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China’s ‘new Silk Road’ could expand Asia’s deserts

13 September, 2016
Liu Qin

Huge infrastructure projects planned for fragile environments risk expanding world’s deserts, reports Liu Qin.

China’s massive Asian infrastructure network of proposed new roads and railways, new ports and airports, linking 65 countries to itself must grapple with the same problem as the ancient Silk Road it has been named after. Sand.

Deserts present as big a problem along the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the shores of the “21
st Century Marine Silk Road” as when camel caravans ambled across Central Asia in the Tang Dynasty.

At a June event in Beijing to mark World Day to Combat Desertification, Yong Liqiang, deputy head of the State Forestry Administration, highlighted the scale of existing desertification, soil degradation and drought in more than 60 of the 65 countries covered by the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) strategy.

Chinese officials acknowledge the risks of exacerbating the problem, though policies to prevent fresh damage have not yet been developed. Meanwhile, specialist Chinese companies see tackling the risks of desertification as a commercial opportunity.

Home and abroad

OBOR strategy covers Central, North and South Asia and the Middle East.

Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan and Egypt, are among the worst affected countries on the routes.

They also pass through seven Chinese provinces badly affected by desertification, according to the State Forestry Administration. They are are mostly in the arid northwest, where 95% of China’s deserts are.  

In a
report on the state of the environment in OBOR regions, the Ministry of Science and Technology highlighted desertification problems in four of the strategy’s six major economic corridors.

The report noted 400 kilometres of the China-Mongolia-Russia corridor passes through desert. Half of the 6,000 kilometre long China-Central Asia-Western Asia economic corridor is desert. Drought and desertification are the major environmental constraints along the New Eurasian Land Bridge (which runs from Lianyungang in coastal Jiangsu province neighbouring Shanghai, to Rotterdam in Holland). Drought and widespread desertification were also named as the major environmental issues in the southern section of the China-Pakistan economic corridor.

The National Remote Sensing Centre of China’s Global Environmental Monitoring Report 2015 has examined land and sea environments along these routes.

“Environmental security” risks

Most countries are struggling with a combination of low levels of economic development and environmental fragility, and greater economic development will exacerbate environmental pressures, it found.  

Chinese media reports say that China has announced investments of 1.04 trillion yuan (US$ 150 billion) in OBOR projects that are already under construction or planned.

Nearly half of it, or 500 billion yuan (US$75 billion), is earmarked for railways.

Road building accounts for 123.5 billion yuan (US$
14.6 billion), airports, 116.7 billion yuan (US$17.5 billion), and ports and waterways 170 billion yuan (US$25.4 billion).

OBOR strategy money is pouring into sectors such as energy and mining, roads, railways, oil pipelines and telecoms networks and communications.

Construction of such infrastructure has a huge impact on the environment, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Centre for Regional Security Studies. Its report on a unified strategy for this ultimate mega project concluded, “Many
OBOR projects may result in a range of environmental security issues.”

Key task

The Chinese government is aware of the environmental risks the
flood of investment will bring. Examining the environment the route’s pass through was a key task given to the National Remote Sensing Centre in 2015.

Vice-premier Wang Yang, and the State Forestry Administration (which has responsibility for desertification issues), have both said desertification issues should be taken seriously when building infrastructure, and stronger communication and cooperation is needed to deal with it.

Promise of help

China has had some success curbing the spread of its own deserts, though they are still getting bigger. State Forestry Administration data shows that in the late 1990s the country’s deserts were expanding by 10,400 square kilometres a year. The rate of expansion has since dropped by two thirds, to 2,424 square kilometres a year.

Wang Yang has said China will do more to help developing nations prevent desertification, but gave no details of specific funding or technical support.

Chinese businesses, meanwhile, are cleaving to the maxim, “No crisis without opportunity.”

Prospecting for business

In March 2015, a year after the
OBOR strategy was proposed, Wang Wenbiao, chair of China Elion Resources Group and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, put forward an anti-desertification proposal during China’s once-a-year parliamentary session. Shortly afterwards, Elion - which specialises in environmental clean-ups and financing - led the formation of the 30 billion yuan (US$4.5 billion) Green Silk Road Private Equity Fund. Its mission is to invest in clean energy, environmental remediation and green agriculture.

The Elion Group says it has restored 11,000 square kilometres of desert in China. In 2013 its work in the Kubuqi desert earned Wang the title of Global Drylands Champion from the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

Solar farms

In his submission, Wang said that
OBOR routes are rich in solar resources but suffering desertification – providing the right conditions for developing green industries.

The first 5 billion yuan (US$748 million) of investments from the Green Silk Road fund will go to photovoltaic (PV) solar projects, to invest in a planned 10 GW of solar power plants in China and in
OBOR countries over the coming six to eight years. Wang told the media he hopes to see international partners come on board, although it remains unclear how likely this is to happen.

Food security risks

Although desertification looks to be on the Chinese government’s agenda and private capital is keen to get involved, it is certain that dealing with desertification in China’s north-west, plus Central Asia and the Middle East while also maintaining economic growth will be a huge task.

According to the UNCCD’s 2014 report,
Desertification: the invisible frontline, the soil on which 1.5 billion people worldwide rely on is degrading.

Soil degradation is a major factor in forced migration, with an estimated 135 million people at risk of having to leave their homes due to desertification. By mid-century, 200 million people may become permanent environmental refugees.  

According to data from the State Forestry Administration, 36 million square kilometres of land worldwide is affected by desertification, causing economic losses of over US$42 billion annually.

Ban Ki-moon, United Nations secretary general, wrote on World Day to Combat Desertification that in the next 25 years soil degradation could cause a 12% drop in global grain harvests, and a 30% rise in grain prices. Without a long-term strategy to resolve the problem, desertification will affect food supplies, cause migration and threaten the stability of many countries and regions. Ban called for the development of
climate-smart agriculture to protect soil and prevent desertification.

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Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

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Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

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Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

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Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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