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Desertification in Tibet’s Wetlands Threatens the Yellow River

Desertification in Tibet’s Wetlands Threatens the Yellow River

The “kidneys” of the Tibetan plateau are failing.

The Zoige Wetland National Nature Reserve, which sits on the northeastern fringe of western China’s Qinghai-Tibet plateau, contains the largest alpine peat wetlands in the world. It is also the catchment area for the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers; known as the “kidneys of the plateau,” these wetlands provide at least 30 percent of the water flowing into the upper reaches of the Yellow River.

But they are gradually disappearing. Desertification here is increasing at a rate of more than 10 percent per year. “Of the county’s seventeen villages and towns, ten are suffering from desertification, and more than 70,000 hectares are affected,” said the deputy head of Zoige County Forestry Bureau, Zuo Lin. “The situation is quite critical.”

Water increasingly scarce

Herdsmen on Zoige county’s grasslands are finding it more and more difficult to find water these days, explained Sonam Dorje, a staff member at Zoige Wetland National Nature Reserve. “You used to be able to dig down two or three meters and find water; then later you had to dig seven or eight meters. Now in some places you have to go below 10 meters.” He described how, after many years of studying the area, he has watched the underground water level sharply decline and plants die off, exposing thick layers of sand.

The situation in Maixi township, Xiaman township, and Tangke township is especially serious, said Sonam Dorje. In the hardest hit places, the desertified area doubles in size every year. “Sometimes you have pasture still there in the summer but by winter it has already turned to sand,” he said. “Herders are abandoning more and more areas because they are unsuitable for grazing.”

Zoige has conducted four desertification surveys since 1995. The first found that only 16,000 hectares were desertified. The latest research, carried out in 2009, showed that in the whole of Zoige county, 72,000 hectares were desertified, or 6.76 percent of the county’s total area. Today, the area of grassland in this county which is threatened by desertification has reached 135,000 hectares, with close to 30,000 people affected, that’s about 39 percent of the whole county’s population.

Deputy head of Zoige Wetland National Nature Reserve Li Hua said that Zoige’s genuine wetlands are shrinking—that more and more land is turning to grassland. Currently, just under a third of the wetlands are in their original state; the other two thirds are degraded.

There were originally more than 300 lakes of all sizes in Zoige. Today, more than 200 of them have dried up. Those left are far smaller than they used to be, or have turned into seasonal lakes. Maixi township’s Xingcuo Lake was originally 469 hectares in size; it is now less than 10.

Grazing pressure on the grassland

As one of the country’s “big five” grasslands, Zoige faces a livestock overload. There were 330,000 heads of livestock in Zoige county in 1953, according to local government statistics. By 2011, that number had climbed to 1.2 million.

In the past, the pressure prompted efforts to actively expand the grassland. By digging drainage ditches to turn wetland into grassland, went the logic, locals would have space for more cattle and sheep, ensuring long-term prosperity. In 1964, the year of the “Learn from Dazhai” campaign—Mao Zedong’s call to the people of China to follow the success story of a farming community in Shanxi province—more than 380 kilometers of ditches were dug across one million mu (667 square kilometers) of wetlands in order to drain water into the Yellow River. This has been one of the key drivers of Zoige’s desertification plight.

Zuo Lin explained how peat wetlands form: during winter-time, many herbaceous plants die and rot. The decaying vegetation piles up over a long period of time and, via a complex process, eventually forms peat. It grows thicker and thicker and is like a sponge, which means it can store water. When a wetland degrades, Zuo continued, the first sign is that water levels begin to drop. The wetlands gradually shrink and turn to grassland, losing their ability to store water. Lacking a water source, the grasslands soon turn into desert.

To the east of Zoige is the Yangtze River and to its west is the Yellow River. The western peat wetlands have a water-storage capacity of 5.6 billion cubic meters; add to that the water storage of the lake and grassy marshland and the total water-storage capacity of Zoige’s wetlands is close to 10-billion cubic meters. It is the world’s largest alpine “solid reservoir” and it is known as the Yellow River’s water resource. Zoige plays an irreplaceable role in regulating the climate, protecting soil and water and maintaining biodiversity. The protection of the wetlands is connected with the security of the Yellow River system and the region’s ecological stability.

