The Digital Journalist
Taming the Yellow Dragon:
Climate Change in Western China
May 2007

by James Whitlow Delano

The Chinese call it Taming the Yellow Dragon. It is a battle to halt irresistible yellow Gobi Desert sands that are advancing, filtering into and burying villages.

In the 1950s, during the policies of the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong ordered marginal steppe grassland to be ploughed, unleashing massive dust storms reminiscent of America's Dust Bowl years during the 1930s. In spring, sands reach Seoul and sometimes even Tokyo.

Livestock populations in China have tripled to 400 million since 1950. There are 298 million sheep in China versus only 8 million in the United States.

Migrants forced off of desiccated land may eventually number in the tens of millions. Two-and-a-half million "Okies" fled the American Dust Bowl in a similar-sized country but with a population of only 150 million. With 1.3 billion people, Chinese migrants have far fewer options.

Tengger Gobi Desert sands slam into and jump across the Yellow River at Shapotou, Ningxia. A massive desert reclamation project there is attempting to turn back the Yellow Dragon, but will their efforts bear fruit? Fine sand particles filter in under doorways, fill in irrigation channels, while tons of crushing sand accumulates against windward walls. For this reason, the Yellow Dragon is a formidable enemy both for the farmers and for the central government as well.

Further to the north in Alashan Banner, Inner Mongolia, winds drive mountains of Tengger Gobi sand eastward over and around centuries-old pastoral villages and farms, and strangles desiccated grasslands. During the last 50 years, 600 of Alashan's 800 freshwater lakes have dried up and disappeared forever. Streams which ran down from the 3,500 m-high (11,500 ft.) Helan Mountains are now dry. Springs in the valley have dried up and hold-out farmers must drill deeper and deeper to access the greatly diminished ancient aquifer.

On the order of Mao, Mongols' semi-nomadic pastoral patterns, perfectly suited to their unique environment, were no longer permitted. Fragile steppe pasture in semi-arid Alashan was quickly overgrazed, dried out and in many areas died out all together. Unlike further north in (Outer) Mongolia, lack of widespread grasslands means a return to such patterns is no longer possible.

Less grass means more evaporation, and less rain. Droughts have become prolonged. Alashan's rainfall has fallen to 10 cm per year, about four inches, but the evaporation rate is 320 cm annually, or 125 inches. By definition, a desert region receives less than 25 cm (10 inches) of rainfall per year. Colorado's eastern grasslands by comparison receive nearly 50 cm, or 20 inches, of rain annually. Alashan's rainfall figures now place it firmly within the definition of desert, not semi-arid grassland.

China's Environmental Agency says that the Gobi Desert expanded 52,400 square km (20,240 square miles) from 1994 to 1999, about half the size of the state of Pennsylvania.

Uncertainty is the constant for the people of these marginal lands. Should the Yellow Dragon force millions off the land, these desperate farming families could soon join armies of rural migrants flooding to China's more prosperous cities, further straining the gap between rich and poor.

View The Taming the Yellow Dragon Gallery

© James Whitlow Delano