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Battling the Desert in Minqin

The local people call part of their home county, Minqin, huqu, or Lake Area.

Minqin County, in northwest China's Gansu Province, however, is one of the driest areas in China, and possibly in the world.

The average annual rainfall here is about 110 millimeters, and the rate for evaporation is 24 times that of the precipitation.

Worse, the county is in between two deserts from the northeast and the northwest, with sand dunes approaching day by day.

Staunch battles

Sheng Yufang, a junior middle school graduate in Huanghui Village, has never stepped outside her hometown, like quite a few of the senior residents in and nearby villages. Sheng, 16, is still anticipating she will one day get the opportunity to venture beyond the village.

It takes about three hours' drive to reach the county town from the village via the sandy and hilly road.

Saving water, preventing the spread of the desert and planting trees, however, has become the most popular activities in their lives before she and her friends entered their teenage years.

When local children start their third year in primary school, they begin such work outdoors, especially during spring and autumn.

"Every kid here knows the skills to treat the sandy soil," said Yan Delun, a county official.

"We are divided into several groups responsible for different jobs, such as transporting wheat straws, spading sands and filling in the straws in a square-shaped area," Sheng said.

Filling in straws into the sand are believed to be an effective measure in slowing down the moving sand dunes.

Besides using the straws in curtailing the spread of the sands, planting trees are considered as the ultimate means to safeguard the oasis.

Shi Shuzhu from Songhe Village is a hero in the eyes of the Minqin people. Shi, who is over 70 years old, has spent more than half a century trying out different ways to help trees grow on this barren land.

Failure after failure, Shi eventually came up with ways to enable trees to survive against the strong winds and sandstorms.

Songhe Village has a patch of green land, the first in Minqin in 10 years. The patch has comforted Shi and offered a shred of hope to all the Minqin people.

In March, another 2,000 hectares of trees were planted in Minqin.

The artificial woods now cover 114,670 hectares of land in the county with some 342 kilometres of shelter belts built along the 408-kilometre-long stretch as sands fronts.

Statistics showed the tree coverage has improved to 10.64 percent today in Minqin, from 8.7 percent in the previous year.

Grave challenges

Every member of the local Minqin community, with a population of 300,000, willingly joins the battles against the expanding desert because they must safeguard their ancestral homes against fast approaching deserts, county official Yan said.

The campaign seems almost impossible.

In the past decades, sand dunes have eaten up 6,700 hectares of arable land, 3,900 hectares of woods and 26,300 hectares of grassland in the county.

Nearly 33,300 hectares of narrow-leaved oleasters and purple willows are on the brink of death.

In July, Hongyashan Reservoir, a major irrigation source to Minqin, almost dried out, the second time since last year.

What's more, nearly 95 percent of the county's total 16,000 square kilometers has been taken over by sands or dunes.

A decade ago, some 200 households had a population of 917 in Huanghui Village.

Today, more than half, most with only farming skills, have migrated to places where there is water.

The Shengs so far have stayed behind. Senior Sheng is a skilled welder, spending some four months a year travelling to and working in other villages and counties. He earns enough to support the whole family so he has not considered moving.

But life is not easy. The Shengs can only get the drinking water from another village 3 kilometers away.

"For every 10 days, I drive a three-wheeled motor to buy the sweet water for drinking, one yuan (12 US cents) for one tank," Sheng said.

The sweet water is dug from 300-metre-deep underground earth layer, said Sheng.

Sheng's elder daughter got married with a young man in that village, so the Shengs have the privilege to buy water there, the father explained.

Every morning, the whole family share the same basin of bitter water to wash. The water is then saved for washing clothes and watering the flowers.

"I haven't taken a bath for nearly 20 years," said Sheng Tangguo, Yufang's father.

But the ecological deterioration seemed to start only a few decades ago.

"When the gale blows, the sandstorm approaches me like a black monster attacking me," said Di Duohua, a Minqin native in his 30s who later moved to Lanzhou.

Di can still recall his unforgettable childhood when he and his buddies tried to catch hedgehogs, crows, pied magpies, sparrows and wild pigeons.

But the local children today rarely see the lovely animals and birds.

The Lake Area, where the Huanghui Village is located, was once a fertile place with abundant water and vegetation, said Yan, the county official.

The water surface covered about 400 square kilometers in the late 19th century, but it shrank to 120 square kilometers in the early 1900s.

The lake completely dried out by 1957 due to the lack of water supply from its upper reaches, especially from Daxihe River, and the fast advance of the sand dunes.

The moving sand dunes from Tengger Desert from the northeast and Badan Jara Desert from the northwest are likely to converge, if they maintain the current speed at 8 to 10 meters annually.

Minqin is very likely to be swallowed in the next decade as the two deserts finally meet, predicted Gao Qianzhao, an expert in Lanzhou branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.


Confronted with the grave prospect, researchers are trying to prescribe alternatives.

"People are fighting for the place where people shouldn't live in at all," said Xie Xiaodong, a researcher of Lanzhou University.

Xie has set his eyes on the local people's gene pool to study how it changes to adapt to nature's extreme conditions such as extreme thirst and coldness.

He also hopes to discover why Minqin is home to the highest incidence of stomach and lung cancer in China.

"Migration is a must," said Yan, the county official.

In the past five years, some 30,000 residents from Minqin have been relocated under a government project. Yan hopes that the central and provincial governments will continue to fund what he calls ecological migration.

For individuals like Shen Yufang, the best way to move out of Minqin is to pursue higher education.

If she fails her school entrance exams, she will get married, like her older sister, with a young man who lives in a place where there is sweet water.

(China Daily September 14, 2005)


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