07/12/2007, 00.00
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China caught between flooding and expanding deserts

Heavy rain cause worst flooding in many years in southern and central China. Millions of hectares of crops are wiped out; hundreds of thousands of homes are damaged or destroyed. In the north deserts are expanding rapidly.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – China has been hit by the worst flooding it has seen in many years. More than 60 million people have been affected across its southern and central regions, and at least 360 have died. Direct economic losses are estimated at 7.4 billion yuan. More than 200,000 houses have been destroyed or damaged, whilst over 1.8 million hectares of farmland have been affected and 528,000 destroyed. At the same time China’s deserts, which already cover a fifth of the country, are expanding fuelling sandstorms whose effects are felt as far as Japan

At present the main emergency are the rising waters of the Huai River, which has reached its highest level in over half a century. The situation forced the authorities in Anhui to divert floodwaters yesterday to a buffer zone, Jiangtanghu, which covers 115 hectares and is home to 43,000 people. Matters are expected to get worse with more rain forecast for today and tomorrow.

Hongze Lake, downstream in Jiangsu, is expected to receive 23 billion m3 of water, or six times its normal capacity, from the Huai in the next few days. In preparation, a 163-km emergency canal has been opened to discharge floodwaters into the Yellow Sea. Almost half a million people have been evacuated from the river’s flood basin.

Flooding might be south-central China’s main environmental problem, but expanding deserts (a fifth of China’s territory) are the main environmental challenge in the upper reaches of the Yellow River, on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau and parts of Inner Mongolia and Gansu

“At present the anti-desertification [sic] situation remains serious, and is still the main ecological problem which restricts our sustainable socio-economic development,” China’s forestry ministry said in a statement today. .

China has more than 20 per cent of the world's population but less than 7 per cent of the world's arable land.

Over the past decade, Chinese deserts have expanded at a rate of 950 square miles (2,460 square kilometres) a year, according to Wang Tao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Lanzhou.

As well as eating up valuable farm land, the expanding deserts have helped fuel vicious sandstorms that lash northern China every spring, and whose effects are felt in South Korea and Japan.

Even though Beijing has pledged to hold a sandstorm-free Olympics in 2008 and launched a new campaign to repair denuded land and plant trees in a bid to hold back the desert's advance, the affected area is water-poor and all the steps taken are not likely to make much of a difference.

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