The Earth Policy Reader


Lester R. Brown, Janet Larsen, and Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts

Part 1. Deserts Invading China: Introduction

On April 12, 2002, South Korea was engulfed by a huge dust storm from China that left residents of Seoul literally gasping for breath. Schools were closed, airline flights were cancelled, and clinics were overrun with patients who were having difficulty breathing. 1

The health effect was pervasive. When the amount of particulate matter in the air—normally 70 micrograms of dust per cubic meter in Seoul—reaches 1,000, respiratory stress disables the elderly and those with impaired respiratory systems. At the 2,070 micrograms recorded in this particular dust storm, breathing was labored for the able-bodied as well as the infirm. Many people were afraid to venture outside. 2

New York Times correspondent Howard French reports that these suffocating dust storms, once seen as a nuisance in Korea, are now considered an economic threat as they boost worker absenteeism, curb travel, reduce retail sales, and adversely affect dust-sensitive industries, such as semi-conductor manufacturing. The automobile maker Hyundai began to shrink-wrap cars destined for export as soon as they came off the assembly line lest they arrive in foreign markets saturated with dust. Both business and tourist travel are reduced when the country is besieged by these dust storms. Airline flight cancellations are increasingly common. 3

Koreans have come to dread the arrival of what they now call “the fifth season”—the season of dust storms that occupies the months on the calendar once considered late winter and early spring. Japan also suffers from dust storms originating in China. Although not as directly exposed as Koreans are, the Japanese complain about yellow snow and the brown rain that streaks their windshields and windows. It is Korean and Japanese frustration with Chinese dust that led to the launch of a trilateral ministerial consultation between South Korea, China, and Japan in 1999. 4

Occasionally even the United States is affected. In April 2001, a huge dust storm measuring 1,800 kilometers east-west and 1,200 kilometers north-south crossed the Pacific intact, blanketing the western United States from the Arizona border to Canada with dust. Atmospheric scientists in Boulder, Colorado, who sent a plane up to measure dust concentrations at every thousand feet detected dust up to 37,000 feet. In March 2002, another storm from China followed the jet stream east, crossing the western United States before dissipating over Colorado. 5

Within China, the area affected is expanding as the number and size of the storms has increased in recent years. In late January 2002, an unusually early dust storm moved southward over Tibet, closing the airport in Lhasa for three days, disrupting tourism and other activities. In eastern China, dust storms reach the coastal populations as far south as Shanghai. 6

While the dust storms can have severe effects in South Korea, they can be even more suffocating for the people of eastern China who are more directly affected. Early each year, residents of eastern cities, such as Beijing and Tianjin, hunker down as the fifth season begins. Motorists have learned to drive with their lights on during the day as storms impair visibility, and residents routinely cover their faces with surgical masks, shawls, or handkerchiefs. 7

The fifth season is not a pleasant one for those living in northern and eastern China. Those with respiratory illnesses are particularly burdened, as the breathing stresses intensify their illnesses. Apart from the difficulty breathing and the dust that stings the eyes, there is the constant effort to keep dust out of homes and to clear doorways and sidewalks of dust and sand.

As difficult as life may be for those living in the paths of the dust storms, the real price is paid by the pastoralists and farmers who live at their source. They are bearing the brunt of the dust and sand storms.

Although global media coverage of dust and sand storms in the more remote northern and western regions has been limited, enough time has now passed for the extent of damage from past storms to be measured and recorded in scientific papers. One of these reported on a dust and sand storm occurring on May 5, 1993, in the Hexi corridor of Gansu Province in China’s northwest. This intense sand and dust storm reduced visibility to zero and the daytime sky was described as “dark as a winter night.” The storm destroyed 170,000 hectares of standing crops, damaged 40,000 trees, killed 6,700 cattle and sheep, blew away 27,000 hectares of plastic greenhouses, injured 278 people and killed 49. Forty-two trains, both passenger and freight, were either cancelled, delayed, or simply parked to wait until the storm passed and the tracks were cleared of sand. 8

A detailed record of the effect of a dust-sandstorm on April 5, 1998, in Alxa Prefecture in Inner Mongolia describes the damage from a storm that lasted for 12 hours. Some 10,600 hectares of crops were destroyed, including 330 hectares of wheat covered by shifting sand; 134 plastic greenhouses were damaged; 400 drinking wells were filled with sand; 130 hectares of fruit orchards were destroyed; 800 tons of hay and dry forage stored in open fields were simply carried away; 600 sheep sheds were damaged; 1,000 yurts were destroyed; and 7,000 sheep were killed. These accounts describe just two of the scores of sand and dust storms that have occurred in the last decade or so. 9

Data are now becoming available on ecosystem decline in at least some locations in the more severely affected areas. In Alxa Prefecture, more than 3 million hectares of grazing land are degraded, of which 60 percent is seriously degraded. Fodder production in the region has decreased by 43 percent and the carrying capacity of the grazing land has declined by 46 percent. And perhaps most telling of all, the body weight of the average draft animal has been reduced by almost half, suggesting rather emaciated animals. The forested area in the region, which totaled 1.13 million hectares in the 1950s, has now shrunk to 530,000 hectares—most of which is in an unhealthy state. This sort of ecosystem deterioration can be found in numerous prefectures and counties in northern and western China. 10


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