The piecemeal protection of Zoige’s wetlands began back in the 1960s. Sichuan province, in which Zoige lies, has made efforts to conserve parts of the wetlands through the Wetland Protection Project and the Northwestern Sichuan Desertification Project. By measures including filling in drainage ditches and raising the water levels in lakes, they have restored part of the wetlands.

But overgrazing has challenged these efforts. Sonam Dorje explained that the grasslands are currently divided up between households. That means that, if you want to protect the land, you need to seek the approval of the herders who have usage rights over it. “However, as you start filling in ditches and canals, the wetlands begin to recover, and the grazing area for the herders’ cattle will decrease,” he said. “So it’s very difficult to implement this ditch-filling policy on a large scale. On the whole, we can only fill in a couple of kilometers worth every year.”

Efforts to control the spread of sand are also affected by overgrazing. When herders see grass beginning to grow on a sparse pasture after sand barriers and sand controls have been put in place, they quickly move their sheep and cattle to that area of land. If wire netting is put up to protect it, they just cut the wire, and the animals get in and graze as before.

Sonam Dorje said: “Desertified areas need about three years to recover after being treated according to our experience. But since we are dealing with a vast, but sparsely populated area, they are especially difficult to protect. People often damage the fences, undermining the effectiveness of the protection work.”

The struggle for permanent protection

In Zuo Lin’s opinion, years of conservation work have been unable to prevent the problem of the wetlands being “partially protected but overall deteriorating.”

“Between 2004 and 2007, less than 2,000 hectares of all levels of desertified land were fully restored across the whole of Zoige county, which only accounts for 4.58 percent of all newly desertified land during this period,” he said. Insufficient investment in late-stage protection means some of the restored land ends up facing degradation for the second time, he added.

Gu Haijun, deputy chief of Sichuan Forestry Department’s wetland-protection center has repeatedly said that wetland conservation still lacks long-term, sustainable project support. The other major problem, Gu told China National Radio, is a lack of funds. They need more than one billion yuan (US$158 million) to fill in just 800 kilometers of ditches, he said. But the whole county’s annual fiscal revenue is only 20 million yuan (US$3.2 million). Even just to maintain basic government operations, Zoige looks strapped for cash.

In July, the State Forestry Administration’s Wetland Conservation and Management Centre sent a research group to Zoige’s wetlands. The group concluded that the key to a sustainable future on Zoige’s wetlands is to implement the “West Sichuan and Tibet ecological conservation and construction plan” as soon as possible, adopt comprehensive measures and carry out wetland conservation and desertification control on many different levels and fronts.

Topics: 
chinadialogue is a bilingual source of high-quality news, analysis, and discussion on all environmental issues, with a special focus on China. Founded by international journalist and broadcaster...

Deng Hai is a journalist at New Century Weekly, where this article was first published. Read this article at chinadialogue.

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In the wake of China’s recent food scandal, Chinese premier Li Keqiang has vowed to enforce the toughest food safety regulations.“We need to crack down on practices that violate laws and regulations with a heavy fist, and make the lawbreakers pay an unaffordable price for...

Environment

05.20.13

Water-Trading Could Exacerbate Water Shortages in China

CHINADIALOGUE

Large-scale engineering projects and rigorous state control are hallmarks of the Chinese developmental model, and both have been apparent in the country’s approach to water management.A US$62 billion project to divert water from the south to the parched north is under way,...

Environment

05.17.13

China Tops Table for Disaster-Induced Displacement of...

CHINADIALOGUE

More than a third of all people forced from their homes by disasters such as floods, storms, and earthquakes in the past five years were in China, says a new report from the leading international body on displacement.Around 49.8 million Chinese people were displaced by natural...

Environment

05.16.13

Singapore’s Growth Story Holds Lessons for Water-...

CHINADIALOGUE

When the tiny city-state of Singapore gained independence in 1965, its social, economic, political, and environmental constraints appeared so formidable that many of those looking in from outside predicted a future of dismal dimensions.Forty years on, the reality looks very...

