Water in the wilderness: China’s growing deserts


The Tengger Desert, courtesy of crienglish.com

I ran across an article that took my breath away.

Living in China’s Expanding Deserts: New York Times by Josh Haner, Edward Wong, Derek Watkins, and Jeremy White.

The drone footage of the contrast of humanity and desert, of children playing in the sand and improbable greenhouses, was absolutely beautiful. Finishing it was something like eating a delicious, carefully plated appetizer and then finding out that there’s no main course to follow it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful journalism about a region I’ve always been fascinated with. I was left, though, with questions. What was life like there beforehand? Why is the Tengger desert expanding, and how fast?

Many of my questions will probably have to go unanswered, as I understand exactly 0% of the Chinese language. However, I found some interesting further resources on the area.

Another great article on desertification in Inner Mongolia, with more of a focus on economic and environmental drivers of the desertification than the New York Times feature: Waterless World: China’s ever-expanding desert wasteland by Benjamin Carlson

Cue angelic singing, I finally found an scientific article on groundwater resources in this area written in English:

Currell, M. J., Han, D., Chen, Z. and Cartwright, I. (2012), Sustainability of groundwater usage in northern China: dependence on palaeowaters and effects on water quality, quantity and ecosystem health.Hydrol. Process., 26: 4050–4066. doi:10.1002/hyp.9208

One of the lead authors also wrote an article for China Dialogue – The Shrinking Depths Below – that serves as an introduction to his research and an excellent summary.

A thorough break-down of desertification effects and probable causes by region in China can be found over at here at GeoCases.

Further to the northeast of the area covered in the NYTimes article, the coal processing activities which have lead to huge economic growth in Baotou City in Inner Mongolia have also sucked water away from their prior uses. I’m looking for more sources on this, but this GreenPeace video initially piqued my curiosity.


An annual precipitation contour map of China, from http://www.chinamaps.org. Areas in bright yellow to orange have less than 200 millimeters of precipitation per year, and are considered deserts. The area mentioned in the NYTimes article is a bit west of Yinchuan on this map.



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