Living with sand on new Silk Road

time: 2017-09-12    source: Xinhua     author:

Trudging up a sand dune about five meters high outside the town of Cele County at the southern edge of China's largest desert, Taklimakan, GuiDongwei could not help but exclaim "amazing."

As large as ten soccerfields, it was once one of the moving dunes of Taklimakan, the world's secondlargest moving desert. The desert had forced the town of Cele to relocate threetimes in history, but Gui saw it being enclosed by green trees.

That was 2007, when Gui, adoctoral candidate, went for the first time to the Cele Research Station of theXinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography of the Chinese Academy of Sciences(CAS). Since then, he has accompanied many scientists and experts from home andabroad up the dune to relate how his predecessors "locked" the movingdunes with trees.

"There were many duneslike this surrounding the town. But all of them have been changed intofarmland, with only this one left since it's too large. And it's a reminder ofhistory," said Gui, now vice director of the Cele Research Station.

Since China proposed theSilk Road Economic Belt initiative, aiming to rejuvenate the ancient traderoute, experts have worried whether people could cope with seriousdesertification along the route.

Sustainable development ofthe oases is crucial to the success of the construction of the Belt.

Writing on sand

Cele County in KhotanPrefecture, south of China's northwestern Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, isextremely dry, with annual precipitation of only 35 mm and annual evaporationexceeding 2,500 mm.

Every year, the county seesabout 20 days of sand storms, 90 days of blowing sand and 150 days of floatingdust.

For the last thousandyears, the desert has consumed more than 20 towns along the ancient Silk Roadin Xinjiang. As recently as the 1980s, several towns, including Cele, Pishanand Minfeng, were threatened by intruding sands.

In these circumstances, theCAS Xinjiang institute set up the Cele station in 1983 to study the aridenvironment and the sandstorms. The station has since helped prevent theinvasion of desert.

In 1995, the United NationsEnvironment Program awarded Chinese scientists two honors for controllingdrifting sand and breeding desert plants.

"Southern Xinjiangstill lags in the research of oasis ecology and deserts," Gui said."We need to know how to achieve sustainable development."

After his academic pursuitin the United States from 2011 to 2014, Gui turned down a few better-paid jobopportunities and chose to return to Cele.

"I have a strongattachment to my home Xinjiang," Gui said, "we can make world-classachievements on the barren land with advanced technologies and research methodsas long as we persist."

"The real researchshould be written on the ground to embed our accomplishments, not just onacademic journals," he said.

Sea of death

Huang Ziyou, 52, and hiswife live in a shack of less than 10 square meters in the heart of theTaklimakan Desert. The bed next to the stove, their home is actually codedNo.021 well pump chamber.

For seven years, the couplehave spent 12 hours each day in maintaining a well and a pump connected by manythin, black pipes, in the noises of a diesel generator. These pipes providedrip irrigation to the shelter forest of the 522-kilometer highway runningthrough Taklimakan.

After breakfast, Huanginspects the pipes along his 4-kilometer patch everyday. In this remote placewith neither television signals nor Internet connection, the plants flourishand protect the highway through the moving desert.

Taklimakan, covering337,600 square kilometers, is one major petroleum bed. In 1995 PetroChinainvested 800 million yuan (127 million U.S. dollars) in building the highway,which, however, has since faced a serious threat of burial and soaring costsfor maintenance.

A shelter forest was builtfrom 2003 to 2006 on both sides of the highway, with a total investment of 218million yuan.

Xu Xinwen, director of theCAS Taklimakan Desert Research Station, said the green corridor has decreasedwind speeds on the highway by 50 to 77 percent and the volume of moving sandsin the shelter forest is only 0.98 to 12.55 percent of that in drifting sandareas.

"The shelter foresthas curbed damage to the highway and improved the ecological environment,"said Xu, who has worked in the desert for more than two decades.

Balancing oasis and desert

Li Xinhu everyday weighs sandand soil in 12 huge barrels on an underground scale, and calculates theevaporation volume according to the change in weight.

The scale, or lysimeterdeveloped by the CAS Water Balance Research Station in Aksu, measures theevaporation volume with an accuracy of 0.01 mm.

Director Zhao Chengyi saidhis station, located in the largest oasis in the Tarim Basin, is an ideal siteto study the changing patterns of water and salt of the oasis farmlandecosystem.

"The oases in Xinjiangare expanding," Gui said. "What we are focusing on is to keep abalance between oasis and desert."

"The use of water isthe key to realizing the sustainable development of oases," Gui said.

Researchers said theunderground water in Khotan is still within sustainable limits, but on adecreasing trend.

Green technologies

The desert prevention andcontrol technologies developed by Chinese experts have been introduced tocountries in Central Asia and Africa, including Turkmenistan, Egypt, Libya andMauritania, said Lei Jiaqiang, deputy director of the CAS Xinjiang institute.

The Chinese have helpeddesign the wind and sand prevention project for a coastal highway and a deserthighway in Libya, and a forestation project for a natural gas base inTurkmenistan, Lei said.

They have also been askedto provide technological support to the construction of the Great Green WallInitiative, a pan-African project to green the continent. The project is alsoaimed at tackling poverty and the degradation of soils in the Sahel-Saharanregion, focusing on a strip of land of 15 km wide and 7,100 km long from Dakarto Djibouti.

Ramadan Mohammed, aresearcher with the Egyptian Desert Research Center, said the sand controlproject in the northern Sinai Peninsula has employed technologies developed inChina, such as covering and fixing dunes with crop straw and gravel.

"China's sand controltechnologies are simple but effective with low resource consumption," saidRamadan, adding that Arab countries also have their own sand controltechnologies that might help China.

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