To date, Chinese farmers and herders have transformed about 400,000 square kilometres of cropland and verdant prairie into new deserts. The shepherds have overgrazed the steppes, allowing their sheep and goats to chew the grass all the way down to its roots. The farmers, for their part, have over-exploited the arable land by opening fragile grasslands to cultivation and over-pumping rivers and aquifers in the oases bordering the ancient deserts. The area of desert thus created is equivalent to more than half the farmland in Canada.
The soil, once it is barren, is swept up by the wind into dust storms, battering the capital, Beijing, and then moving on to Korea and Japan. The most massive of the yellow clouds of dust make their way across the Pacific and reach North America. The loss of precious topsoil for Chinese agriculture ends up polluting both China’s cities and countries halfway around the world.
The North American “dust bowl” of the 1930s forced three million farmers to abandon their land in the Midwest and the Canadian prairies. But the Chinese exodus could reach well into the tens of millions. Governmental relocation programs for ecological refugees are already in full swing.