Loess Plateau

This evening I am taking it easy at the hotel. Last night we went out with the conference team to sample the Xi’an nightlife. A lively scene but not so different from the drinking districts of Beijing. Tonight people are just chilling or working. Earlier I explored the streets a little way after dinner. Not a great deal to see but a good opportunity to observe Xi’an life and the people that live here. I love distinguishing the soul and aura of different cities. Xi’an is distinctively more traditional than Beijing, less developed with fewer skyscrapers, it is half the size of the capital but still a significant dot on the map at 8 million people. The history of the city is more eminent than in Beijing, with the great city walls marking out the historic boundary of the old part of town and notably more traditional oriented architecture in parts.

Today was our trip to the Loess Plateau, several hours south of the city. It took some extra navigation on the driver’s part to find a route up into the terraced hills, but we managed to get close enough to the rolling landscape to gauge the effect of the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project. This $500 million project, funded by the Chinese government and the World Bank, transformed a once barren and over-farmed terrain into lush green landscape host to a promising array of recovering vegetation and developing ecosystems.

In 1995, when the project started, a vicious cycle of degradation from cutting down trees on the hillsides and free-ranging sheep until all vegetation disappeared had left the environment barren and devastated. A cycle of poverty and environmental degradation diminished the productivity of the land until it was completely barren and the rain water washed away the soils into the river. This caused several problems. First, the rain water was not retained in the land and severe droughts worsened the economic circumstances for the local farmers. Second, the rain washed earth from the hillside into the Yellow River and the sedimentation caused major difficulties for everyone downstream, especially towards the more industrial regions where the river became unnavigable. Heavy sediment loads were followed by drought followed by famine, and so the cycle continued.

So the government finally took notice and decided to do something. They undertook econometric valuations and divided the land up into ecological and economic land, recognising the fact that some land may have greater ecological value than its productivity. The result was a mass-scale transformation of the land over ten years, using local farmers, their equipment and their own practiced methods. The hills were terraced to prevent further erosion of the soil and sedimentation of the river. More rain water was retained in the land and vegetation was allowed to recover naturally. In some parts, grazing was prohibited and crops were specially selected to grow all year round.

The sheer scale of the project is most apparent. The plateau itself is the size of France, and the degradation was so widespread that to make a difference the project had to be on a “landscape scale.” So the active project area was 35,000 km, roughly the size of Belgium. You have to be there and experience the sheer size of the terraced landscape to really gauge the scale of the project, and to see the before and after pictures to really appreciate just how big a transformation that has occurred there.

The wise words of John Lui who spoke of the project at the Beijing conference hung in my head, and the thought that if such a large scale project requiring the rehabilitation of entire ecosystems can be achieved with what was a relatively small capital outlay and time horizon, there can be no limit to what the world can achieve with global challenges such as climate change, if only we can work together and with equal veracity.

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