When the city of Korla rose from the Taklamakan desert in mid-1950s, it was marvelled as a triumph of human willpower over adverse nature. Thousands of soldiers dispatched by the Chinese communist party put this place on the map in China’s far west Xinjiang, by digging 600 km of channels to coax underground water to large collective farms.

Half-a century later, Korla has to defend every bit of its existence in the desert by erecting sentries of trees against the encroaching sands. It has to fight for every drop of water by

using sophisticated water conservation technology imported from Israel. Being only 70 km from the desert, the city is plagued by fierce desert storms that ravage the fragile vegetation and blanket the skies for days on in spring.

So desperate were local officials to tame the storms that in mid-1990s they embarked on a scheme to level off some of the surrounding hills by blowing them up. But blowing up a few of the hills encircling the city didn’t produce the result city leaders had hoped for. It was impossible to alter entirely the vast stretches of rocky outcrops surrounding the place.

The miraculous solution came in the shape of a dripline irrigation technology introduced by the Israeli company Eisenberg Agri Co. Ltd (EAC). It uses a pressurised system of several main pipes and hundreds of drip lines that can carry the water up the hill and deliver it through sprinkles to the roots of every tree.

“The brilliant thing about this technology is that the water pressure and volume are the same on top of the mountain and at the bottom of it,” gushes Korla’s vice-mayor Qu Sihao. “It really works here because all we have are hills”. While in the past it would take 800 to 1000 cubic metres of water to irrigate one mu (0.067 hectare) of land with planted trees, now the city can save 75 per cent of the water. Since introducing the technology in 2001, Korla leaders claim to have successfully planted more than 3,000 hectares with trees. The resources mobilised to achieve this are mind-boggling. The government is spending $148 per every mu of newly planted trees along with an annual payment of $23 for maintaining it.

March 12 has been declared a Tree Planting Day and every year local government leaders join thousands of people who take up shovels in a mass campaign to plant trees. Zhang, at the local afforestation bureau, believes the strategy is paying off.

In the past five years desert storms have decreased by 6 to 7 days and Korla’s summer temperature is slightly lower. The gains are tiny compared with the environmental losses during the past five decades of water overuse and excessive farming. Overall, Xinjiang faces an uphill battle in reversing the tide of ecological degradation.

This year China claimed a victory in slowing the spread of deserts, saying the rate at which the desert is eating up farm and other land had slowed from 10,400 sq km to about 3,000 sq km a year.

Lester Brown, the president of the United States-based Earth Policy Institute, however believes China is losing the centuries-old war against the deserts.

“A huge dust bowl is developing in western China,” Brown says, “perhaps the world’s largest conversion of productive land into desert we have witnessed so far”. — IPS