De­ter­mined sci­en­tist stud­ies desert for 30 years

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA - By XIN­HUA in Lanzhou

En route to Shapo­tou, there is not much to see ex­cept an end­less sea of sand. The district, in North­west China’s Ningxia Hui au­tonomous re­gion, is lo­cated where the Yel­low River meets the Teng­ger Desert. For more than five decades re­searchers have been com­ing here to fight de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion. Li Xin­rong is one of them.

His mantra is: “Sands are as pre­cious as forests”, and hav­ing been here for three decades, he has clearly de­vel­oped a close con­nec­tion to this arid land. “Deserts are land­marks god has given us. They nur­ture spe­cial bi­otic re­sources. We must pro­tect them,” he said.

Shapo­tou first hit the head­lines in the 1950s with the con­struc­tion of the Bao­touLanzhou Rail­way, an artery that tra­verses the Teng­ger Desert six times. The project ran into dif­fi­cul­ties in Shapo­tou’s ever shift­ing sand dunes — hardly an ideal foun­da­tion for a rail­way track. That was when the first group of sci­en­tists ar­rived.

When the trains fi­nally be­gan run­ning in 1958, Shapo­tou had be­come renowned as a par­a­digm of suc­cess­ful sand con­trol, prin­ci­pally the re­sult of the “straw checker­board” tech­nique. This re­quires straw, usu­ally made from wheat or rice, to be laid out in a grid shape across the desert

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and par­tially buried.

The checker­boards have re­mark­able, though poorly un­der­stood, prop­er­ties — act­ing as a wind­break and help­ing to keep dunes in place, al­low­ing top­soil to form. When a suf­fi­cient amount of soil has been es­tab­lished, drought-re­sis­tant plants can be grown. How­ever, a re­ced­ing wa­ter ta­ble has led to re­cent degra­da­tion of veg­e­ta­tion and a de­cline in the checker­boards ef­fec­tive­ness.

“We can’t just sit back and re­lax. We must be­come tire­less tree planters so that oth­ers may rest in the shade,” said Li to his col­leagues when he first ar­rived in Shapo­tou in 1987.

“Upon our ar­rival, my col­leagues were gnash­ing their teeth and wring­ing their hands,” he re­called. “There was no toi­let. There were rat holes all over our dorm. The only way to re­ceive a ra­dio sig­nal was to climb up to the top of the dunes.”

So iso­lated were they that they al­most starved. “In the end, we sur­vived by eat­ing the seeds of elm trees,” Li said.

One third of China’s ter­ri­tory faces the threat of de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion, and al­most 400 mil­lion peo­ple are sub­ject to fre­quent sand­storms and strong winds. An old say­ing goes, “Peo­ple in Gansu prov­ince eat three jin (1.5 kilo­grams) of dust ev­ery day.”

The lat­est weapon in the war against ero­sion is a mi­crobe that in­hab­its the soil above the straw checker­boards. It can lock up the soil by form­ing a crust, but the process is much too slowly, tak­ing at least five years to grow.

Li’s team has ex­tracted sim­i­lar mi­crobes from al­gae and moss and cul­tured them in the lab. When sprayed on the sand, the crust grows much faster, and holds the soil “just like a car­pet”, Li said.

“This biotech­nol­ogy pro­tects lo­cal plants from in­va­sive species. It helps de­fend the orig­i­nal desert ecosys­tem.”

Shapo­tou now has more than 30 kinds of cul­ti­vated veg­e­ta­tion. Bio­di­ver­sity is cru­cial to com­bat­ing de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion, ac­cord­ing to Li.

“The old­est veg­e­ta­tion has been here for a lit­tle over 60 years, while the youngest was planted 10 years ago,” said Zhang Zhis­han, deputy chief of the Shapo­tou re­search cen­ter. “Time has shown that we made the right choice of veg­e­ta­tion for this area.”

The lessons learned at Shapo­tou have helped many other places, such as the Muus Desert in Shaanxi prov­ince; Horqin, China’s largest sandy area; and Er­dos in the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­tonomous re­gion. Re­searchers from the Mid­dle East and Africa have also been trained in Shapo­tou.

“Li’s re­search is an im­por­tant bench­mark and all our data can be freely shared,” Zhang said.

WANG SONG / XIN­HUA

Vis­i­tors can have a camel-rid­ing tour of the Teng­ger Desert in Shapo­tou, Ningxia Hui au­tonomous re­gion.

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