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Xinjiang's man-made 'green wall' holds desertification in check

  A project to contain and irrigate the Taklimakan Desert in Northwest China is bearing fruit

Imam Memet, a forest ranger with the Kekeya afforestation project, scans woodland in the area. [Xinhua]

  A project to contain and irrigate the Taklimakan Desert in Northwest China is bearing fruit

  More than 30 years ago, a war against desertification was waged silently in a little-known spot called Kekeya in Aksu prefecture, Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

  Despite the low-key approach, the program's influence was widespread because the locals won the battle and passed on the task of fighting Mother Nature's quirks to those who will continue to strive for a better environment.

  Located at the northwestern edge of the Taklimakan Desert, the largest in China, Kekeya was once notorious for its unstable weather and frequent sandstorms.

  The Taklimakan, which at 337,000 square kilometers is only slightly smaller than Germany, is also the world's second-largest shifting sand desert.

  In 1986, officials in Kekeya launched an afforestation project to prevent the desert from expanding, and reduce the impact of dust and sandstorms on nearby residents. It was completed in 2015.

  Over the past 32 years, a "green wall" stretching for about 77,000 hectares has gradually been erected between the desert and local towns.

  The remarkable achievement in Kekeya has inspired more people to participate in ongoing ecological campaigns that are expected to transform the desert into an oasis.

An aerial view of the downtown and riverbanks in Aksu city, Aksu, that have been revived thanks to an environmental project. [Xinhua]

  Frequent droughts

  People in Kekeya suffered droughts for hundreds of years. Records show that, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), a local official hired people to drill wells and explore for underground water, but authorities abandoned the project on grounds that the overall cost was likely to be extremely high.

  Before the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, locals made a second attempt, digging several wells in Kekeya, but found no water. In the 1960s, a project to channel water from a river in Aksu city was started, but later abandoned.

  "Planting trees in Kekeya seemed as impossible as farming fish in sand," said Eli Sulayman, 77, a retired forester in Kekeya, adding that the area had about 100 days of sand and dust storms every year.

  "In spring and winter, fierce winds blew up and sand engulfed the cities. Residents had to turn on the lights even during daytime. Either we endured or we escaped," he said.

  In 1985, high-ranking officials in Aksu decided that enough was enough.

  A head office for desertification was established the following year to improve the situation.

  Many people had doubts about the decision, which they considered risky, but Bi Kexian, director of the local forestry department at the time, was in favor of the project. "For the sake of future generations, I was willing to take the risk to turn the bare land green," he said.

  Bi took the lead by surveying the soil environment. Deep ravines and salty soil in need of irrigation were among the major obstacles ahead.

A vehicle travels through Kekeya, Aksu prefecture, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, where a successful greening project has prevented desertification. [Xinhua]

  Groups of technicians and workers headed to Kekeya to solve the soil and water problems, and also build roads to aid the transportation of plants and trees to the barren land.

  From the beginning, the local government mobilized the public to grow trees. Later, Aksu residents from all walks of life joined the campaign voluntarily, digging holes for trees and fertilizing the land.

  "I still dream about digging tree holes, which made my entire body ache," said 50-something Lai Qing, reminiscing about her days of tree planting when she was 20.

  From 1986 to 2015, 3.4 million volunteers planted about 13.37 million trees in Aksu, according to the local forestry bureau.

  As a result, the number of dust-laden days per year fell sharply, from about 100 to 29, the local meteorological department said.

  Thanks to the efforts of forest rangers, the survival rate of trees in Kekeya surpassed 87.5 percent, far beyond expectations.

  "I would feel guilty if I failed to take care of the trees that people had worked so hard to plant," said Imam Memet, who has been patrolling and protecting Aksu's forests for three decades.

A farmer transports baskets of freshly-picked apples at an orchard in Wensu county, Aksu. [Xinhua]

  Ongoing success

  In a memorial hall in Kekeya, a red account book is on display, containing records of forested areas in the region. The figures have risen every year, thanks to the completion of Kekeya's greening project.

  Three more ecological projects on the peripheries of the Taklimakan Desert were launched after the project in Kekeya was completed.

  In the basin of the Aksu River, an 84,000-hectare greening project has been completed, and a 71,000-hectare project in the valley of the Ogan River is on track to completion. Earlier this year, trees were planted across 4,000 hectares of nearby Kongtailike District.

  Transport networks and irrigation and reforestation programs have been developed in tandem with the ecological projects. About 1 million people are expected to benefit when all the projects are completed sometime around 2020.

  For the better preservation of the hard-won forests and to further stabilize residents' incomes, the local government has introduced more cash crops including a range of trees, such as apple, walnut and jujube.

  Sweet, juicy Aksu apples have become a signature Xinjiang agricultural product, and are widely known across China.

  After years of development, Aksu has become a major forestry and fruit production area in Xinjiang, with the prefecture's output reaching more than 13 billion yuan ($1.86 billion) last year.

  To raise people's living standards, the local government has also strengthened pollution control and city construction, prompting more residents to take walks along the clean rivers and in the city's new parks and squares.