China Says It's Slowing Rate of Desertification
BEIJING China, with desert covering one third of its landmass, is slowing the rate at which desertification is eating up arable and other land but the problem remains serious, a government official said on Monday.
At the end of the last century, areas affected by desertification in China were expanding at an annual rate of 10,400 square km (4,015 sq mile), said Zhu Lieke, deputy head of the State Forestry Administration.
This had now slowed to about 3,000 square km a year, he told a news conference, but despite the progress, a lack of rainfall was also contributing to forest fires across north China.
"China's anti-desertification work has made major progress," Zhu said. "It has effectively improved agricultural production conditions ... and made a major contribution to the sustainable development of the economy and society.
"Although the work had had certain success, the desertification situation is still very serious," he added.
More than half a million sq km of land could yet be improved to turn back the deserts, and in some areas the sand was advancing at a fast rate, Zhu said.
"Disadvantageous climatic reasons, especially the influence of drought on speeding up desertification, cannot be underestimated," he said. "Over-planting, over-grazing and over-use of water are also issues yet to be totally resolved."
On Monday, more than 20,000 police and fire-fighters were battling three forest fires in the northern provinces of Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia, which officials said had been exacerbated by drought.
Rainfall in the two areas has decreased by more than 30 percent this year, the official Xinhua news agency said.
China -- home to part of the Gobi desert -- has embarked upon a massive tree-planting scheme to hold back the deserts, as well as banning the grazing of domestic animals on fragile soil and trying to improve irrigation.
Last month, officials said that China would never completely tame the sandstorms that plague the country every spring due to the sheer size of its sandy regions.
But they did promise China would step up efforts to control the problem, adding they were confident the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing would not be affected.
Desertification of the country's west and Mongolian steppes has made spring sandstorms worse in recent years, reaching as far away as South Korea and Japan and turning rain and snow yellow.
A persistent drought in northern parts of China has only added to the problem, sucking moisture from the soil and making it more easily picked up by the wind, officials have said.
China's State Council, or cabinet, said in February that by 2010 the country would establish "clear improvements" in key areas, and by 2020 half of the country's desertified land that can be repaired would have been.
A U.N. study issued last year warned that a deteriorating environment, including encroaching deserts, could drive about 50 million Chinese from their homes by 2010.