Friday, November 09, 2007

"Encroaching Desert, Hidden Water"

Headline of the week award goes to the Independent for this desertification article (even if I changed "missing" to "hidden" in my title).

This is a good article and is littered with examples of X watched as his farm disappeared and Y looked on as the lake dried up. All well and good and makes for a compelling read but there is a lack of substance.

For example,
"The water is less and less every year, and without water we can't grow the crops," said Jiang, who wears a baseball cap at a jaunty angle and smokes copious cigarettes as he sits on a stool surrounded by drying cotton.

What is the jaunty angled baseball cap telling us exactly?

The gathering sandstorm: Encroaching desert, missing water [Independent]
China is losing a million acres a year to desertification. In Dunhuang, a former Silk Road oasis in the Gobi, the resulting water shortage has become critical.

This statistic is more worrying. We all know that China is large and that it has a huge population but did we know that 1/5th of China is desert?
The government in Beijing acknowledges desertification as the biggest environmental challenge holding back sustainable development, and has pledged to control the country's spreading deserts, which already cover a fifth of its land.

So what can be done? The following quote does suggest that all will not continue to be rosy in China and a whiff of social unrest is in the air. If we thought a 1/5th was a lot SPEA are suggesting 40% "soon" although no indication is given to "how soon is now?"
China's environmental watchdog, Sepa, says the desert's march is claiming a million acres of land every year, and soon 40 per cent of China could be lost to the creeping sands brought in by worsening sandstorms. Millions of tons of sand from the Gobi desert are dumped on Beijing by sandstorms every spring, and Chinese dust makes its way into the skies above cities as far away as Los Angeles. China suffers from a shortage of 30 billion cubic metres of water for irrigation every year. And while China has more than 20 per cent of the world's population, it has only 7 per cent of its arable land, precious farmland that the desert is slowly but surely eating its way into. This could result in higher food prices throughout China, a potential disaster given 750 million people live on less than £1 a day and can ill afford more expensive rice and other staples.

Finally, to emphasise the economics lurking behind this story one only needs to look for the "tragedy of the commons" quotes that the locals inadvertently speak of:
In a neighbouring field, He Zicheng, 50, is clearing a field with his son Wei, loading the brush from the cotton fields on to a cart. His nine sheep nose around, seeking mouthfuls to nibble on. Slim pickings. "Without water the cotton doesn't grow well. Ten years ago we had more water, but there were too many wells and now we have this," he said.

Or what about this one:
Song points to a mark where the water level used to reach. "The biggest shortage we have at Dunhuang is water. It's disappearing because the water table is falling and the spring is not producing as much as before. The trees won't grow, because there is not enough water. It was used up by farmers when irrigation started in the 1970s and the underground water started to diminish," said Song.

Unless government policy includes issues related to "property rights" things are unlikely to improve.


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