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Combating Sand on New Silk Road

Sep 23, 2015

Young scientist Gui Dongwei, vice director of the Cele Research Station, believes it still needs a lot of efforts to know how to achieve sustainable development for oases to fight the desert. (By Jin Liwang  Xinhua/China Features) 

Trudging up a sand dune about five meters high just outside the town of Cele County at the southern edge of China’s largest desert, the Taklimakan, young scientist Gui Dongwei could not help but exclaim “Amazing.”

As large as ten football fields, it was once one of the moving dunes of the Taklimakan – also the world’s second largest moving desert.

The desert had forced the town of Cele to relocate three times in history – but Gui saw it enclosed by green trees.

That was 2007, when Gui, still a doctoral student, came to the Cele Research Station of the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) for the first time. Since then, he has accompanied many scientists and experts from home and abroad up the dune to relate how his predecessors “locked” the moving dunes with trees. 

"There were many dunes like this surrounding the town. But all of them have been changed into farmland, with only this one left since it’s too large. And it’s a reminder of history," says Gui, now vice director of the Cele Research Station.

Since China proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt, aiming to rejuvenate the ancient trade route, experts have worried whether the serious desertification can be controlled along the route.

Sustainable development of the oases is crucial to the success of the construction of the belt, half of the One Belt, One Road Initiative, which includes the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road.

Writing on the sand 

Cele County in Khotan prefecture, in the south of China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, is extremely dry, with annual precipitation of only 35 mm, and annual evaporation exceeding 2,500 mm. Every year, the county sees about 20 days of sand storms, 90 days of blowing sand and 150 days of floating dust.

Over the last thousand years, the desert has consumed more than 20 towns along the ancient Silk Road in Xinjiang. 

As recently as the 1980s, several towns, including Cele, Pishan and Minfeng, were threatened by the intruding sands.

In these circumstances, the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography set up the Cele Research Station in 1983 to study the arid environment and the sandstorms and to help the region’s people shake off poverty with the help of science and technology.

The station has prevented the invasion of desert. In 1995, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) awarded its scientists two honors for controlling drifting sand and breeding desert plants by harnessing floodwaters.

When Gui arrived in 2007, the locals were familiar with the technology of groundwater exploitation. Scientists made breakthroughs in boosting cotton production and the artificial cultivation of cistanche, a Chinese herb. These efforts helped raise incomes and locals took part in building ecological shelters between the oases and desert.  

"But southern Xinjiang still lags in the research of oasis ecology and deserts. We need to know how to achieve sustainable development for oases to fight the desert," Gui says.

In his quest for the answers, Gui studied in the United States from 2011 to 2014.

Turning down more lucrative job opportunities after studying abroad, Gui chose to return to Cele.

"I have a strong attachment to my home, Xinjiang, and I am devoted to this land. It needs world-class talents. I want to introduce the most advanced technologies and methods to our research. Although the land is barren, we can achieve world-class advances like our predecessors as long as we persist," Gui says.

"We scientists often publish our research papers in scientific journals, but few people read them. The real research should be written on the ground to embed our accomplishments."

The "Sea of Death"

Over the past seven years, Huang Ziyou, 52, and his wife, from southwest China’s Sichuan Province has spent 12 hours each day maintaining a well and a pump connected by many thin, black pipes in the heart of the Taklimakan Desert. (By Jin Liwang  Xinhua/China Features) 

Huang Ziyou, 52, and his wife live in a shack of less than 10 square meters in the heart of the Taklimakan Desert. Beside their bed is the stove. Their home is named "No. 021 Well-House."

Over the past seven years, this couple from southwest China’s Sichuan Province has spent 12 hours each day maintaining a well and a pump connected by many thin, black pipes, in the noises of a diesel generator. 

These pipes provide drip irrigation to the shelter forest of the 522-kilometer highway running through the Taklimakan Desert.

After breakfast everyday, Huang inspects the pipes along his 4-kilometer patch. There is no TV signal, no Internet. But in this remote place, the plants flourish and protect the highway, currently the world’s longest road through a moving desert.

