Friday, May 22, 2009

'We have taken every measure we can think of to stop the desert moving closer and submerging our crops and villages'

Farmers end up as eco-refugees in a government relocation plan aimed at giving them a better life

When the desert winds tear up the sands outside his front door, Huang Cuikun, pictured below in a dried- up riverbed near his home, says he is choked by dust, visibility falls to a few metres and the crops are ruined.

Dust storms hit his village in Gansu province more often than in the past. The water table is falling. Temperatures rise year by year. Yet Huang says this is an improvement. Three years ago the government relocated him from an area where the river ran dry and the well became so salinated that people who drank from it fell sick.

"Life is easier now," he says, puffing on a cigarette in the new brick home that the authorities have given him. "When we lived in Donghuzhen, we had little water and the crops couldn't grow. Our income was tiny and we were very poor."

Huang is one of millions of Chinese eco-refugees who have been resettled because their home environments degraded to the point where they were no longer fit for human habitation. The government says more than 150 million people will have to be moved. Water shortages exacerbated by over-irrigation and climate change are the main cause.

The problem is most severe in the north-west, where desert sands are swallowing up farmland, homes and towns. Huang lives in Mingqin, a shrinking oasis area that government advisers privately describe as an "ecological disaster area".

The Yellow river is diverted more than 62 miles (100km) to replenish dried-up reservoirs and aquifers in Minqin, where the population has swollen from 860,000 to 2.3 million over the last 60 years, even as water supplies have declined.

It is not enough. The Tengger desert is encroaching from the south-east and the Badain Jaran desert from the north-west. Since 1950 the oasis has shrunk by 111 square miles (288 sq km), while the number of annual superdust storms has increased more than fourfold. In Liangzhou district, 240 of the 291 springs have dried up.

No comments: