A massive sandstorm struck northern China, including Beijing, at the weekend creating the worst air pollution for three years. The Xinhua news agency reported that Beijingers awoke on Monday 17 April to see a ?yellow blanket? covering everything outdoors from window sills, cars and the ground to every single leaf on the trees. It was ?as if the desert has crawled to Beijing overnight,? local resident ZhangRui, told Xinhua, as an estimated 300,000 tons of sand dust were dumped on the capital.
Shops reported record sales of surgical masks while local media urged the population, particularly children and the elderly, to stay indoors.
The sandstorm, which originated in Southern Mongolia, swept across the municipalities and provinces of Beijing, Tianijin, Shanxi, Hebei and Shandong, affecting nearly 200 million people in 562 cities and counties, according to official sources. An official at the Beijing municipal meteorological office said the cause was ?windy weather, little rainfall and glut of construction sites.?
Environmentalists have long warned of the deteriorating problems of desertification, drought and severe sandstorms in northern China. Beijing is struck on average by six sandstorms a year, but local media pointed out this was the seventh and worst so far in 2006.
By comparison, there were five severe sandstorms in the entire decade of the 1950s, eight in the 1960s, and 14 in the 1980s. The frequency is rising. Severe sandstorms are major disasters in arid and semi-arid areas.
Severe pollution ? Beijing was recently judged the world?s ?most polluted city? ? has raised questions about its suitability to host the Olympic Summer Games in 2008. But the population of the affected areas have a lot more to worry about than the Olympics. A dramtic increase of allergies especially among children has led to increasedf medical costs for many families. ?Normal citizens can?t afford the high cost of medical treatment,? one parent told the South China Morning Post.
Experts warn that the sandstorms are caused by decades of environmental degradation that will not be rectified in the short-term. Rather than Mongolia?s Gobi Desert, the storms mainly originated in drought-afflicted areas of the province, where overgrazing and over-irrigation have caused water shortages and soil erosion. ?People overdeveloped farmland and exposed the soil,? Professor Lui Shurun of the Inner Mongolia Normal University told the South China Morning Post. ?Excessive herding caused the grasslands to degenerate. And excessive irrigation in some lakes can exhaust water supplies in other areas.
400 million people in China are impacted by desertification and the annual direct economic loss from desertification is about US$6.5 billion.
To combat the alarming spread of its desert areas, the Chinese authorities initiated a reforestation project in 2000 in Southern Mongolia, with the aim of relieving the threat to key urban centres such as Beijing and Tianjin. But this may actually have aggravated the situation. As Professor Lui warned, ?It is not right to plant as many trees as possible. Planting trees in drought-affected areas draws a lot of underground water and exposes sand. It is not good for the environment.?