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In 2020, China improved the ecology of 2.83 million hectares of grassland and carried out desertification prevention work on over 2.09 million hectares of land.
Researchers at Shapotou Desert Research and Experiment Station (SDRES) are developing new techniques to combat desertification in China, which in the past 20 years has contributed to the world's largest greening areas.
Zhao Yang, an associate fellow at SDRES of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), has been culturing a kind of cyanobacteria that is key to new desert-control technology. The station was the birthplace of vast stretches of artificial straw-checkerboard, a technique to stop sand encroachment that was implemented in China over 60 years ago.
It naturally takes about 10 years to form a cyanobacteria crust on the surface of the sand that can prevent it from moving. However, by hybridizing a special bacterial strain extracted from the biological soil crust in the Tengger Desert with the cultured cyanobacteria, SDRES researchers have successfully cut the crust formation time to only one year.
Zhao’s work is a microcosm of his country’s efforts to combat desertification, which dates back over 60 years ago. When China's first railway through the Tengger Desert began operation in 1958, foreign experts who were invited to design the railway had predicted that it would be buried by sand in 30 years.
However, researchers' wisdom gave them a way out. Straw structures, which resemble checkerboards, proved to be the most convenient, environmentally friendly, and cheap way of stopping sand encroachment. Within the checkerboards, the surface of the sand forms a hard crust over time which prevents the sand from moving.
With ample sand-control experience, Ningxia is building its first highway crossing the Tengger Desert, which is expected to be completed in 2021.
In recent years, China has pushed ahead with its greening efforts across the country. In 2020 alone, the country improved the ecology of 2.83 million hectares of grassland and carried out desertification prevention-and-control work on over 2.09 million hectares of land.
SHARING EXPERIENCE WITH THE WORLD
Over the past decades, China has been sharing its knowledge in sand control with other countries. In 1977, it shared the anti-desertification technique used in Shapotou at the UN Conference on Desertification in Nairobi. Dry straw checkerboards have now been used in many parts of the world as an effective way to combat desertification.
"The Chinese experience can benefit the world," said Iraqi agricultural engineer Sarmad Kamil Ali, who was in China in 2013 to learn about sand control.
"The Chinese always surprise the world with creative methods to overcome the difficulties they face... I found out recently that they are using more advanced technologies in fixing the dunes," he added.
Since 2005, the research team from Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography (XIEG) has been exporting mature desertification control technologies to Central Asia and Africa. Demonstration bases have been built in many countries, such as those for ecological restoration of shrub grassland in Ethiopia, desert plants breeding, and mechanical desertification control in Mauritania.
Despite China's achievements in desert control, researchers believe that the country's anti-desertification methods still need to withstand the test of time.
"We should not be complacent with what we have found in desert control," said the SDRES director Li Xinrong. "We need to do more theoretical research in the field."
For Li, the ultimate goal of sand control is not to eliminate the deserts, but to improve the biodiversity of desert ecosystems and find a way for humans and deserts to live harmoniously.
"Deserts are an indispensable part of nature and a valuable resource," said Li. "The Earth would not be a beautiful place without them."