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Sand Chokes Yellow River's Cistern

The Maqu Grassland is now a desert. It starts not more than 50 meters away from the Yellow River. 

"Desertification along the banks of the Yellow River has worsened in recent years," said Wu Chonggang, secretary of the Maqu County Party Committee of the Gannan Tibet Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu Province.

Maqu County, situated near the point where Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai provinces converge, once drew the attention of the United Nations for possessing one of the best and largest wetlands in the world. Known as the Cistern of the Yellow River, the area is famed for supplying 45 percent of the river's water. But now more than 200 kilometers of the 433 kilometers of riverbank that run through Maqu are threatened by desertification, and the region's water area -- lakes, swamps and wetlands -- has shriveled from 66,700 hectares to a mere 20,000.

The banks have not yet been completely overtaken by sand dunes: they are still interspersed with odd patches of wheat-grass. "The areas of dunes here has enlarged since the 1950s because of climate and pressure on the pastureland," said Wu.

In the early 1950s, fewer than 10,000 people lived in Maqu County, and they kept perhaps 200,000 heads of cattle and sheep. Now the figures have risen to more than 30,000 humans and 1 million heads of livestock. Overuse has left the former grassland dry and barren.

More than 90 percent of the 856,000 hectares of grassland in the county have degenerated to some extent, and 6 percent of it is now desert. The situation has forced 2,500 herders and 168,000 heads of livestock to move away.

The banks of the Yellow River, once lush with well-watered grass, are the areas most severely affected by the desert's encroachment. This, along with drought, has led to a significant drop in the former wetlands water level. Some 1,000 springs have dried up and 11 branches of 27 main rivers are dry throughout the year. Other rivers run seasonally.

The impact of the problem reaches far beyond Maqu County.

"The increasingly severe desertification along the Yellow River inside Qinghai Province has raised the sand content of the water, which directly influences the water quality and quantity on the river's lower reaches," said Wu.

The Yellow River is China's second longest. It runs through nine provinces and autonomous regions, with a total length of 5,464 kilometers.

Since 2002, local governments have tried a number of measures to curb desertification. Low brush has been planted along the riverbanks to stop erosion. "Most of it has survived," Wu said.

A settlement project will soon get under way in which the traditionally nomadic herders will be encouraged to rear their livestock in pens to reduce the damage to the grasslands and vegetation.

China is facing the world's most serious desertification problem, with more than 40 percent of its land increasingly affected by wind erosion and desertification, according to an Asian Development Bank study. Human encroachment is accelerating the problem, as is global warming.

The environmental issue has profound social and economic consequences, including increased poverty in many rural communities, and higher unemployment and migration rates.

(Xinhua News Agency, translated by Li Jingrong for China.org.cn, July 20, 2004)

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