On June 14, 1276, as Mongol invaders approached Fuzhou — China’s “City of Banyan Trees” located along the southeastern coast in Fujian province — an 8-year-old prince named Zhao Shi was hurriedly crowned the Emperor Duanzong of Song by the remaining exiled members of the Song Dynasty. Two years later, as the Mongols were about to cross the emperor’s last line of defense, the child ruler fled south by boat to Guangdong.
Today, Guangdong bursts with over 95 million inhabitants — about the same population as Mexico. Economically speaking, it’s the same size as Turkey. The intense human activity has put a strain on the region’s fertile land. Much of it is turning into desert as fertile land disappears.
“When talking about desertification, what appear in one’s brain are desert scenes in arid and semi-arid regions in [the] northwest of China,” according to the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research in Beijing. The institute notes that in Guangdong, “vegetation has been destroyed by irrational human activities…running water erosion is terribly fierce on purple sandstone here, which dose not hold much anti-erodibility.”
One of these newly arid places in Guangdong’s Nanxiong district is known as the “red desert.” The surface soil is gone. It is a barren, rocky landscape completely devoid of plant life.
“According to the Guangdong Province-based newspaper Southern Weekend, while the ecological systems of some pastoral areas were recovering, grassland degradation and desertification were still serious,” writes Li Li in the Beijing Review. “The paper was quoted as saying that 13.33 million hectares of China’s protected natural grasslands suffer from soil erosion.”
According to James Estrin of the New York Times, an estimated 1.74 million square kilometers of China’s land is now classified as desert. That’s about four times the size of California. Worldwide, desertification claims 6 million hectares a year, notes Colin Dunn in a GreenerIdeal.com article. That’s an area almost the size of West Virginia.
But while desertification is a global issue, it is of particular concern in China, which is home to one out of every five human beings on Earth. Li notes that the anti-desertification branch of China’s State Forestry Administration is undertaking several initiatives, including “prohibitions on overgrazing, excessive farming and mining, reconverting farmland to forests or pastures, and building water-conservation irrigation facilities.”
“China’s problems are particularly pressing because of its trade-oriented growth strategy which favors development along the coast,” note Kiyana Allen and Kayly Ober of American University in a 2009 paper. “More concerning is that the problem is only getting worse — the population in China’s low-lying coastal region grew at three times the rate of the national population growth rate between 1990 and 2000…This kind of rapid urbanization incites coastal degradation, which in turn leaves an inadequate infrastructure open to flooding and other weather-related disasters spurred by climate change.”
Duanzong was the penultimate emperor of Southern Song Dynasty. He reigned for just two years and died at the age of 10. His flight to Guangdong did not save him. And perhaps, the scores of Chinese migrating to coastal communities like Guangdong will also find that “irrational human activities” will ultimately tip the ecological balance into permanent unsustainability. As officials tackle the nation’s desertification problems, they might take Duanzong’s ill-fated story as a bit of a warning. After all, his temple name means “Final Ancestor.”