At the moment, the Gobi Desert in northern China/southern Mongolia is about half a million square miles (1.3 million km2) in area. Wondering why we say “at the moment”? That’s because the Gobi Desert is expanding.
Each year, the Gobi creeps further and further south, turning about 1,400 square miles (3,600 km2) of China’s otherwise farm-able land into desert, due to something called “desertification”.
Winds often pick up the sand resulting in immense dust storms. It is then blown towards the densely populated areas in China, which only makes matters worse.
The desert in the country is growing at a rapid rate. But China isn’t backing down without a fight, and they’re fighting back with trees.
The BBC reported on what has been dubbed, specifically, the “Great Green Wall,” in 2001. As you can probably tell, with its not-so-subtle reference to the Great Wall of China, this “wall” consists of trees.
The Great Green Wall commenced in 1987, but is not expected to be finished until 2050, as a part of a decades-long afforestation project. The project’s goal is to hopefully make areas barren for agriculture or habitation into fruitful environments for both.
Pictured above is a tree-planting exercise in 2007 on the edge of the Gobi Desert.
In 1981, one of the early phases of the project was a forced participation drive. The country developed a law that obligated its citizens over the age of 11 to plant three to five trees every year. However, in 2003, China focused its attention towards government workers.
The project aims for the creation of a line of trees along the Gobi’s border in a 2,800 mile-long (4,480 km) radius. Wired reported a year later though that this was no easy task.
“To build the wall, the government has launched a two-pronged plan: Use aerial seeding to cover wide swaths of land where the soil is less arid and pay farmers to plant trees and shrubs in areas that require closer attention. A $1.2 billion oversight system, consisting of mapping and land-surveillance databases, will be implemented. The government has also hammered out a dust-monitoring network with Japan and Korea.”
A photographer observes the encroaching desert over the trees.
However, it’s still uncertain if the project is effective. In 2007, a Chinese news agency reported that “more than 20 percent of the lands affected by desertification in the project areas have been harnessed and soil erosion has been put under control in over 40 percent of the areas that used to suffer soil erosion in the past,” citing the State Forest Administration.
The Daily Mail reiterated these results, reporting that “a study says the measures are working, despite previous criticism,” in 2014.
However, the Economist concluded the opposite and noted that many of the trees are withering in the dry, hot conditions in that same year.
Then, the BBC reported in 2011 that the afforestation process is working — but, it’ll take 300 years to reclaim the lands the Gobi has already devoured, ultimately providing the middle ground answer.
The Chinese government has 35 years left to resolve this problem, provided its original timetable. Despite everything, China aims to go through with their project.
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