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Half Empty ep.2: Alxa people grow drought-tolerant crops to survive

Reporter: Han Bin 丨 CCTV.com

05-17-2015 13:04 BJT

Full coverage: Special Series: Half Empty

China's lack of arable land is made worse by severe desertification. Encroaching sands have taken their toll on agricultural and industrial production, economic development, and people's lives. In the second episode of our special series "Half Empty", Han Bin visits Alxa in the west of China's Inner Mongolia.Farmers there are fighting desertification, as they try to balance saving water and making a basic living. 

There's no other place like this in China, where the sand encroachment is seen so clearly.

Here at Alxa, natural conditions are harsh. For farmers like Yang Fei, water is a constant concern.

Strong sandstorms occur suddenly and disastrously, and often bring great losses to our lives. Seedlings can be destroyed completely," Yang said.

Desertification is the biggest obstacle to development in Alxa. Yang Fei's only hope lies in the remaining arable land in the village. It's an on-going struggle to stay in the place his family has called home for generations.

I know it’s important to save ground water as much as possible, and to protect the remaining forest and shrub areas to prevent soil erosion by sand," Yang said.

Desertification is the most severe problem in China’s Inner Mongolia. In the past, many people were relocated away from the grasslands. Now, the government realizes participation by local residents is also key. And only by providing those with necessary income can holding back the desert be possible in the long run. 

Pang Zongping is working for an NGO protecting Alxa’s eco-system. He’s brought some new concepts to combat desertification. His organization has persuaded farmers to plant drought-tolerant millet instead of corn. He believes farming and quality of life must be taken into consideration for sustainable growth.

The biggest challenge in the fight against desertification is the shortage of water. So, if we can use groundwater rationally, desertification can be effectively brought under control," Pang said.

This traditional way of irrigation, so wasteful, has been abandoned. Farmers are switching to drip irrigation, pioneered in the Israeli desert. The balance between land and water is crucial. The old policy focused on grain yields.

It's being gradually replaced by one of respect for the eco-system, to create conditions for sustainable growth.

Officials have come to realize development in Alxa depends on achieving both ecological and economic benefits. Yang Fei believes he can do it. He's started to taste the benefits of growing millet.

Abundant sunshine enables a quality crop. And grown without chemical fertilizer, his millet commands a good price through the help of the NGO. And some of it makes it way to the family table.

"Growing millet saves as much as half the water used for corn. And it has a higher yield per hectare, and the price is almost double that of corn," Yang said.

Yang Fei is hoping his farm won't become part of the wasteland. He's committed to saving water and protecting the eco-system. Many farmers have the same dream: an annual harvest, that will provide a comfortable life.

Are the efforts and dreams of Alxa's farmers enough to hold back the sands? In the end, Nature will have the final say.

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