Straw "checkerboard" stops desert encroachment

Fifty-nine-year-old Wang Youde still remembers the hard days when his family suffered the encroachment of the Maowusu Desert in the 1970s, which eventually forced them out of their village in Lingwu City in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.


Three decades later, Wang has built a 47-km shelterbelt with his colleagues at the city's Baijitan Nature Reserve, keeping the creeping desert at bay.

Here in the reserve, Wang and his "sand warriors" are using straw checkerboards -- a dune fixation technique in which straw is placed on the desert surface in the shape of a checkerboard -- to combat desertification.

Every August, soon after the wheat harvest, Wang and workers at the reserve would begin placing the straw checkerboards.

"We work in pairs: one places the straw on the sand, while the other fixes the straw into the sand with a spade," said worker Wu Fang. "In this way, we make our work more efficient."

The checkerboards are made up of numerous straw squares. These squares usually measure 1 meter by 1 meter, with half of the straw buried in the sand.

Easy to build, the checkerboards have remarkable windbreaking properties and can also help to keep dune sand in place, allowing soil to form. After enough soil is in place, drought-resistant plants can be grown.

"Once the sand is fixed, we can then plant some grass, shrubs or trees. Eventually, the sand dunes stop advancing and vegetation can be restored," said Ping Xuezhi, vice head of Ningxia's Forestry Bureau.

Located on the fringes of the Maowusu Desert, the Baijitan Nature Reserve plays a big role in protecting the nearby airport as well as thousands of hectares of farmland from sandstorms. The reserve is also home to a variety of rare species, such as the black stork, great bustard and whooper swan, all of which are under state protection.

The reserve covers an area of 70,000 hectares, of which 70 percent was desertified when established in 1985. After decades of effort, the straw checkerboard technique has brought that figure down to 50 percent.

Devised in the 1950s, the checkerboard technique was used to curtail desertification near the Baotou-Lanzhou Railway, China's first desert railway, which passes through the country's fourth largest desert, the Tengger Desert, near Shapotou in Ningxia's Zhongwei City.

In 1977, China shared the anti-desertification technique used in Shapotou at the UN Conference on Desertification, and in 1994, Shapotou was elected to the UN Environment Program's Global 500 Roll of Honor for its achievements in sand control.

Thanks to its significant role in sand dune stabilization, the technique has been widely used in desert regions across China. Over the years, many foreign experts have also come to Ningxia to learn about local sand control and prevention efforts.

"Last year, we held a forum on China-Arab sand control and prevention in order to share and promote our sand control techniques. The straw checkerboard technique received incredible recognition at the forum," said Ping Xuezhi.

Authorities in Ningxia have also been offering sand control training courses for foreign researchers and technicians since 2006.

On August 27 of this year, 16 trainees from Yemen, Sudan, Morocco, Palestine, and other countries took a month-long training course.

Ningxia is one of 13 provincial-level desert areas in China, a country where 27 percent of the total land area is desert.

To combat desertification, a national forestation program was launched in north, northeast and northwest China in 1978. The program is intended to boost forest coverage to about 4.07 million square km by 2050, accounting for 42.4 percent of the total land area of China.

Statistics from the State Forestry Administration indicate forest coverage in the three areas had increased from 5.05 percent in 1977 to 12.4 percent as of the end of 2012. 

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