China’s Kubuqi Desert, the seventh biggest in the country, earned its reputation as “the sea of death” because of its harsh conditions and the abject poverty in which its people live.
Situated in Inner Mongolia, sand dunes have swallowed grasslands where people lived and raised sheep as recently as 50 years ago.
Sandstorms known as the Yellow Dragon pollute the air as far as Beijing, more than 1 200 km away, causing asthmatics and those suffering from other chest ailments to be rushed to hospital. Plumes even cross the Pacific reaching the West Coast of the US.
In the past 30 years China formulated a game plan to tackle desertification in these parts and the Chinese believe the model can be replicated in different parts of the world as drought, poverty and scarce water are a serious problem.
Environmentalists have described the effects of climate change as a “deadly dance” as the poles melt, temperatures rise and soil degrades.
Scientists increasingly warn about the pitfalls of mining, infrastructure development and drying water beds. Land gives way to sand because of overuse, the clearing forests and stress on water resources.
To find solutions to the growing problem of desertification, delegates and leaders from different countries have been invited to attend the seventh Kubuqi International Desert Forum which will be held later this month.
One of the discussions on the agenda is the work of Chinese company Elion Resources Group. The company has saved more than 6000km2 of land from desertification through growing a “green wall” - cultivating traditional Chinese medicinal plants and building a solar energy centre.
The medicinal plant of choice is liquorice, which thrives in this tough environment . It has stimulated industries to improve the lives of the local people who earn an income through farming the plant and leasing land to grow it. These plants also help slow down desertification and gradually transform the desert areas into arable lands.
The green wall or barrier of trees helps counter the effects of sandstorms and rehabilitate the land.
The executive secretary-general of UN Convention to Combat Desertification, Monique Barbut, has hailed the rehabilitation of the desert as a model for the global community because it emphasised the balance between the ecosystem, the economy and the people.
According to Elion’s researchers, deserts cover nearly 40 million km2 of the Earth, accounting for a quarter of its land surface. More than 110 countries and about 1 billion people around the world have been affected by desertification.
According to a UN study, large parts of Africa and Asia are at risk, as are some parts of North America.
Barbut recently spoke at the UN convention where the Joint Action Initiative to combat desertification, rehabilitate degraded land and mitigate the effects of drought was launched.
The initiative aims to make China’s ambitious rejuvenation of the old Silk Road environmentally sustainable.
The “One Belt One Road” plans to boost economies from China, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean to parts of Africa, Asia and Europe. But these plans could prove futile as many of the countries along the belt are affected by desertification and drought.
According to the UN News Centre, Barbut called for the international community to come up with long-term solutions to “battle the ravages of drought and flood which are destroying communities”.
She warned that drought and floods devastate families and destabilise communities because they lead to mass migrations - leaving the vulnerable open to human rights abuses and long-term security threats.
She said the UK Ministry of Defence estimates up to 60 million Africans risked migration as a result of desertification in the next two decades.
She believes China’s experience in rehabilitating man-made deserts back to health and its knowledge could benefit initiatives such as Africa’s Great Green Wall and the re-greening in southern Africa.
The African-led project aims to grow 8 000km of trees and plants across the width of Africa to provide food and jobs.
Environmentalists believe this is an opportunity for China to spearhead work in a climate change-resilient world and to make its mark in green development.
Peters is the Live Editor of Weekend Argus. She is on a 10-month scholarship with the China Africa Press Centre.