When I returned to Beijing on a late March evening, the sandstorms had subsided but one could still taste the dust particles in the air. The night was moonless and there was a slight haze. The meteorological authorities had recommended that residents stay inside as much as possible and keep their windows closed. Inhaling too much of the dust would have negative health effects, especially on respiratory organs.
The worst sandstorm of the year hit Beijing on a Saturday. It was the 20th of March 2010. On the following Monday, a second storm enveloped the capital city in a shroud of yellow dust that covered everything from the rooftops to the pavement on the streets. Trees as well as cars were coated by a layer of sandy dust. As an immediate result, dust pollution in the air rose to intolerable levels. People on the streets wore facemasks to protect their mouths and noses. Pharmacies were reportedly selling these items in ten times larger quantities than during normal times. Patients with asthma and other respiratory illnesses flooded the hospitals. Schools banned outdoors sports and even class breaks in the school yard.
Despite these dramatic consequences, the sandstorms were by no means unique in Beijing or elsewhere in China. In fact, according to the Chinese National Meteorological Centre, there have been on the average eight to nine sandstorms in Beijing each year over the past decade. Four-fifths of them occur in the spring.
The news reported that sandstorms over the weekend affected some 270 million people in 16 Chinese provinces covering an area of 2 million square kilometres. The numbers are staggering, but so is the scale of these storms. Fuelled by high winds from the north, the storms affected not only the capital region and the provinces north from it—Shaanxi, Hebei and Shanxi—but reached far south to the coast. Reportedly, the touristic city of Hangzhou—known as the most beautiful in China—in Zheijiang province in the east, and Fujian province on the southeast coast of the country were blanketed in yellow dust. As far south as Hong Kong, air pollution levels caused by the dust shot through the roof. Not even the island of Taiwan was spared: the dust pollution index in the capital of Taipei doubled.
In an interview with the China Daily on 23 March 2010, Duan Li, chief weather forecaster with the Beijing Meteorological Bureau, explained that, strictly speaking, rather than a sandstorm, we had just experienced a mere dust storm. The word ‘sandstorm’ is used when visibility falls to less than 1 km, she clarified, while this time visibility averaged between 2-3 km. Whatever the definition, the Beijing municipal Environmental Protection Bureau reported that the air quality was promptly deteriorating due to the dust and the city was experiencing level-four air pollution.
The perennial sandstorms plaguing the city originate in the northern parts of the country, often in the vast dry open areas of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet. A perfect sandstorm is created when cold Siberian winds from the northwest meet with soil that has been dried by the warming spring weather. The high wind velocity associated with the winter monsoon can reach 18-28 metres per second. Historically, strong winds occur for about a month every year but in rare cases they can last for up to a hundred days. Often the windiest days coincide with the dry season when sandstorms develop and blow away the dry loose surface soil. This time the epicentre of the sandstorm was located in the Inner Mongolia and Ningxia Hui autonomous regions.
Needless to say, the sandstorms are frequently seen as yet another consequence of human mismanagement of nature. Surely this must be yet one manifestation of how the greed of the contemporary man destroys the very base on which our lives depend? Undoubtedly, overgrazing of animals and deforestation in these naturally arid lands has caused significant erosion and loosened the topsoil that can now be blown away by the winds. Urbanization that these traditionally pastoralist societies are facing has put additional pressures on the natural vegetation that holds the soil together. The grasslands of northern China have been significantly degraded and deserts now cover 16 percent of the country. No-one can deny these facts.
But is this a new phenomenon? And is it particularly related to the exceedingly rapid economic growth and modernization of China over the past couple of decades? It would seem safe to argue, no, on the contrary, grassland degradation and drought have plagued northern China for centuries. My Beijing–based friend John explained how Chang’an, the former eastern terminus of the legendary Silk Road in Shaanxi province, collapsed in the 10th century C.E., partly due to environmental stresses on land and water caused by the large settlement. Sandstorms must have been a nuisance already then, more than a thousand years ago.
It is easy to blame recent developments for environmental degradation and the current trajectory may indeed not be sustainable. However, people’s memories are short and many environmentally concerned folks are intuitively sceptical about economic development. Yet, the history of degradation is often much longer and in some cases economic development has actually helped halt environmental damage as local people’s awareness and possibilities to invest in environmental protection improved. This has been convincingly shown by Jack Ives and Bruno Messerli in their now classic 1989 volume The Himalayan Dilemma: Reconciling Development and Conservation in which the two geographers show that, based on a historical record, the deforestation and land degradation in the world’s highest mountain range goes back hundreds of years and was largely due to colonial policies. According to their research, the intensive smallholder terraced agriculture has actually resulted in the stabilization of the slopes.
A similar storyline emerges from the book The Ordos Plateau of China: An Endangered Environment by another geographer and friend, Hong Jiang at the University of Hawaii. Ordos Plateau in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region is a fragile environment that is easily impacted by human activities, be it animal grazing, agriculture or construction. Subjected to overgrazing and deforestation, the flat open land becomes increasingly exposed to wind erosion that can have disastrous proportions. However, Hong’s detailed historical and field research demonstrates that the most rampant degradation in the region occurred during the first three decades after the takeover by Mao’s revolutionary guard in 1949. During this period that included the 'Great Leap Forward' (read: the opposite), the Chinese masses were mobilized to conquer the nature for the benefit of the new communist state. Since 1978, the degradation started slowing down and has in some areas even been reversed after environmental protection efforts were put in place.
Human factors were the triggering forces for environmental degradation, as well as the determining forces for environmental improvement, she concludes. Government policies played the most important role both in initially leading to the runaway degradation and, later, its reversal. Such policies were more important in determining the environmental outcomes than other factors, including economic growth, population increase and social practices.
With wealth often comes a raised awareness of the importance of environmental quality and an ability to do something about it. The Beijing-based Global Times reported that the Tibetan authorities have pledged to improve close to a million hectares of desert areas over the coming two decades by planting trees and grass. Similarly, according to China Daily, Beijing and its port city Tianjin have invested 4 billion yuan (more than 500 million dollars) into wind and sandstorm control since 2000.
Then again, the prominent ecologist Jiang Gaoming of the Chinese Academy of Sciences has pointed out that tree-planting projects in north China have been in existence for three decades and 60 billion yuan has been spent on preventing the sandstorms, but the results have not been impressive. To the question why this is the case, Jiang provides a set of answers that combine the technical (planting grass rather than trees; need to include remote, inaccessible areas that are ecologically degraded) and the social. His point is that many of these formerly nomadic areas in the northwest just are too fragile for permanent settlement and their carrying capacities have been exceeded by the current population levels (just as they were towards the end of the glory of Chang'an). Furthermore, there is a link to poverty, as poor people rely on the grasslands to feed their livestock and clear land for their crops.
But for now the dust had settled and I was able to enjoy a pleasant lunch in a courtyard of an old hutong converted into a trendy café near the Lama Temple just two days after the second sandstorm. The sky was blue and breathing the air was no problem. Still, another eight to ten sandstorms are expected to hit northern China between April and May this year. Zhang Peiqun, chief forecaster at the National Meteorological Centre, explained in the newspaper that this could be predicted due to the fluctuation between warm spring weather and sudden cold spells causing heavy winds to blow away the dry sand. We got a demonstration of the sudden variability of the weather the same evening when wet snow like white rags was pouring from the sky and everything was momentarily covered in sleet.
Like everywhere, springtime weather in Beijing is unpredictable. What is sure, however, is that the sandstorms will recur for the foreseeable future.