Environment

05.03.13

Time to End Secrecy Over Chinese Overseas Fishing

CHINADIALOGUE

It is well-known that overseas fishing fleets are more cavalier in terms of respect for laws and regulations than their domestic counterparts. There are innumerable examples from all over the world of fishing with gears that are not part of agreements, or catching amounts of fish...

Environment

04.30.13

Why Has Water-Rich Yunnan Become A Drought Hotspot?

CHINADIALOGUE

Yunnan’s drought continues. During China’s annual parliamentary session in March, the deputy party secretary of the southwest Chinese province, Qiu He, blamed spring floodwaters that flow through Yunnan and on into other countries for the water shortages. He proposed a...

Environment

04.22.13

Why It’s Time to End China-Bashing on the Environment

CHINADIALOGUE

The major impact that international summits and treaties have had on China’s environmental governance is often overlooked. Environmental protection first emerged as an issue in China in 1972, after the country dispatched a delegation to the U.N. Conference on the Human...

Environment

04.16.13

Morococha: The Peruvian Town the Chinese Relocated

CHINADIALOGUE

The headlines have been stark: a Chinese mining company moves an entire Peruvian town of 5,000 people five miles down the road to make way for its new mine.It sounds like another story about an extractive corporation riding roughshod over local lives. But the reality is more...

Environment

04.10.13

Writing Yunnan a Rubber Check

CHRIS HORTON

Our van stopped at a scenic vista on the contour road where verdant mountains undulated southward toward China’s border with Laos. Stepping out to take some photos, I was overcome by an acrid, unpleasant odor. I asked my local travel partner, Xiao Guan, what the stink was.“...

Environment

03.22.13

Public Fury After Chinese Environment Minister Keeps...

CHINADIALOGUE

In his eight years as China’s environmental protection minister, Zhou Shengxian has failed to keep almost a single promise. I say “almost”: he has kept his word at least when it comes to his own career—as promised, he has not quit.When the new leadership’s ministerial...

Environment

03.18.13

Baby Milk Restrictions Cause Outrage in Mainland China

CHINADIALOGUE

The Hong Kong government’s recent listing of baby formula as a “reserved commodity” and a 1.8kg per person per day export limit has sparked widespread criticism—as well as becoming a hot topic at China’s annual session of parliament [the Lianghui, or “Two Meetings...

Environment

03.13.13

Chinese Fracking Plans Prompt “Water-Grabbing”...

CHINADIALOGUE

China has become one of Asia’s leaders in expanding unconventional shale-gas extraction in the name of energy self-sufficiency and national autonomy. Experiences of “fracking” worldwide, however, suggest the costs to China of joining this revolution will be loss of control...

Environment

03.06.13

Environmentalists Unconvinced by Wen Jiabao’s Green...

CHINADIALOGUE

China’s outgoing premier Wen Jiabao vowed that the government would solve the country’s ever-worsening pollution in his final work report yesterday as he opened the annual session of parliament.But coming amid rising public concern about China’s air, water, and soil quality...

Environment

03.02.13

China Criticized over Tiger Farms and Illegal Ivory

CHINADIALOGUE

China is under pressure to regulate its rampant trade in illegal ivory and tiger parts ahead of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), opening this weekend in Bangkok.It has also been accused of quietly stimulating domestic markets for tiger skins...

Environment

02.28.13

Drought and Earthquakes Pose “Enormous Risk” to...

CHINADIALOGUE

When the Fukushima nuclear disaster struck, China was building new nuclear power capacity at a rate unprecedented in world history: 40 percent of all reactors planned or under construction were in China. Targets for installed nuclear generation capacity by 2020 were raised...

Environment

02.22.13

Could Smartphones Help Clear China’s Congested Roads?

CHINADIALOGUE

The extraordinary growth of China’s cities is well-known. Today, 160 Chinese metropolises have over one million inhabitants and more than half the population lives in urban areas, which are growing at two to three times the rate of Western cities.One sector feeling the weight...

Environment

02.20.13

Air Quality in China: A Snapshot

TEA LEAF NATION

Nearly five weeks ago, Beijing experienced its worst day of air quality on record: Levels of PM2.5—small particulates that can cause lung, cardiovascular, and respiratory disease—soared to more than thirty times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization.View...

