Located in the west of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Wulanbuhe is one of China's eight largest deserts, and is notorious for being the source of sandstorms that periodically scour northern China.
People are planting trees and grass to prevents the desert from expanding. [Xinhua File photo]
But had you come to Dengkou County on the northeast edge of the desert this summer, the lines of bushy grass and swathes of trees spreading across the sand dunes would have come as a surprise. "It used to be a sea of sand here. But after 10 years of effort, we now have a sand-fixing forest, 191 kilometers long and 500 meters wide in the eastern part of the desert," Ma Xuexian, deputy director of of the county's Forestry Bureau, says, proudly describing the oasis. "It prevents the desert from expanding eastward, effectively protecting the environment of Dengkou and the surrounding area."
The Search for a Solution
Attempts to control the sands began back in the 1950s, but as the original tree belt aged, a 40-km-long gap gradually opened up, with consequent deterioration of the environment, fierce winds and sandstorms. Nie Zhenhe, now in his 70s, recalls how things were: "Even if you wiped all the windowsill and cupboards at night, you'd find them covered with a layer of sand in the morning - two centimeters deep sometimes! And on windy days it was even worse. Tons of sand were deposited outside our doors and we couldn't get out until it had been moved out by the cart-load."
In 1998, a new desertification control project was launched in Dengkou County. Ma Xuexian arrived here some 20 years ago as a young university graduate working for the Forestry Bureau. He is visibly moved as he describes the difficulties that beset the tree-planting program to create a shelter belt: "The Wulanbuhe Desert gets only 100 millimeters of precipitation a year, but evaporation is 17 times that figure, which makes the environment too dry for most vegetation. On top of that, sandstorms usually tore up lines of saplings, which meant years of effort and millions of investment would be gone with the wind."
Over years of tireless endeavor, Dengkou County has amassed a battery of simple but practical methods for sand control. "Since there were no roads in the desert, the materials for planting trees had to be carried by humans or pack animals," Ma explains. "We spent most time actually getting to the site. Furthermore, people had to spend nights in the desert which may be ultra-hot during the day but freezing cold at night." Dengkou decided to build roads into the desert. "Along the main road we planted trees to fix the sand. Once this succeeded, we constructed sub-roads about two or three kilometers away from the main one, and planted trees along the new roads. Gradually a road system was formed, and the forest shelter belt alongside it."
So as to slow down the movement of the sands, the dunes were covered with a system of 1x1- or 1x2-meter grids made of straw and clay. Sacsaoul, a tenacious desert tree, was then planted inside the grids. This method stabilizes the sand and protects newly-planted shrubs from being uprooted by the wind and floating sand. "We used to replant saplings at least three times, but now the survival rate is up to 60 percent and the moving sands are almost fixed," says Ma.
Sacsaoul, known for its ability to survive drought, is planted all over the Wulanbuhe Desert to fix sands. It has amazing vitality, a high survival rate and a low planting cost.