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    Island in the Sand

    In China’s arid Northwest, a county is locked in a battle for survival against encroaching deserts. Victory is still far from certain.

    GANSU, Northwest China — Last winter, Liu Hongyou finally made the call. The 50-year-old farmer would abandon his crops near his home in Minqin County, an arid region where his family had worked the land for generations.

    Leaving the 10-mu — or roughly 2-acre — plot was heart-wrenching, Liu tells Sixth Tone, but his situation in Minqin had become unsustainable. Earlier that year, local officials had clamped down on growing onions, the area’s most profitable crop at the time, in an effort to save water. Then, Liu was accused of using a well without permission, leading the government to shut off his water supply completely.

    “All I did was water my crops and I paid the fees, but they said I stole water,” says Liu. “After that, I didn’t want to farm here anymore.”  

    Conserving water has become an all-consuming issue in this corner of northwestern China. Sitting on the eastern edge of the Hexi Corridor, a wafer-thin green belt running along the edge of the Gobi Desert, the people of Minqin have always had to battle the elements. But rapid economic development has transformed the area’s water problems into an existential crisis.

    Groundwater levels have plummeted in recent decades, and this is making it even harder for the county to hold back the advancing sands. Of the nearly 16,000 square kilometers of land in Minqin, only 1,540 square kilometers remain arable. If long-term trends continue, it could uproot the county’s 240,000 inhabitants, as well as millions more living in the surrounding region.

    “Minqin is on the front line (of the war) against deserts,” says Kang Caizhou, a scientist at the Gansu Desert Control Research Institute. “If it went dry, the whole Hexi Corridor could be buried in sand.”

    Chinese authorities have taken drastic measures to stabilize the situation in the county: imposing strict water rationing, launching large-scale tree-planting projects, and constructing pipelines to divert water from nearby river basins.

    Officials present the rescue campaign as a Chinese anti-desertification success story from which the rest of the world could learn. In 2018, civil organizations from more than 20 countries jointly launched a “Minqin initiative” in the northwestern province of Gansu, calling for greater cooperation to promote ecological restoration in regions along the ancient Silk Road.

    Government data suggests the policies have indeed mitigated environmental deterioration in Minqin. The number of sandstorms has dropped since 2010, and groundwater levels even rose slightly in 2018. Yet for local residents like Liu, the last few years have not felt like a victory.

    Life on the Front Line

    In Minqin, whose name literally translates to “diligent people,” the struggle to save water has come to dominate local life. Banners bearing slogans such as “Use Less Water” can be seen all over the county. Local officials refer to the area’s low annual rainfall — just over 110 millimeters on average, compared with more than 2,300 millimeters of evaporation — so often, the figure has become common knowledge.

    Water usage is strictly controlled by the government, which closed thousands of private wells and placed restrictions on farm sizes in 2006. Water rationing policies restrict farmers to 410 cubic meters of water per mu each year, with large surcharges for groundwater usage above 150 cubic meters. Farmers can only turn on their irrigation pumps by swiping a card, which calculates the credit in their water account. Water for drinking and sanitation, meanwhile, is allocated to rural residents each day: 40 liters per person, 80 liters per head of livestock.

    The policies are all part of a single-minded effort to prevent Minqin’s groundwater resources from further depletion. As the county has learned at great cost, other anti-desertification measures — such as sheltering farmland from sand dunes by planting forests — are useless if moisture levels drop too low.

    During the second half of the 20th century, Gansu’s economy modernized rapidly, causing water usage to skyrocket. By 2005, the water table in Minqin had plunged to below 20 meters, and a full-blown environmental crisis had begun.

    As the earth dried up, 95% of the shelter forests in Shajingzi, an area of Minqin bordering the desert, died — destroying decades of tree-planting efforts in a single stroke, according to Ma Rui, an ecologist at Gansu Agricultural University. The die-off destabilized swaths of fixed and semi-fixed sand dunes, which in turn became sources of floating dust. The incident taught local officials a clear lesson.

    “In desert regions, all things revolve around water,” says Kang. “As long as the water problem is solved, there is no need to worry about desertification.”

    For farmers like Liu, however, life has become more and more difficult with each new water-saving measure. The ban on water-intensive crops like onions has pushed down incomes, while water charges continue to creep up. 

    In Changcheng, Liu’s home village in Minqin, farmers now mainly plant corn, but irrigation costs alone swallow up one-fifth of the revenue they can make from the crop in an average year. When factoring in other expenses like electricity charges, farming is “not worthwhile” anymore, Liu says.

