Sep 10, 2012 07:23 PM

Sichuan's Lost Pastures


Pastures in southwestern China are going, going, gone – and there is no relief in sight for many residents that may be forced to relocate. Despite a hulking catalog of environmental regulations and the launch of a splashy multi-million yuan campaign in 2007 by the Sichuan Provincial government, local environmental experts say the water and the grasslands are drying up.

But there's also a turf war not just against desertification, but local residents, herdsmen and environmental regulators that all claim they don't have the resources to keep up.

The Zoige Wetland National Natural Reserve, located in the ethnically Tibetan area of Aba prefecture of Sichuan Province, covers 160,000 hectares of land. The area is known as the "Kidney of the Tibetan Plateau," as it holds roughly 30 percent of the Yellow River's water volume.

But less water has made it harder for the "kidney" to flush out toxins and replenish the land with life after every winter. According to the Zoige county forestry bureau's Deputy Director Zuo Lin, "Ten out of 17 villages in the county no longer have access to water and 72,397 hectares of land have become deforested." Zuo said that since 1995, the borders of drylands are growing an alarming rate of 10.39 percent per year.

A Pasture Gets Unhorsed

Once one of China's top five natural pastures, Zoige natural resources are literally getting chewed off by the likes of cows, sheep and horses. In 1953, local government records showed that roughly 330,000 livestock used the lands for grazing. Now, 1.2 million cows, sheep and horses use the land, exceeding the capacity for the land to regenerate grasses by 155 percent.

Since the mid-1960s, the government has carried out projects that have permanently altered the landscape to open up the land for livestock grazing. Forty years ago, more than 65,000 hectares of Zoige's wetlands were converted into pastures, with the water channeled to the Yellow River 380 kilometers away. Since then, several similar projects have been carried out.

Zuo said the decades of attempts to convert drylands back into pastures have been plagued by the difficulties in regulatory enforcement.

"From 2004 to 2007, we only fixed less than 2,000 hectares of land, accounting for 4.58 percent of the newly-added drylands in the same period," said Zuo, attributing much of the degradation to a lack of regulatory maintenance. 

Suolang is the head of scientific research and environmental protection division of the Zoige Reserve Administration Bureau. He says that it's only become increasingly difficult for local herdsmen to find water.

"They can find traces of water after digging two to three meters, but now must break ground seven to eight meters below the surface. In some places, locals have to drill a dozen meters deep."

The steep fall of groundwater levels has been followed by the dying off of herbs. In some areas, the soil then turns into a thick layer of sand. In some villages such as Maixi, Xiaman and Tangke, the situation is particularly bad. Zoige used to be home to more than 300 large and small lakes, according to Li Hua, deputy director of the Reserve Administration Bureau. Now it only has 100.

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