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Tens of millions of people around the world, climate calamity has already arrived. To help understand climate change — and what it means to the people living through it — GlobalPost's award-winning team of correspondents and videographers spent much of 2013 investigating this global phenomenon.
As climate change makes vast parts of Inner Mongolia uninhabitable, an official declares: ‘Land desertification is China’s most important ecological problem.’
NAIMAN QI, INNER MONGOLIA, China — Over the last three years, San Qinghai has had to dig four new wells, each one deeper than the last.
The village's old stone wells used to go down 30 feet. But the 31-year-old Mongolian farmer and shepherd’s new wells descend 140 feet to reach groundwater.
Squinting and wearing a ragged gray sweater, San pointed to several acres of dry, brittle corn behind his house. He said he lost a third of his crop this year.
"The winters have been getting colder, and there hasn't been much rain," he said. "I'm worried that the sandstorms will destroy my crops. It's been getting worse."
Long days in the dry air and punishing sun have left deep creases in his leathery skin, making him look older than his age. After gazing at the field, he tosses a few dry husks into a horse’s feed trough and plods back home on the village’s narrow lanes. The streets are soft and thick with sand.
Life has never been easy here on the edge of the Gobi Desert, 400 miles northeast of Beijing. The soil is sandy and lacks the fertile loess that allowed agriculture to flourish in China’s dry north. For centuries, Mongol herdsman roamed these steppes, grazing their flocks on low, scrubby grasses native to the area.
In the mid-20th century, excessive farming began to erode the land. By 2005, 300,000 acres of what used to be rolling grassland here in Naiman was desert.
Now, the primary threat to San and thousands of farmers like him is climate change, according to Wang Shaokun, a researcher who studies desertification in Inner Mongolia. With declining rainfall and falling water tables, the land is in danger of becoming uninhabitable if trends continue.
"Our biggest concern today is not man-made problems, it is climate change and water resources," said Wang.
If the water situation continues to worsen, they may need to abandon their pastures and move into cities like Naiman or Tongliao. Leaving the land would be a sad fate for Mongolians like San, who have lived here since the invasion of Genghis Khan.
Already, 178,000 people have been forced to relocate from the grasslands near Beijing as part of officials’ anti-desertification efforts, according to state media reports.
Damming the desert
“Land desertification is the most important ecological problem in China," said Zhang Yongli, deputy director of the State Forestry Administration, at a press conference earlier this year. “It causes erosion to the available space for people's existence and development, provokes natural disasters like sandstorms, and endangers agricultural production by degrading the land.”
For decades, researchers have battled desertification in this part of Inner Mongolia, which sends sandstorms blasting into Beijing every spring. Scientists first came in the 1960s to tame sand dunes that had spread because of excessive farming and grazing.
In the 1980s institutes like the Naiman Semi-Arid Research Center were founded to develop methods to help bring back the grasslands. They planted trees such as poplars and aspen pines, and enclosed fields to encourage the growth of native grasses.
When it came to slowing local causes of desertification, their efforts were largely successful. From 1985 to 2005, the amount of degraded land in Naiman decreased from 733 square miles to 463 square miles (an area about the size of New York City’s five boroughs).
But now climate change is bringing drier, hotter weather, threatening to undo all their work.
Since the turn of the century, average rainfall has decreased 10 percent in this part of Inner Mongolia, according to the Naiman research center. The average temperature has risen by about 1 degree Fahrenheit.
As a result, millions of trees planted by the government as a “Green Belt” to protect Beijing from sandstorms have died.
"Around here, many lakes have also disappeared,” said Zhao Xueyong, director of the center. “This is due to the decline of rainfall and the variability of climate change."
The grasslands that covered Naiman in the 19th century have given way to a sandy landscape that the locals call the Horqin. It lies to the southeast of the Gobi desert, but in many places the two geographic features have become indistinguishable. The desertified Horqin covers an area more than twice the size of New Jersey and is spreading rapidly.