    Local officials are encouraging villagers to plant saxaul, a leafless shrub that consumes very little water and can be used to stabilize the soil in arid regions. Saxaul seeds, which cost 100 yuan ($14) per kilogram, can be sold for a good profit, but the high price means that small-scale farmers cannot afford to enter the market. As a result, large agribusinesses are increasingly taking control of farming in the region.

    And as times get tougher, disputes have started to break out. Last November, local officials sealed off wells in Changcheng, after Liu’s production team — the basic administrative unit in Chinese villages — failed to pay around a year’s worth of groundwater fees. Local irrigation ditches, meanwhile, were damaged, leaving the team’s 160 families unable to water their crops.

    Liu complained to the local government, insisting his family had paid the water fees, but poor communication between his team leader and the water authorities meant the problem remained unsolved. Worse, Liu’s team leader accused him of secretly watering his dying crops from a local well. For the farmer, the conflict was the final straw.

    A Long-Running Battle

    Tensions over water usage rights have been a feature of life in the Hexi Corridor for centuries, ebbing and flowing along with the fortunes of local communities. Agriculture has always been challenging in Gansu’s bone-dry climate, but geopolitical factors have made the region too valuable to abandon. 

    A string of oasis towns linking Central China and the Tibetan Plateau, the Hexi Corridor was historically a gateway between the Chinese heartlands and the rest of Eurasia: a stopover for Silk Road traders, as well as invading armies.

    Minqin first gained prominence as a border garrison during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when it was known as Zhenfan, meaning “guard against foreign attacks.” (In those days, the threat came mainly from Mongolian tribes.) 

    Agriculture first emerged in the county to sustain the troops, and by the ensuing Qing dynasty, the small settlements had grown into populous agrarian communities that were known as the bread basket of Gansu province.

    As the region’s population increased, however, Minqin began to clash frequently with neighboring towns. Wedged between the Badain Jaran and Tengger deserts, the county depends almost completely on the Shiyang River for its water supply. But as towns upstream converted more land for agriculture, they diverted more river water to irrigate their new fields, reducing flows to Minqin.

    By the 1950s, signs of accelerating desertification in the Hexi Corridor were already apparent. Qingtu Lake, an offshoot of the Shiyang near Minqin, dried up completely in 1959. 

    Yet over the following decades, agriculture in the region intensified, driven first by the Great Leap Forward, the disastrous industrialization drive that began in 1958, and then the introduction of market reforms in the late 1970s. Large-scale deforestation took place to make room for more farmland, while multiple reservoirs were built along the Shiyang to support irrigation. Farmers downriver in Minqin increasingly relied on water pumped from deep wells, causing groundwater levels to plummet.

    “The orgy of water usage as well as deforestation were the major factors (behind the environmental deterioration in Minqin),” says Ma Rui. “Any unreasonable type of development, which takes more from nature than it can replenish, will inevitably lead to desertification.”

    Minqin reached a crisis in 2004, when the county’s main water source — the Hongyashan Reservoir — emptied to the ground. At this stage, the deserts were advancing at a rate of 10 meters per year, swallowing up grasslands and villages. Before long, experts predicted, the entire area would succumb to the sand.

    Fighting Back

    The disappearance of Hongyashan proved to be a turning point. Premier Wen Jiabao approved emergency diversions of water, and in 2007 the government redesigned the region’s water transfer system to increase flows to Minqin from the upper Shiyang River, as well as from the Yellow River basin some 260 kilometers away.

    In a policy document announcing the new system, the Gansu provincial government made it clear that leaders were not only concerned about the possible demise of Minqin, but also potential ripple effects on neighboring cities such as Wuwei, which alone has a population of about 2 million.

    “The demise of the Minqin Oasis would endanger the security of other oases in the middle reaches (of the Shiyang River) and the Hexi Corridor,” the statement reads. “The green corridor would likely be swallowed by the desert, inevitably affecting the healthy development and stability of the entire western region.”

    For Chinese officials, the slogan “Minqin must not become another Lop Nur” became a mantra during the 2000s. The phrase referred to Lop Nur Lake in northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which was a 3,100 square kilometer expanse of water in the 1920s, but has now almost entirely disappeared.

    The slogan also served as a rallying cry for local people. Ma Junhe had left Minqin years previously and was working as a salesperson in the city of Lanzhou 350 kilometers away, but he decided to return to his home county.

    “I heard that Minqin was going to disappear,” says Ma. “I was hot-blooded then, and I thought I should come back.”