The Taklimakan, covering 337,600 square kilometers, is one of China’s major petroleum bases. In 1995 PetroChina invested 800 million yuan in building the Taklimakan Desert Highway. However, the road faced a serious threat of burial after its completion, and road maintenance costs soared year after year.

To save it, the authorities built a shelter forest on both sides of the highway from 2003 to 2006, with a total investment of 218 million yuan. 

Xu Xinwen, director of the Taklimakan Desert Research Station of the CAS, says that in the nine years since, the "green corridor" has decreased wind speeds on the highway by 50 percent to 77 percent. The volume of moving sands in the shelter forest is only 0.98 percent to 12.55 percent of that in drifting sand areas.

"The shelter forest has controlled the damage to the highway, and kept it safe, while improving the ecological environment," says Xu, who has worked in the desert for more than two decades.

"The shelter forest of the desert highway offers a successful example to the world and a scientific basis for improving the environment of desert."

Balancing oasis and desert

Scientist Li Xinhu everyday weighs sand and soil in 12 huge barrels on an underground scale in Aksu, southern Xinjiang, and calculates the evaporation volume according to the change in weight. (By Jin Liwang  Xinhua/China Features) 

Scientist Li Xinhu everyday weighs sand and soil in 12 huge barrels on an underground scale, and calculates the evaporation volume according to the change in weight. 

The scale, or lysimeter, developed by the Water Balance Research Station of the CAS in Aksu, southern Xinjiang, can measure the evaporation volume with an accuracy of 0.01 mm.

Zhao Chengyi, director of the Aksu research station, says the station, located in the largest oasis in the Tarim Basin, is an ideal site to study the changing patterns of water and salt of the farmland ecosystem of the oasis.

Scientists say the climate of Xinjiang has become warmer and moister over the last 30 years, with temperatures rising 0.26 degrees centigrade on average every decade.

The increase might accelerate the melting of glaciers, and its impact on agriculture, the economy and society is still uncertain.

"Unlike the situation 20 or 30 years ago, the area of oases in Xinjiang is expanding," says Gui Dongwei. "What we are studying is how to keep a balance between oasis and desert."

"If we had enough water, we would want to change the entire desert into oasis. But that’s impossible. The use of water is the key to realizing the sustainable development of oases," Gui says.

"If we expand the oasis without control, we could have a large area of oasis over ten years, but after all the water resources are depleted, the desert will return. So our goal is to achieve a harmonious coexistence of oasis and desert."

Scientists say the underground water in Khotan is still within sustainable limits, but is on a decreasing trend. “If the trend continues, sustainable development in this region will be threatened sooner or later, and we must be alert to the danger,” Gui says.

Greening technology 

The desert prevention and control technologies developed by Chinese scientists have been introduced to countries in central Asia and Africa, including Turkmenistan, Egypt, Libya and Mauritania, says Lei Jiaqiang, deputy director of the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography.

Chinese scientists have helped design the wind and sand prevention project for the coastal highway and the desert highway in Libya, and designed the forestation project for a natural gas base in Turkmenistan, Lei says.

They have also been asked to provide technological support to the construction of the Great Green Wall Initiative, a pan-African project to "green" the continent from west to east in order to battle desertification. The project is aimed at tackling poverty and the degradation of soils in the Sahel-Saharan region, focusing on a strip of land of 15 km wide and 7,100 km long from Dakar to Djibouti.  

"Any technology has its limits in space and time. So when we introduce the technologies to other countries, local conditions should be taken into consideration," Lei says.

Since 2006, China’s Ministry of Commerce and Ningxia Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences have held an annual course to teach technicians from Arab countries about sand prevention and control technologies.

Zhang Laiwu, Vice Minister of Science and Technology, says a China-Arab Technology Transfer Center will be set up in September to promote technological cooperation in desertification control between China and Arab countries.

Ramadan Mohammed, a researcher with the Egyptian Desert Research Center, says the sand control project in the northern Sinai Peninsula has used technologies developed in China, such as covering and fixing dunes with crop straw and gravel.

"China’s sand control technologies are simple but effective with low resource consumption. They should be popularized in Egypt and other Arab countries," says Ramadan, adding that Arab countries also have their own sand control technologies that could help China. (By YU Fei and CAO Yi from Xinhua)  

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