LEI Jiaqiang: Taking the Pulse of Deserts


With a 41-year history of interacting with desert environments, he vividly recalls the profound impact of his initial venture into the heart of a desert. He has been actively sharing China's expertise in combating desertification with countries along the "Belt and Road" Initiative...   

 He is Lei Jiaqiang, a researcher affiliated with the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography (XIEG) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In April of this year, he was proudly bestowed with the National May 1st Labor Medal. In the subsequent month, he was further honored with the National Innovation Vanguard Award. In June, he effectively communicated his valuable insights into desertification control during the Taklamakan Desert Forum, along with a technical training event dedicated to the "African Green Great Wall," delivering these insights to representatives from 14 nations. In the month of July, he collaborated with fellow experts in the field of desertification control, engaging in discussions that centered on crucial issues pertaining to the combat against desertification along the Hexi Corridor and the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert...   

Transitioning from his earliest forays into the desert to his present role as a diagnostician of desert landscapes, Lei Jiaqiang shared his trials and accomplishments within desert terrains with a reporter from China Science Daily.  Charting Desert  

Surveying Desert Highway Routes 

In 1982, after completing his undergraduate studies in natural geography at Northwest University, Lei Jiaqiang made the pivotal decision to delve into scientific research. He still fondly recalls the words of his professor, who had remarked, "Xinjiang is a geographical haven, boasting glaciers, deserts, and a host of geographical enigmas awaiting exploration."  

Fueled by this advice, Lei Jiaqiang embarked on a journey to Xinjiang, a territory entirely unfamiliar to him, marking the commencement of his lifelong exploration of desert landscapes. 

During his time in Xinjiang, Lei Jiaqiang encountered his mentor for his master's studies, Xia Xuncheng. "At that juncture, Mr. Xia had just returned from an expedition to Lake Lop Nur. The expedition leader, Peng Jiamu, sadly went missing, and Mr. Xia served as the deputy leader. Their expedition yielded remarkable progress in unraveling the mysteries of Lake Lop Nur," Lei Jiaqiang recounted.   

Historical records indicate that between 1964 and 1980, Peng Jiamu undertook 15 scientific expeditions to Xinjiang, including three treks to Lake Lop Nur in the Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture. He channeled immense dedication into pioneering frontier scientific research. This profound commitment deeply resonated with Lei Jiaqiang, galvanizing his unwavering resolve to immerse himself in the realm of desert studies.   

Consequently, Lei Jiaqiang chose to pursue desert-focused research under the guidance of Xia Xuncheng. He can still vividly picture the scene of his inaugural field expedition into the Taklamakan Desert: "Within just two or three hours of venturing into the desert, our water supply had dwindled to nothing. We persevered to exit the arid landscape without water, gaining firsthand insight into the challenges intrinsic to desert research. Upon entering the desert, we were pristine and unblemished, yet upon exiting, our ears, noses, and mouths were permeated with sand particles. We were transformed into true 'sand dwellers.'"   

"For the sake of acquiring more precise experimental data, we would venture into the desert when gusts of wind blew sand about," Lei Jiaqiang shared with a smile. "We were desert explorers defying the prevailing winds." 

During the 1990s, the discovery of oil and gas resources in the Taklamakan Desert led to the need for establishing a desert highway to facilitate the transportation of personnel and supplies. The daunting task of constructing a road through the shifting sands of the expansive desert presented a challenge with no precedents to draw from, both domestically and internationally.   

In response, Lei Jiaqiang became part of an expedition team that ventured deep into the heart of the Taklamakan Desert to survey potential routes for the desert highway. Covering most of the distance on foot, they authored a survey report detailing the direction and preliminary route for the Tarim Desert Oil Highway.   

By 1995, the construction of the Tarim Desert Oil Highway was completed, but the vulnerabilities posed by sand and wind conditions started to emerge.   

In light of these challenges, Lei Jiaqiang and his team embarked on another journey into the desert. They conducted thorough surveys of the sand and wind environment and monitored the movement of sand. The data collected helped them develop a sand control plan that emphasized "segmented defense and categorized management."   

"Our pilot experiments indicated that irrigating and planting plants such as Salsola, Tamarix, and Calligonum with highly mineralized water alongside the desert highway yielded significant windbreak and sand stabilization effects. Adapting to the specific conditions, we formulated a sand control model known as the 'saline-irrigation afforestation technology model for shifting sand areas.' This model is replicable, adaptable, and scalable."   

A Fortuitous Entry into Africa  

When discussing the expansion of China's sand control and desertification prevention solutions into Africa, Lei Jiaqiang mentioned a fortuitous turn of events.  

In July 2006, Lei Jiaqiang received a call from a company interested in applying the sand control and desertification prevention technology developed by his team in Libya. 

"When I inquired about their company, they informed me that it was a bearing company from Zhejiang," recalled Lei Jiaqiang. His initial reaction was one of incredulity – how could sand control and desertification prevention technology possibly be linked to a bearing company? He promptly declined their proposition.  

However, the company was persistent. After some time, Lei Jiaqiang's colleagues received another call from them. They clarified that the company's investors in Libya had become aware of China's desert highways and green corridor initiatives, and they aimed to introduce China's sand control and desertification prevention technology to Libya.  

