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How Is China Turning Deserts Into Arable Lands?

The idea of turning deserts into forests seems promising, but how tangible is it?

A report from the UN reveals that drylands, including vast areas of desert, cover 41.3% of Earth’s total land area. What if large amounts of this land could be converted into fertile ground capable of producing crops? This is a particularly important question in China, which has a total land area of 3.5 million square miles, but only 12% of which is arable. 

In 2016, researchers from China’s Chongqing Jiaotong University claimed to have developed a novel technology that can convert desert to arable land. 

At first glance, the idea of converting deserts into farmlands seems beneficial to agriculture, the economy, reforestation, and natural resource management. However, the impact of converting desert and grassland to arable land could have large-scale repercussions on the Earth’s climate, biodiversity, and overall ecological balance.

How China turns desert into farmland 

The technology developed by the researchers at Chongqing Jiaotong University involves a paste made from plant cellulose, that can greatly improve the ability of desert sands to hold water, minerals, air, microbes, and nutrients essential for plant growth.

This paste was applied to a sandy 1.6-hectare plot in the Ulan Buh Desert, in the Mongolian Autonomous Region. Over time, the plot was transformed into fertile cropland capable of producing tomatoes, rice, watermelon, sunflowers, and corn.

Professor Yang Qingguo, of Jiaotong University, explained that “The costs of artificial materials and machines for transforming sand into the soil is lower compared with controlled environmental agriculture and reclamation” 

According to the Chinese researchers, the plants grown in the sandy plot delivered higher crop yields, using the same amount of water needed for growing crops in normally arable soils. Moreover, the amount of fertilizer needed to produce the crops was lower than what is generally required for the growth of vegetables in other soils.   

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This research was conducted by scientists Yi Zhijian and Zhao Chaohua, and their results were published in 2016 in the English language journal Engineering, which is released by the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE). The technique undertaken by the researchers was also presented at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), an initiative begun in 1994, with the aim of stopping the advance of desertification by 2030 through the use of global cooperation and long-term strategies. 

The Three-North Shelter Forest Program in China

How Is China Turning Deserts Into Arable Lands?
Source: Suzy Hazelwood/pexels

The research work at Jiatong University is not the first Chinese attempt to convert desert into fertile land. China launched a much more ambitious program in 1978, known as the Three-North Shelter Forest Program, and often referred to as the Three-North Shelterbelt Program, or Great Green Wall. The goal of this program is to stop the expansion of the vast Gobi Desert and initiate reforestation projects in the northeast, north, and northwest regions.

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Thus far, the program has effectively curbed the expansion of desertification and helped prevent sandstorms and soil erosion, conserve water and soil, and safeguard agriculture in the region.

The Shelter Forest Program has a projected completion date of 2050, by which time it is estimated that a projected 35 million hectares (87 million acres) of land will have been converted to forest. The Chinese government claims it is the world’s biggest reforestation initiative. 

In the past four decades, more than 7.88 million hectares of windbreak trees have been planted, 336,200 square kilometers of desertification have been reversed, and more than 10 million hectares of grasslands have been protected or restored, according to a report released by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

At the same time, in the Loess Plateau, grass and forest coverage has been increased by around 60%, and the silt build-up in the Yellow River has been reduced considerably. 

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NASA satellite images confirm that forest cover has increased in China over the last 20 years due to the various conservation efforts launched by the Chinese government. 

How Is China Turning Deserts Into Arable Lands?
Increased greenery across India and China. Source: Earth Observatory NASA

However, some elements of the project have been considered controversial. For example, during the early years of the project, monoculture was adopted in some areas, which reduced species biodiversity and led to the spread of plant diseases.

Jennifer L. Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson Center, told National Geographic magazine in 2017 that. "With the Great Green Wall, people are planting lots of trees in big ceremonies to stem desertification, but then later no one takes care of them, and they die.”

The magazine also pointed out that afforestation can exceed the land’s carrying capacity, dooming the trees to an eventual death without constant human intervention. For this reason, in 2008, the World Bank recommended China focus more on quality than quantity in some areas of the project.

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Despite some initial problems, China has continued the world’s largest afforestation project and this has resulted in some positive outcomes. Since the project began, the northern region has witnessed a growth in green cover from 5% to 13.5%, and sections of the Gobi desert are now blooming with healthy vegetation, fertile soil, and increased rainfall.    

Another major breakthrough came in the form of replacing the Maowusu Desert in northern China's Inner Mongolia Region with lush forest. By 2020, 93.24% of the Maowusu desert had been restored with vegetation, and the desert areas, which were previously ranked among China's four largest, have now almost disappeared from the map.

Beyond the Great Green Wall, China has taken other measures to stem the growth of deserts. A series of laws passed beginning in the early 2000s, also addressed the problem with efforts to return some farm and grazing lands to a state of forest cover or grassland.

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More attempts across the world to transform deserts into forests

How Is China Turning Deserts Into Arable Lands?
Source: Quang Nguyen Vinh/pexels

More green cover could mean increased food security, more rainfall, higher yield, decreased soil erosion, and less land degradation. In addition to those working in China, there are many researchers working on afforestation technology and projects. 