    In 2007, Ma co-founded the Saving Minqin Volunteers Association, a nonprofit that worked to plant trees around his home village of Guodong and the edges of the Tengger Desert. At the time, years of poor harvests had led many farmers to abandon their land, which then degraded and became covered in sand. Ma’s organization worked to reverse this process by laying down hay or grass to stabilize the sand dunes, then planting saxaul buds in the spring to lay deep roots in the soil.

    People in Minqin, as well as other regions across China, have carried out afforestation campaigns nonstop since 1958. In emergency situations, local governments would mobilize “cadres and masses across the county” to plant trees, with each village given a quota of “volunteers,” officials from the Minqin forestry bureau tell Sixth Tone. When sandstorms intensified during the 2000s, villagers drove ox carts filled with grass from as far as 100 kilometers away to Hongyashan, in a desperate effort to stop sands from surging east.

    The campaigns, however, have occasionally been undermined by a lack of scientific knowledge. In previous decades, villages had planted trees too densely, which exacerbated the water shortage problem. The worsening situation during the 2000s caused some of Ma’s partners to abandon the project. But as the 12th generation of his family to live in Minqin, Ma refused to give up.

    “If you run away, what would this place become?” says Ma. “I thought it over and over, and finally decided that it’d be better to do this thing here than to goof around in the city.”

    Over time, the danger of an environmental disaster in Minqin has gradually receded. Provincial and central governments have increased funding for anti-desertification efforts in the county, while the government announced it would scrap Minqin’s economic growth targets in 2018, to ensure officials were concentrating on environmental reforms. Unscientific tree-planting methods were abolished in 2016, and local officials say they are now prioritizing the promotion and protection of natural ecosystems.

    The new water transfer system significantly increased the county’s water supply, refilling Hongyashan Reservoir with 148 million cubic meters of water. Qingtu Lake, which dried up in the 1950s, reappeared in 2010. Wild geese can now occasionally be seen swimming in its replenished waters.

    Minqin’s water table stopped falling in 2011, and even rose 7 centimeters in 2018, according to the county’s water conservation bureau. There are signs of improvement in the local environment, according to Kang, but the scientist says it’s too early to tell if the changes will continue.

    “You can’t tell much from two or three years,” says Kang. “If the trend continues for 10 years, then we can say the ecology has indeed improved.”

    Picking Up the Pieces

    Despite the recent successes, the future still looks uncertain for the people of Minqin. Many are choosing to seek out a new life elsewhere. Between 2000 and 2010, the county lost more than 10% of its population, according to government data. The outflow appears to be continuing.

    Minqin still has to pay hefty fees for the Shiyang and Yellow River diversion projects on which its survival depends, and the expense is partly passed on to local taxpayers. As costs rise, farmers are heading to other regions with laxer water controls. According to Liu, all of the onion planters in his village have moved to nearby Jinchang, where the crop is not banned. He has also contracted 20 mu of land there and has no plans to return to his home county.

    Young people in Minqin leave for the cities as soon as they finish school, local residents tell Sixth Tone. Wei Xihong, a student who grew up in the county, says he is now attending college more than 1,500 kilometers away in eastern Shandong province. “I used to think: Why was I born here in this dusty place instead of in a beautiful environment?” says Wei.

    The 19-year-old plans to live nearer to his family after graduating, but he has no plans to return to Minqin. “I think big cities like Xi’an or Lanzhou, where there’s better education and more opportunities, will be good for my future family,” says Wei.

    The local government is trying to reverse this trend by diversifying Minqin’s economy and creating job opportunities in sectors like tourism and energy. It has also launched a “returning geese” program to lure back talent to help develop the county.

    Rural development projects, meanwhile, attempt to bolster farmers’ incomes by building greenhouses and promoting “special sand-control agricultural products” like saxaul seeds. But the initiatives are receiving mixed reactions. Several farmers say they’re unwilling to abandon traditional farming methods or embrace unfamiliar crops.

    Today, the center of the county town in Minqin looks lush, with petunias and Chinese roses lining the streets. Yet as Sixth Tone leaves the urban center, it’s impossible to ignore the many depopulated villages in the countryside. A local driver surnamed Bai, who declines to give his full name, makes a parting comment.

    “It’s hard to see how Minqin can go on in the future,” says Bai. “Sand control requires people — what is there to do if there’s no one left?”

    Editor: Dominic Morgan; photo editor: Ding Yining.

    (Header image: The Tengger Desert in Minqin County, Gansu province, Oct. 18, 2019. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)