Consequently, Lei Jiaqiang and his team embarked on a journey to Africa alongside the company. They swiftly established collaboration with Libya and garnered support from pertinent government entities in both nations. Through collaborative surveys and technical exchanges, Lei Jiaqiang and his team compiled a report on desertification prevention in Libya, proposed a sand control design plan for the Ma'er Zugo Desert Highway, and organized a desertification prevention training workshop involving both China and Libya. 

"Our efforts captured the attention of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). With the endorsement of Liu Jian, the present Director of UNEP's Division of Science, Technology and Industry, we extended China's sand control and desertification prevention technology to Mauritania in Africa," Lei Jiaqiang informed the "China Science Daily."   

In 2015, during a visit to China's desert highways, Ibrahim Thiaw, who was then the Deputy Executive Director of UNEP and currently serves as the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, remarked, "Africa is in the process of constructing a Green Great Wall, and in China's Xinjiang region, a green belt has been established within the Taklamakan Desert. I believe this technology holds significant relevance for Africa's Green Great Wall project."   

Simultaneously, Ibrahim Thiaw extended an invitation to Lei Jiaqiang's team to attend a prestigious conference in the capital of Mauritania, Nouakchott, focused on the construction of Africa's Green Great Wall. This platform would allow them to showcase their work on desertification prevention.   

"And thus, our endeavors in sand control and desertification prevention intersected with the development of the 'Africa Green Great Wall,'" Lei Jiaqiang concluded. 

According to Lei Jiaqiang's account, in 2007, the African Union initiated a proposal to establish the "Africa Green Great Wall" in the Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert. Initially designed to span 7,775 kilometers in length and 15 kilometers in width, the project primarily focuses on afforestation while also considering agricultural development. A fundamental objective of the "Africa Green Great Wall" is to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land and achieve 250 million tons of carbon sequestration by 2030, while generating over 10 million green job opportunities. 

As the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into play, the "Africa Green Great Wall" expanded its scope and undertakings extensively. It now virtually covers the entire arid and semi-arid expanse of Africa, expanding its membership from 11 countries and organizations to a total of 20.   

In light of this, what contributions could Lei Jiaqiang and his team offer to the "Africa Green Great Wall"?   

The Chinese Approach to the "Africa Green Great Wall" 

At present, Lei Jiaqiang's team is deeply involved in collaborations with three African nations: West Africa's Mauritania, Central Africa's Nigeria, and East Africa's Ethiopia. Lei Jiaqiang elaborates, stating that "Given the distinct forms of desertification in these three countries, our efforts are directed towards sand dune management in Mauritania, soil erosion prevention and control in Nigeria, and the restoration of deteriorated grasslands in Ethiopia."   

Using Mauritania as an example, Lei Jiaqiang outlines their strategy: "We amalgamate China's methods of tree, shrub, and grass plantation, integrating our grid protection concept with their expansive grid system. This approach stabilizes the dynamic shifting of sands, thereby cultivating a favorable ecosystem for vegetation growth. Additionally, we have conducted experimental trials of China's water-efficient irrigation technology. Progress between 2019 and 2022 has been noteworthy in shaping a positive landscape."   

While addressing the issue of deteriorating grasslands in Ethiopia's low-altitude areas, Lei Jiaqiang encountered certain challenges. He notes, "We selected 12 types of artificial grass from China for planting in Ethiopia's low-altitude regions. Our aim was to establish a harmonious balance between natural and artificial grazing to mitigate grass scarcity during the dry season. However, introducing these grass seeds from China to Ethiopia was met with certain complications." 

"Obtaining 'visas' for grass seeds proves to be more challenging than acquiring human visas. After securing customs approval, they still encounter local skepticism," Lei Jiaqiang explained. "The memory of the impact caused by the invasion of local plants remains vivid. When we delivered the seeds, there was considerable apprehension. They promptly locked the seeds in the refrigerator. Only after we conducted experiments to confirm that these seeds were not invasive species could we proceed with our research."   

Through their extensive research, Lei Jiaqiang and his team developed a comprehensive model in Ethiopia that harmonizes clear irrigation and grass cultivation, rotational grazing, and pastoral practices. "We have widely implemented and promoted this model within the local context."   

Concurrently, XIEG joined forces with the Secretariat of the 'Africa Green Great Wall' to organize training initiatives. "In 2017, we inaugurated the inaugural training program for the 'Africa Green Great Wall' construction in Xinjiang, with participants from 11 regional countries attending," Lei Jiaqiang recounted. "During the training, participants absorbed not only our theories and case studies but also embarked on field visits to sites such as the Tarim Desert Highway and the Cele Desert Research Station."   

"Can we replicate the desert highways in our nation? Can these plant species be successfully cultivated in Africa? Can I continue my learning journey with you?" The training atmosphere brimmed with enthusiasm. At this year's second iteration of the 'Africa Green Great Wall' construction technology training program organized by the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, participant enthusiasm remained unwavering.   

Lei Jiaqiang conveyed, "Our aim is to offer a Chinese solution for the 'Africa Green Great Wall' by collaborating on diverse activities like technical trials, training, and exhibitions. This endeavor aims to firmly implant our sand control and desertification prevention technology in the African context." (China Science Daily)

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