Today, 27% of the territory is arid due to deteriorating soil quality, which poses serious risks to food security. Sandstorms also increased. At a forum held a few days ago in Inner Mongolia, the president renewed the commitment to the “Great Green Wall” and the goal of bringing the forest area to 30%. The bet also has repercussions outside of China and is intertwined with the Belt and Road Initiative.
Beijing () – China’s future depends not only on industrial policy or microchips, but also on the fight against desertification. In a symposium that was held in the city of Bayannur, in Inner Mongolia, a few days ago, President Xi Jinping stated that Beijing has decided to intensify efforts in that direction. This is the third largest province in China and one of the places where desertification is most pronounced. In his speech, President Xi vindicated the progress made by China in the last four decades; however, he also stressed that the phenomenon continues to be one of the biggest challenges both for the country and globally. At this moment, more than 27% of the Chinese territory is affected by desertification, with consequences for more than 400 million people.
The process has intensified significantly since the 1980s, when climate change associated with the sudden process of industrialization caused the deterioration of soil quality. With rising temperatures and an increasingly hot climate, low rainfall has accentuated soil erosion. The most vulnerable areas in China are the northern and northwestern provinces: Inner Mongolia, Shanxi and Ningxia, regions close to the Gobi desert, where agriculture is one of the most important sectors and most of the wheat crops are concentrated. Every year the expansion of the desert reduces arable land and intensifies the phenomenon of internal migration. During the 2000s, the Ningxia Autonomous Region was the one that showed the most marked signs of the phenomenon: in 2010, more than 57% of its regional territory was affected by desertification, in a strip of land inhabited by more than three million people. people.
However, the consequences of desertification extend beyond the mainly affected regions, starting with the issue of food security. The wheat crops of the regions in question are vital to the entire country. According to data from the FAO, China annually produces about 130 million tons of wheat, the consumption of which constitutes 40% of total cereals. And the demand is increasing rapidly: according to a 2022 study by Frontiers in Nutrition, annual per capita consumption of wheat in China will rise from 65.8kg in 2019 to 76kg in 2030 and 95kg in 2050.
But food security is not the only desertification-related risk facing China. Xi’s visit to Inner Mongolia came after a season of intensifying yellow dust storms in the country and across Northeast Asia. In his speech, Xi mentioned that due to climate change, sandstorms have increased significantly, especially in the past two years. Between March and April 2023, the country was affected by several of these phenomena, which also intensified in Mongolia, Japan and South Korea and constitute a significant factor in the worsening of lung diseases.
Since the 1970s, China has implemented policies and programs to mitigate the effects of desertification and achieve satisfactory levels of land conservation. In 1978 the Three-North Shelter Forest Program, commonly known as the “Great Green Wall”, began a massive afforestation program covering the 13 provinces most affected by the expansion of the Gobi desert. In 2015, China had already successfully increased its forest area to 22.5% from 16.4% in 1990. Now it wants to increase it to 30% by 2030.
Xi Jinping’s attention to afforestation is not only related to internal security dynamics. In 2016, the country launched a joint action initiative to combat desertification along the route of the Belt and Road Initiative, whose negative effects on the forest area of the countries involved have been studied since 2013. This makes the success of the initiatives is closely related to the country’s more massive foreign policy plan, especially as regards its relations with the Central Asian countries. Since 2022, China has also tried to promote the search for global desertification governance by linking the fight against the phenomenon with its most recent initiative, the Global Development Initiative, whose objective is for China to occupy a central role in the United Nations 2030 Agenda. United for Sustainable Development.