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Report - July 2002

Western China Grasslands in Trouble

A July 2002 Report from U.S. Embassy Beijing

The grassland and dryland ecosystems of China's Middle West are collapsing under the multiple stresses of overgrazing, overpopulation and unsustainable agriculture, as well as well-intentioned but ill-advised policies such as widespread tree-planting. The problem is huge, worsening and has important ramifications for China's future social stability.

Looking at the Western Steppes

China's arid Gansu and Shaanxi Province rangelands do not present a pretty picture. Destructive human impact can be seen and felt almost everywhere. Even "remote" Gansu has more than 25 million people. Shaanxi has almost 40 million. The struggle of those people to scratch a living out of these fragile environments has produced a heavily degraded landscape that also contributes to global-scale dust storms. China's area of desertified land, as defined in the United Nations Desertification Convention, is expanding at an accelerating rate, roughly 10,400 square kilometers (an area twice the area of Delaware) each year in the late 1990's.

So Many Sheep, So Little Grass

Shaanxi and Gansu, like most of Northwest China, don't get much rain (about 8-20 inches a year on average). Rangeland, grassland and desert ecosystems prevail. Even so, animal husbandry is widespread. Chinese experts estimate the number of livestock grazing on the grasslands of China's Middle West exceeds sustainable limits by 50% to 150%, and by as much as 300% in certain areas, adding that this is the primary reason why 80-90% of China's grasslands are degraded to one degree or another. Typical forage animals, mainly sheep and goats, eat pretty much anything except the most unpalatable weeds, leaving no grass and little groundcover. The hooves of goats and sheep also cut into the earth. Once the grass is gone, wind and rain can easily erode the soil. That not only creates dust storms and increases sediment in rivers, it lowers biodiversity and soil productivity, making it harder for the land to recover, even if grazing is halted completely.

While everyone agrees that the total number of animals grazing on China's grasslands is too large, most individual herding families have barely enough animals to eke out a living. This makes it extremely difficult to get them to reduce the size of their herds. The most obvious solution is to reduce the number of people attempting to make a living from animal husbandry. But this would require either large-scale relocation or a major economic restructuring capable of generating alternative employment.

Other Factors Also Contribute

In addition to grazing, inappropriate farming practices and hand-gathering of local herbs and plants are wreaking havoc on Northwest China's grasslands. Tree-cutting for firewood and railroad and highway construction also take their toll. Switching to crops that are more appropriate to the local ecology, leaving marginal lands untilled and improving irrigation and tilling techniques could reduce the impact of farming on dryland ecosystems. But Chinas agricultural extension services are weak, and farmers are generally not well-educated, making it dificult to get the message out.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

China¡¯s most commonly applied"solution" for desertification and degradation of dryland ecosystems is to plant trees. Roads and hillsides all over northern China are lined with uniform columns of poplar trees. However, in many places this solution may simply exacerbate problems. For one thing, these monocultural tree belts, consisting of a single tree species, lack natural biocontrol mechanisms and are therfore highly susceptible to insect infestation. For another, trees are frequently planted in areas around desert margins too arid to support the trees with natural rainfall. The trees can end up over-drawing from precious groundwater resources, evaporating the moisture through their leaves.

Hillsides for 30 miles along the airport road outside Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province, are latticed with methodical rows of little trees and their necessary irrigation hoses. Digging holes for the trees scars already damaged hillsides, and watering them takes scarce water from the Yellow River. This not only creates an ecosystem that is unnatural and unsustainable, it draws human and financial resources away from longer-lasting solutions. But local authorities can report to Beijing that large numbers of trees were planted and vast acreage ¡°reforested.¡±

A frequently-cited alternative to free range grazing has some promise, but has yet to be successfully implemented on a large scale. Experts discuss plans to concentrate animals in U.S.-style feed lots and feed them grass and forage, such as alfalfa, harvested from other areas. It is not clear, however, whether the economics of high-density feed lots make sense. For instance, where would the alfalfa be grown, how much water would it need and how would it be transported? Also, how would more concentrated animal waste be dealt with in ways that do not cause water pollution problems?


The deterioration of China's grasslands and rangelands is worsening. It is pervasive, affecting tens of millions of people whose limited education and poverty give them no apparent alternative to continuing to exploit the grasslands for what little productive value remains in them. No "silver bullet" technical solutions are in sight. Although the political leadership in Beijing has begun to pay serious attention to the problem, we expect China's "Dust Bowl" situation to continue to worsen, risking severe social dislocation in China's Middle West.