanbuho Desert in western Inner Mongolia where a 'Great Wall' of trees and scrub prevents wind-borne sand from encroaching on valuable farm land. Running along the eastern fringe of the desert the shelter belt measures 175 kilometres length and 400 metres across. It consists of poplar, bush, tamarisk, elm and other trees growing on water brought by canals from the Yellow River which forms Ulanbuho's eastern boundary.

Branching out from the main shelter belt into the desert are many small tree belts made up of Saksaul and other shrubs that can thrive in sand without irrigation. The Saksaul bears a mass of tiny green twigs covered with minute scales which serve as leaves. It is a low plant with roots twice as long as the shrub itself. These roots can grow one centimetre in 24 hours with what little rain falls in the desert during the summer months. 'It's our trump card in conquering the sand' say the desert tamers.

Sprawling over an area of 1,100 sq kilometres, the desert, because of its fierce sandstorms has been dubbed 'Ulanbuho', which in the Mongolian language means red bull. For centuries the 'red bull' spread eastward burying farmland and towns and threatening to silt up the upper reaches of the Yellow River. It has now been halted by a green wall of trees. The shelter belt was planted by people's communes and state forestry centres. The forestry centres are self-sustaining units growing their own grain and pasturing cattle on land wrested from the desert. In many places fish and ducks are reared in ponds that have been formed on what was previously sandy waste.

Shelter Belt
A checkered shelter belt in Leizhou providing protection from encroachment by sand

A director of one of the forestry centres is 54-year-old Li Chiyuan, known in the locality as the 'desert expert without a college education'. Li Chiyuan who resisted the Japanese as a guerrilla fighter in the Ulanbuho Desert during the war has devised many ways of harnessing the desert. It is very difficult to dig an irrigation ditch as sandstorms fill it in as rapidly as it is prepared. Li Chiyuan erects two simple straw fences along the banks of a projected ditch and pebbles are spread in between. The pebbles spin in the wind throwing up sand which banks up along the fences. With some finishing touches the ditch is formed. His method of using nature to transform nature is now widely employed in the war against the desert.

A scientific survey a few years ago discovered that the Ulanbuho is a depression, which can be irrigated with water from the Yellow River by gravitation. Under the sand is a thick layer of alluvial soil. The scientists found that the northern part of the desert had been a rich farming area some 2,000 years ago. Remains of the walls of towns and citadels have been discovered.

The deserts in China cover an area of one million square kilometres, or some 11% of the country's total area. In the past 15 years, many shelter belts have been planted. Eastern Inner Mongolia alone has 1,600 shelter belts, with a total length of more than 10,000 kilometres. With trees three to ten metres high, they shield 500,000 hectares of grazing land and large tracts of farmland against the ravages of shifting sand. In the winter months, snow, two to three metres thick, gathers under the trees to melt in the spring, providing life-giving moisture for farming and for pastureland. Snow that falls in the open desert melts, or is blown off by the wind. Crop yields on land protected by shelter belts are one to three fold higher.

Liao Yubin

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001, reprinted from SACU News August 1967

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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