April 20, 2006

China Says Will Never Totally Tame Sandstorms

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING -- China, a third of whose landmass is desert, will never completely tame the sandstorms that plague the country every spring due to the sheer size of its sandy regions, officials said on Thursday.

But the country will step up efforts to control the problem, and the officials said they were confident the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing would not be affected by the dust that enveloped parts of northern China this week.

"Given the millions of square kilometers of desert in China, they will continue to be a source of sandstorms in the future and we cannot cherish unrealistic expectations this problem will vanish overnight," said Yang Weixi, chief engineer of China's Desertification Control Center.

"What is important is to focus on our current efforts and to have confidence in them," he told a news conference.

A sandstorm struck the Chinese capital earlier this week, covering homes, streets and cars in brown dust and leaving the skies a murky yellow as it suffered its worst pollution in years.

Desertification of the country's west and Mongolian steppes has made spring sandstorms worse in recent years, reaching as far away as South Korea and Japan and turning rain and snow yellow.

A persistent drought in northern parts of China has only added to the problem, sucking moisture from the soil and making it easier to be picked up by the wind, officials said.

The latest storm to strike Beijing was exacerbated by the second-driest spring in 20 years, which was also marked by higher temperatures than normal, added Liu Tuo, head of the sand control center of China's State Forestry Administration.

The government is determined to rein in over-grazing and over-logging as well as replant denuded land to help prevent sandstorms, said Liu, though he admitted this was a tough task in a developing country with many demands for funds.

"The scale of the problem is such that there is a rather large gap (in funding)," he said.

But by 2008, control efforts should have paid off, meaning the Olympics should be free of sandstorms -- especially as they do not normally strike in August, when the games will be held.

International cooperation is needed though as, of the 40 sandstorms that struck China between 2000 and 2004, 29 originated from outside the country, added Yang, in places such as Mongolia and Russia.

China's State Council, or cabinet, said in February that an environmental repair campaign launched in the late 1990s had slowed the annual spread of desert from 3,436 square km to 1,283 square km (1,326 square miles to 495 square miles).

It promised that by 2010 China will establish "clear improvements" in key areas, and by 2020 half of the country's desertified land that can be repaired will have been.

A U.N study issued last year warned that a deteriorating environment, including China's growing deserts, could drive about 50 million people from their homes by 2010.