Environment

02.19.13

China’s Disappointing Absence from U.N. Water Summit

CHINADIALOGUE

After recent heated debate over China’s mega-dam plans, any visitor to the launch on February 11 of the U.N.’s much-vaunted International Year of Water Cooperation would have been disappointed.As well as a notable absence of any representatives from China, there was...

Environment

02.14.13

A Progress Report on U.S.-China Energy & Climate Change...

LEAH THOMPSON

In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama committed to confronting climate change, stating, “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.” These were welcome words...

Environment

02.13.13

Nuclear Fusion: An Answer to China’s Energy Problems?

CHINADIALOGUE

The global nuclear sector has been through something of an apocalyptic patch since the disaster at Fukushima—from power station shutdowns in Japan and Germany to waste-plan chaos in the U.K. to doubts about China’s ability to showcase new reactor designs.But not everything is...

Environment

02.07.13

Xi Jinping Must Tackle Corruption and Boost Innovation...

CHINADIALOGUE

In January 2013, Australia’s biggest supermarket chain Woolworths began restricting sales of baby formula to four tins per customer after a massive increase in demand stripped shelves bare of popular brands such as Karicare.The buyers were not Australian mothers suddenly...

Environment

01.25.13

Climate Change, Not Grazing, Destroying the Tibetan...

CHINADIALOGUE

Sanjiangyuan—which literally translates as the “three river source area”—feeds China’s mightiest rivers. The 300,000-square kilometer region, high on western China’s Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, provides a quarter of the Yangtze’s water, almost half of the Yellow River...

Environment

01.15.13

We’re Winning the Air Pollution Data Battle—So What...

CHINADIALOGUE

Last year, China made a breakthrough in the publication of air quality data, as more than sixty cities started to monitor and publish levels of the dangerous air pollutant PM2.5. But the figures themselves were depressing. With PM2.5—fine particulates—and ozone now included...

Environment

01.07.13

Taxi Drivers in China Have Highest PM2.5 Air Pollutant...

CHINADIALOGUE

A study conducted by Greenpeace has revealed that taxi drivers suffer the greatest levels of exposure to PM2.5 air pollution: three times that of the average person, and five times the world standard.The study, carried out by Greenpeace in partnership with the Beijing University...

Environment

01.07.13

Car-Driving Officials in China Urged to Get on a Bus

CHINADIALOGUE

China’s new leadership has asked government officials to travel simply and, in normal circumstances, not to close roads to ease their journeys. In a recent visit to the Qianhai area of Shenzhen, south China, incoming president Xi Jinping made sure to follow the new rules.As a...

Environment

01.02.13

China’s New “Middle Class” Environmental Protests

CHINADIALOGUE

China’s urban residents (or the new “middle class”) protest on the streets only very rarely. Discontent is expressed almost exclusively online, via angry typing. But this has changed over the last five years—protests have come offline and on to the streets.2012 saw...

Environment

12.21.12

China’s Environment in 2012

CHINADIALOGUE

From mass protests to trade wars, shale-gas drilling to hazardous cosmetics, it’s been a topsy turvy twelve months for China’s environment. Here’s a quick refresher of the year that was.JanuaryThe year got off to a bang – literally. The customary fireworks set off for...

Environment

11.28.12

Russia’s Siberian Dams Power “Electric Boilers”...

CHINADIALOGUE

The underdeveloped, sparsely populated Eastern Siberia region that shares a 4,000-kilometer border with China has vast resources to offer its heavily populated and fast-developing neighbor. Hydroelectricity is key among them.A major new hydroelectric plant commissioned on October...

Environment

11.27.12

Millions Await News of Test-tube Panda Taotao’s “...

CHINADIALOGUE

On October 11, at the age of two years and two months, giant panda Taotao went home.This was China’s second attempt to introduce a giant panda born through artificial insemination into the wild. Unlike last time, however, Taotao was born and raised in an environment designed to...

Environment

11.15.12

China’s Low-Carbon Zones Lack Motivation, Guidance,...

CHINADIALOGUE

None of China’s so-called low-carbon industrial zones currently live up to the name. That’s the conclusion to draw from the work of the U.S. Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), which this year released a guide for the development of green industrial parks in China....

Environment

10.19.12

Overfishing Pushes 80% of Chinese Fishermen Towards...

