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Last Updated: Friday, 17 December 2004, 14:12 GMT
Dust storm migration begins in China
Gobi desert, China
China's desert is growing rapidly
The Chinese government has begun moving large numbers of people from the country's north in response to the huge, choking dust storms which regularly sweep out of Inner Mongolia, over Beijing, and out towards the Pacific.

The dust storms, which can entirely envelop Beijing, have become an all too frequent event - and China's neighbours, Korea and Japan, have also complained about the oppressive billows of dust.

They are due to overgrazing and over-ploughing in Inner Mongolia, in the north of China, loosening the topsoil, which is then blown away by strong winds.

It has prompted the controversial policy of ecological migration - shifting thousands of families off degraded lands and into small, newly-constructed villages.

"Most farmers used to live in an area of poor ecological environment," Mr Xang, deputy director of the Inner Mongolian government, told BBC World Service's One Planet programme.

"In the past farmers could occupy hundreds or even thousands of mu [a Chinese measurement equivalent to 670 sq m] of land. Nowadays a person can have two mu of irrigated land."

Increased yield

The Chinese government's effort to tackle the dust storms is called the Ecological Construction Project. It is seen as an effort not only to revive, but to re-engineer the landscape and the communities that exploit it.

Almost 30% of China is believed to be desert or degraded, at an estimated annual cost to the economy of $6.5bn.

Dust at the Great Wall of China near Beijing
Suddenly the sky is very dark - even at home, with all your windows closed, your air is full of dust
Environmentalist and Beijing resident Dai Qing
The sandstorms are the result of massive changes in land use in China.

Geologist Edward Derbyshire, a professor at the Gansu Academy of Sciences, explained that these include changes in farming methods, such as intense grazing, but also due to infrastructure development, and the increase in the amount of traffic along unsurfaced roads, particularly from large trucking firms.

Desertification in Inner Mongolia is occurring at a staggering 660,000 hectares per year - exacerbated by unpredictable rainfall and drought.

Mr Xang argued that it was not too difficult to persuade farmers to move, as they are given access to electricity, water and medical services in their new villages.

And he claimed that families have increased their yield by 20%.

"They will stay permanently here," he said.

"Some of their old land has been stopped from farming, and returned to nature."

He said that within his own county, there were plans to move 3,000 families - a total of 10,000 people - of whom 1,700 families had already moved.

"We plan to move 447 families next year," he added.

"We will complete it in three years time."

Planting initiatives

Ecological migration is both sensitive and controversial. Another local government strategy is to leave land that previously was used to grow wheat, to grow fallow.

The strong winds which cause the dust storms to spread are causing other problems too. They are powerful enough to destroy the vegetation, leaving the land barren - creating a vicious circle.

Dust over Korea, SeaStar/SeaWiFis/Nasa
Korea and Japan have complained about the dust storms
The Chinese are attempting to combat this by planting trees to hold the soil down. The main species used is mountain apricot.

And there are plans to exploit this "red beauty" in years to come - a fruit juice factory is planned, along with autumn apricot festivals for tourists.

Meanwhile, officials say that while livestock ownership has been restricted, vegetation - from tree and grass planting - has doubled.

One national policy stipulates all citizens aged 11-60 years old should plant three to five trees each year, in the interests of combating desertification.

However Mr Xang said it would be two years before the dust storms were under control.

And Hong Jiang, a professor of geography at the University of Madison in Wisconsin, said that simply planting large numbers of trees did not guarantee success in fighting desertification.

"The effort is really widespread, but the question of how effective those plantings are is a different one," Ms Jiang said.

"As a dry land, the environment doesn't really support such a massive planting - especially of tree species that would use up a of lot of groundwater.

"So I have seen a lot of planting, but I have also seen a lot of failures," she said.

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