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UPDATED: December 30, 2014 NO. 31 August 1, 2013
Barren Beachfront
Erosion and sand accumulation threaten China's rain-rich southern provinces
By Wang Hairong

DRY BEACHED: A man walks on sandified land at Dongguang Village in Pengze County, Jiangxi Province, on April 10 (ZHOU KE)

While an oasis is a piece of isolated vegetated land surrounded by desert, a village in Jiangxi Province is precisely the opposite: a microdesert amidst lush vegetation.

Xinwuliu Village is located near Poyang Lake in Dujiang County. Poyang is the largest freshwater lake in China, and the area enjoys a temperate climate and plenty of rain, but sometimes Xinwuliu looks more like the Gobi desert in northwest China.

Accumulated dust deposits are encroaching on arable land. A 2-meter sand dune crouches on a 0.1-hectare plot near the village reservoir. Crops in nearby fields are short and sparse.

"Mountain torrents are dumping more and more sand," 60-year-old villager Liu Xianzhen told Xinhua News Agency's biweekly China Comments. "There is little arable land left."

According to Liu, there is less than 0.05 hectares of land still available for cultivation for each person living in Xinwuliu.

Many miniature deserts like the one in Xinwuliu exist in south China, although most of the region features humid or semi-humid subtropical climates.

Sand threats

Sand accumulation affects 8,800 square km of land in China. In 2011, the State Forestry Administration reported "sandification" in 260 counties or cities in 12 provinces and autonomous regions in the country's south. The problem is particularly severe in Fujian, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Hunan, Hubei and Guangdong provinces.

As opposed to actual desertification, the accumulation of sand occurs near rivers and lakes. Strong winds and heavy rains have spread the sand to wider areas, burying farmland and damaging economy and ecology.

Sand blown from the Poyang waterfront has besieged the fields of Dongguang Village in Jiangxi's Pengze County. Almost half of the village's 100 hectare farmland suffers from severe waterlog as the surrounding sand has trapped rain water inside the fields.

In Shanfeng Village, Yudu County in south Jiangxi, almost all fields are sandified. Because sandified soil is poor in retaining water and nutrients, crop yields are low. Local farmers' income is about three fourths of the provincial average.

In Shanglou Village in Fujian's Pingtan County, the majority of fields are also covered with white sand. Local farmers can only grow peanuts and potatoes.

Sand dunes may trigger floods and other natural disasters. Liu Yuanqiu, a professor at Jiangxi Agricultural University, said that soil and water erosion has silted the Poyang Lake, raising the lakebed and forming sand dunes dozens of meters tall.

Even taller sand dunes in the area between Poyang Lake and the Yangtze River, China's largest waterway, may seriously obstruct water flow, Liu warned.

"If sandification is not controlled, sand dunes will move and spread. Strong winds cause physical erosion leading to sandstorms," said Li Fangtan, Deputy Director of the Forestry Bureau of Laohekou City in Hubei.

Yu Dongbo, Deputy Director of the Afforestation Committee of the Jiangxi Provincial Forestry Department, attributed the emergence of miniature deserts in vegetation-friendly climates in south China to mainly natural factors.

Historically, sandified land in south China was formed after rivers and lakes changed course or levees were breached, Yu said, but he mainly blames drought for exacerbating the situation.

For example, normally rain-rich Jiangxi has suffered persistent droughts over the past few years, leading to a remarkable drop in the water levels of Poyang Lake and the five rivers feeding into it, including the Ganjiang River.

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