CHINADIALOGUE

In mid-September, the fishing season got under way as usual in Ningbo, on China’s east coast, after the three-month season when fishing is forbidden. Over 2,000 steel-hulled boats headed out to sea. But, on board, there was little cause for optimism.“For the last two years...

Environment

10.16.12

Chinese Boycott Airline China Southern After Mysterious...

CHINADIALOGUE

On the morning of October 10, a high-profile lawsuit against China Southern, one of China’s “big three” airlines, opened at Chaoyang People’s Court in Beijing. The plaintiffs? Zhao Nan and Chen Lei, a couple from Tianjin, north China, who blame the airline for the death...

Environment

10.11.12

China’s New Leaders Must Respect Environmental Rights

CHINADIALOGUE

China has achieved remarkable economic successes over the last three decades. For years, it has led the world in GDP growth. But widespread industrialization and urbanization, along with growth based on increased use of resources, mean the nation also leads the world in energy...

Environment

10.09.12

Top Clothing Brands Linked to Water Pollution Scandal...

CHINADIALOGUE

China is the major hub of the international textile industry, exporting US$200 billion worth of textile and apparel products in 2010—accounting for 34 percent of global exports.It’s provided cheap T-shirts and other clothes to people around the world but at a huge...

Environment

10.02.12

Decline of Bees Forces China’s Apple Farmers to...

CHINADIALOGUE

In the last fifty years, the global human population has nearly doubled, while the average calories consumed per person has increased by about 30 percent.To cope with the ever growing demand for food, more land has been brought into agricultural production, mainly by clearing...

Environment

09.06.12

Sinking Shanghai “Not Prepared to Admit” Climate...

CHINADIALOGUE

It’s been a brutal summer for much of urban China. From the once-in-sixty-years storm that lashed Beijing in July, killing seventy-nine people and costing US$1.6 million, to the typhoon floods that triggered mass evacuations in Jingdezhen city, the heavens have been parading...

Environment

08.30.12

Milk Price War Puts Squeeze on China’s Dairy Farmers

CHINADIALOGUE

China’s dairy industry has been in a precarious state since 2008, the year of the Sanlu milk-powder scandal, when babies across the country were poisoned by melamine-tainted infant formula. This incident revealed to the world the flaws in China’s milk industry, including deep...

Environment

08.28.12

China’s South-North Water Transfer is “Irrational...

CHINADIALOGUE

Ruth Matthews, executive director of the Water Footprint Network, tells Tom Levitt how food has come to dominate our water use and why China may need to re-think its South-North water transfer project.Tom Levitt: What do you mean by our water footprint?Ruth Matthews: A water...

Environment

08.20.12

Tibetans Fight Tourism on Holy Lakes

CHINADIALOGUE

Mining, dam construction, sand excavation, poaching, and grassland degradation are seriously damaging the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, the world’s most fragile ecosystem. But without a second thought, the tourism industry has joined their ranks. The only difference is that tourism,...

Environment

08.15.12

Can New Trials Boost Chinese Wind?

CHINADIALOGUE

For the last half year, the National Energy Administration (NEA) has been making its interest in Inner Mongolia’s western regions crystal clear. This part of north China, rich in wind-power potential, has hosted group after group of energy officials—one lot even spent the...

Environment

08.15.12

Official Shrugs Off Public Food “Panic”

CHINADIALOGUE

Wang Guowei heads up the policy and legislation department at the State Council Food Safety Commission. He spoke to Xu Nan and Zhou Wei about the nature of China’s food safety problems and the ongoing policy response.chinadialogue: Compared with other countries, what are the...

Environment

08.09.12

Data Gaps Hobble Carbon Trading

CHINADIALOGUE

Late last October, China’s top economic planning body—the National Development and Reform Commission—instructed the cities of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Shenzhen, plus Hubei and Guangdong provinces, to get ready to run carbon-trading trials.{...

Environment

08.01.12

Protests Show Chinese Kids’ Fears

CHINADIALOGUE

The decision to cancel the metal refinery project in Shifang last month after protesters clashed with the police has been widely reported in the Chinese and global media. This is not the first time a project has been shelved due to public demonstrations. The same happened in...

