Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ancient Chinese town on front lines of desertification battle

Terra Daily, via Agence France-Presse: …An ancient oasis in destitute Gansu province along the historic Silk Road, Dunhuang is in danger of being swallowed by the sands of the adjacent Kumtag desert, which are creeping closer at a rate of up to four metres (13 feet) a year. The city's plight starkly illustrates the threat of desertification and the hard choices it presents to tens of millions of people living across northern and western China.

About 2.6 million square kilometres (one million square miles) were classified as desert wasteland in the most recent government survey in 2004, up more than 50 percent in a decade and challenging China's ability to feed its 1.3 billion people. The problem stems from centuries of unsustainable grazing and farming practices and overuse of already slim and strained water resources. The government has attempted to blunt the spread through reforestation, incentives and other means, said Greenpeace China climate change campaigner Li Yan. But the hotter, drier climate due to global warming poses a renewed threat, she adds. "This is already a serious problem for China, and Greenpeace is extremely worried that climate change will worsen it," she said.

Once a welcome oasis for Silk Road travelers thanks to an ancient store of groundwater, Dunhuang is drying up. The water table in the city of 100,000 has dropped 12 metres (39 feet) since 1975 and is still falling as city growth strains the water supply, according to official figures. Its rivers and lakes have shrunk 80 percent in 30 years while the Kumtag dunes creep closer as vegetation that restrained the sands for aeons dies out…."It's a very complicated issue that shows we have ignored the environment too much in the past," Mayor Sun Yulong told AFP. "Now, changes are occurring. This is mother nature's way of punishing us."

Sandstorms -- higher in number and intensity -- also have accelerated the deterioration of the 1,000-year-old Buddhist frescoes at Dunhuang's Mogao caves, one of China's great historical sites and a growing tourist draw for the traditionally agrarian community. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called recently for renewed efforts to prevent Dunhuang becoming "a second Loulan," referring to another Silk Road stop further west that was swallowed by the desert in the last century…

No comments: