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Tree Belt for World’s Longest Desert Highway

China is building a 60-meter-wide tree belt along a 522-km highway which runs across Xinjiang’s Taklamakan Desert, known as the “sea of death”, in an effort to protect the world’s longest desert road from being buried by sand.

During the first phase of the afforestation project, plants suitable to grow in desert will be planted in 200 hectares of land along a 31-km section of the highway. The project is expected to be completed by 2003, said Ma Zhenwu, general director of the project.

The desert highway winds from Lunnan Oilfield, at the northern edge of the desert, to Minfeng County at the southern edge, dividing into two parts the 340,000-sq-km Taklamakan, the second largest floating desert in the world.

Though the highway was built using sand-control meshing, the most effective method a decade ago, many sections of the highway were buried by floating sand, which moves at an annual rate of five meters.

Some two million rose willows, sacsaoul and buckthorn will be planted along the highway this year. They were chosen from 50 tree varieties after a decade of experiments. Trees with small leaves and a maximum height of two meters have proved the most suitable for life in the desert as they lose moisture slowly and are resistant to arid conditions.

“Upon completion of the project, the highway will be free from desert encroachment and serve as an unblocked thoroughfare for transmission of oil and materials needed in southern Xinjiang,” Ma said.

The highway was built in 1995 to move oil from the Tarim Basin, China’s largest inland basin with a total area of 530,000 square km in southern Xinjiang. The basin has a verified reserve of over one billion tons of oil. Seven oilfields there have produced a combined output of 4.6 million tons.

As it is more difficult to plant trees in the desert than on other land, 100-meter-deep wells must be dug for every two km to ensure sufficient water supply for saplings, said a local official.

Although the trees were irrigated by water with high saline content from the wells, they had a 95-percent survival rate, explained Xu Xinwen, a Chinese ecologist. Sandy soil has a low absorption rate and the saline matter filters far below the root of trees, he added, therefore any type of water can be used.

A 30-hectare afforested zone will also be built to help reduce wind speed in the area by 28-70 percent. Tests have shown that afforestation can reduce the content of sand in the wind by 90 percent.

The afforestation drive along the desert road serves as a model for improving eco-environments in arid areas, Xu said.

China has 713,000 square km of desert, one sixth of which is located in Xinjiang.

(People’s Daily 05/08/2001)

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