Environment

07.18.12

Shifang: A Crisis of Local Rule

CHINADIALOGUE

China has been engrossed in the mass protests in Shifang, Sichuan province, where on the morning of July 2, locals and police clashed during demonstrations against a planned molybdenum and copper refinery. The next day, the government announced a halt to the project, restoring...

Environment

07.11.12

Why Big Dams Don’t Work

CHINADIALOGUE

The record of Africa’s large dams is one of widespread environmental destruction to the continent’s major river systems, upon which millions of people depend for their livelihoods; forcible resettlement and human rights abuses; corruption and cost overruns.Large dams across...

Environment

06.11.12

The Diplomacy of Air Pollution

CHINADIALOGUE

On June 5, World Environment Day, China’s environment ministry published its annual “state of the environment” report as normal. But this year, the launch attracted unusual levels of attention thanks to a statement from vice minister Wu Xiaoqing on who should, and...

Environment

06.08.12

In Ecuador, Home Truths for China

CHINADIALOGUE

“We need to make contact with the Chinese media as urgently as possible.” I was on my university campus in New York when I received this call for help from an Ecuadorean NGO on March 5.Some 4,000 kilometers south, in Quito, the Chinese embassy was already surrounded by...

Environment

06.07.12

What’s Coming Out of China’s Taps

CHINADIALOGUE

China’s urbanites use a lot of water. Every day, more than 4,000 water-treatment plants supply 60 million tons of water to 400 million people living in Chinese cities. Despite the impressive figures, the water industry is grappling with widespread criticism as concerns grow...

Environment

06.05.12

Hot Air?

MICHAEL ZHAO

It has been a busy season for U.S. diplomatic activity in China. Given the tensions aroused by U.S. involvement in the Bo Xilai scandal and the flight of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng, perhaps it should come as no surprise that even relatively indirect affronts to China’s...

Environment

06.02.12

A Fallacy of Steel and Glass

CHINADIALOGUE

Among its many environmental challenges, China faces an enormous increase in energy consumption by buildings over the coming decades. Bricks and mortar already account for 25% of China’s total primary energy consumption, but are currently consuming energy at a very low level...

Environment

05.30.12

We’re All Farmers Now

CHINADIALOGUE

At a monthly “friends of farming” dinner held by Green Heartland, an NGO based in Chengdu, west China, Chen Xia quietly reads an ode to the land against light background music. It’s a simple thanksgiving ceremony the hosts conduct before leaving the diners to tuck into a...

Environment

05.24.12

Unplugging from China

CHINADIALOGUE

Apparent preparations by US energy giant AES Corporation to withdraw from China have raised eyebrows lately. Earlier this year, it emerged that the firm—one of the world’s biggest independent power generators—had engaged an investment bank to sell all or part of its...

Environment

01.02.12

Chinese Demand Stokes U.S. Coal Battle

CRAIG SIMONS

TRINIDAD, Colorado—When the New Elk mine reopened amid windblown prairies last winter, it attracted little attention. But the mine—a long shaft boring through some of the world’s most valuable coal—strikes at the heart of a growing debate about the future of American coal...

Environment

01.02.12

As China Grows Rich, Rainforests Fall

CRAIG SIMONS

An incredible forest lies on its side in this gritty industrial town in southeastern China. On the southern bank of the Yangtze River nine-foot-diameter kevazingo trees from Gabon rub against Cambodian rosewoods and Indonesian teaks. Nearby, rust-colored bark from Malaysian...

Environment

01.01.12

China’s Rising Consumer Class Sparks Climate Change...

CRAIG SIMONS

TUOJIA VILLAGE, China—When you think about China’s growing greenhouse gas emissions, you probably don’t think of people like Zhang Chao or his father Zhang Dejun. Zhang Chao, a thirty-five-year-old middle school teacher living in small city in southwestern China, earns the...

Environment

11.14.11

China’s Rise Creates Clouds of U.S. Pollution

CRAIG SIMONS

At more than 9,000 feet along the crest of Oregon’s Cascade mountain range, the top of this snow-covered peak normally enjoys some of America’s cleanest air. So when sensitive scientific instruments picked up ozone—the chief component of smog—at levels higher than...