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'Energy Revolution' at Sand-haunted Villages

Fifteen kilometers away from the eastern edge of Tengger Desert, China's fourth largest, is the Wangzhuang Village of northwestern Gansu Province. The tradition of felling trees as firewood left the village threatened with desertification.

But an energy substitute plan sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2000 gives the 582 families at Wangzhuang a new hope to save their ancestral homeland from the threat of creeping sands.

The plan aims to replace the firewood with such "green energy" as marsh gas, wind power and solar energy to resume a healthy ecological system in the rural areas of the seven northwestern provinces and autonomous regions, for example, Ningxia, Xinjiang and Gansu, which suffered most from desertification, said Hao Xianrong, an official from the ministry who is in charge of the plan.

Experts said besides unfavorable climate, human activities such as illegal grazing and excessive logging have also led to expansion of desertified and sandy areas.

"The launching of the new plan shows the Chinese government becoming more rational and sensible on desertification control," said Dong Zhibao, deputy director of the key lab on desert and desertification under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

For the villagers of Wangzhuang, however, the energy substitute plan has brought "visible" changes to their daily life.

"Using marsh gas can save a lot of money," said Zhao Dabao, 56, who built a methane-generating pit in 2002.

"In the past, we used firewood and coal for cooking and warming. Before the pit was built, however, I had to spend more than 600 yuan (US$72.3) a year to buy coal as there were few trees and little grass around our village," said Zhao.

"At the same time, our village has become greener in recent years because we know we need more trees and grass to protect our village and we don't have to use firewood," said the old man.

In the past, under the belief that "man can conquer nature," the Chinese government took some measures, like planting trees in desert, to fight against the spreading desert. But such plans have proved to violate the order of nature, said Dong, adding that a recent example can be found in the Minqin County, northwestern Gansu Province.

Lying between the two deserts of Tengger and Badain Jaran, the future of Minqin seems gloomy. The ground water level of the county has dropped half to one meter in the past 20 years due to the overuse of water resources to control desertification.

"All the 9,000-hectare plantation of narrow-leaved oleaster has withered and another 23,300-hectare rose willow forest is also on the verge of dying," said Chen Dexing, head of the county.

In addition, although the Chinese government has poured huge amounts of investment to curb desertification over the past decades, the funds have not brought benefits due to the lack of a unified plan for using the money.

"In some areas, the average investment on per hectare land is only around 40 yuan (US$4.8), which is not even enough to dig a pit, let alone to control desertification," said Dong.

Desertification and sandification were said to be "ugly skin diseases" of the earth and China pays a direct economic loss of 54 billion yuan (US$6.5 billion) every year for the diseases with the lives of about 400 million people affected, said Zhu Lieke, deputy director of the State Forestry Administration.

To change the situation, the Chinese government has poured about US$15 billion to improve its ecological environment since 2000.

The latest nationwide monitoring shows that the desertified areas were 2.6362 million square kilometers and the sandy land was1.7397 million square kilometers by the end of 2004, taking up 27.46 percent and 18.12 percent of the country's land area respectively and both seeing a shrinkage for the first time since 1949, according to the SFA.

"The work of desertification and sandification control, however, remains tough as more than 500,000 square kilometers out of the country's 1.74 million square kilometers of sandy areas can be controlled but are still lying untouched," said Zhu.

Meanwhile, the official said, about 320,000 square kilometers of land is exposed to the threat of sandification given continuing irrational utilization.

"It will take decades for the country to improve the ecological conditions in these sandificated areas, but the point is we can never wait and we should do it in a proper way," said Zhu. 

(Xinhua News Agency June 18, 2005)

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