  • Liquid Nano Clay (LNC), a special sand treatment that can change the dry character of sand particles by the means of a clay coating and allows them to hold water, was developed by Norwegian scientist Kristian Morten Olesen in 2005. Olesen claims that using this method, any poor-quality sand can rapidly be converted into high-yield soil. 
  • In 2018, Desert Control, the company started by Olesen, joined with Dubai's International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) to conduct laboratory and field experiments to prove LNC’s potential in transforming UAE’s desert lands into lush green fertile regions. Faisal Al Shimmari, an innovator from UAE, conducted an experiment in which he farmed two lands, one treated with LNC and the other without LNC. He found out that the LNC treated land consumed only 81 cubic meters of water to produce crops compared to the 137 cubic meters of water used by the untreated area. Excited with this initial success, Desert Control now plans to boost its nano clay production to further escalate the process of desert reforestation in the UAE whereas, the UAE government also sees LNC as an opportunity to increase food security in the country.
  • Center-pivot irrigation, an efficient water distribution technique developed by American farmer Frank Zybach in the 1940s, and which is credited with helping to restore land after the "Dust Bowl," is now being practiced extensively in arid regions such as Libya, India, and the UAE.  The system is designed to minimize water loss through evaporation, by utilizing a combination of sprinkler and drip irrigation methods that feeds water from a pivot point within a circle.
  • More than 90% of Egypt's total land area is desert, but the country is strongly committed to stopping desertification and converting its arid land into arable land. Over the decades, Egypt has engaged in a number of afforestation and de-desertification projects, including the use of nanoclay and soil formation using compost. Between 1998 and 2020, the Serapium Forest project replaced 200 hectares (494 acres) of desert land with trees, using treated sewage water. In the coming years, the government hopes to launch similar projects to generate more arable land.
  • In 2007, 11 countries on the African continent came together under the leadership of the African Union to establish The Great African Green Wall. This large afforestation project has a goal of creating an 8,000 Km long green corridor across Africa by 2030. As a result of the Great Green Wall project, Senegal has managed to restore  800,000 hectares of degraded land, Niger has planted 149 million plants, and Ethiopia has successfully grown 5.5 billion plants and seedlings for local communities. However, more than halfway through the project's schedule, it has covered only 4% of its target area.
  • Mauji island, a barren wasteland in Assam, India was turned into a productive forest spanning across 550 hectares of land, by Jadav Payeng, who has been dubbed the forest man of India. Jadav started planting trees as a teenager to prevent soil erosion and he continued to plant trees throughout the Mauji region for the next 40 years. Recently, he joined forces with Fundación Azteca, an NGO that aims to plant 7 million trees in Mexico in the coming years.
  • In 2019, the government of India introduced the concept for the Great Green Wall of India, a 1400 km long green corridor that would be developed from Porbandar to Panipat, and could restore the country's drylands through extensive afforestation. 
  • Shyam Sundar Jyani, winner of UNCCD's 2021 Land for Life Award has planted more than 2.5 million trees in the dry state of Rajasthan, India. He focused on indigenous species tree plantation and by the means of his grassroot campaigns, he inspired thousands of villagers for tree plantation in different arid areas of Rajasthan. 

What if all deserts turn green and fertile?

How Is China Turning Deserts Into Arable Lands?
Source: Pok Rie/pexels

If all the deserts on Earth become fertile, this would have a number of consequences, both positive and negative for life on earth.

  • Food insecurity is a serious global issue at present. According to a 2019 UN report,  around 750 million people are currently facing high or extreme levels of food insecurity. With enough arable land, there is the possibility that the agriculture sector could expand enough to end food insecurity.
  • Fewer deserts could mean more land would be available for forest animals and plant species, this will lead to an increase in biodiversity. However, at the same time, the extinction or reduction in desert-based species could lead to an ecological imbalance.
  • Deserts play a key role in regulating the earth’s temperature, and their dry condition promotes the concentration and formation of useful minerals such as potassium, borate, gypsum, nitrate, etc. If all the deserts on our planet disappear, then this would likely adversely affect the earth’s climate, and there might be a question of the continued availability of various minerals. 
  • Apart from the vast array of plant and animal species that may not survive without deserts, there are 2.1 billion humans who have made drylands their home, and they are well adapted to the desert lifestyle. Such communities may struggle for existence in the absence of drylands, and they would need to adapt to new ways of life.    
  • Forests have long been touted as a natural system for carbon sequestration, which means that more forests could reduce global warming. However, although trees take up carbon through photosynthesis, they also emit a complex range of chemicals, some of which can warm the planet. Trees with dark leaves may also raise temperatures by absorbing sunlight. A recent research suggests that the warming effects from forests could partially or fully offset their cooling ability.
  • Forests in the place of deserts could bring more rainfall and an increase in the availability of freshwater with it. This would be a great relief to one-fifth of the human population that is currently facing water scarcity. However, this would also have a far-reaching and unknown effect on the planet's overall climate.

Desert greening is a challenging task but the experiments conducted in China and other parts of the world to implement desert reforestation on a large scale have raised hopes for a healthy and resourceful future ahead.

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