See all the ICE Cases
Deploy the ICE Search and Sort Tool (SST)
Go To ICE Expert Site

ICE Case Studies
Case number 167 Gobi, October, 2005

The Gobi Desertification

by Li Zeng

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information

(Source: "Gobi Desert", Wikipedia)


1. Abstract

In the past two decades, China's rapid economic growth has not only lifted millions of people out of poverty, but also has begun to establish China's own middle class. During the process, however, China's environment has been significantly damaged. One of the environmental issues in China is the desertification of the northwest region, where l arge areas of land in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, northwest China's Gansu Province and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region gradually turned into deserts. The desertification has escalated from 1,560 sq km annually in the 1970s to 2,100-2,400 sq km in the 1990s. Such desertification has led to many serious environmental implications in other parts of China, demographic changes, and social conflicts.

2. Description

The Gobi is a large desert region in the northern China and southern Mongolia.(Source: Google Earth)

The desert is surrounded by Mountains, grasslands, steppes, and plateau. The meaning of the word Gobi is "desert" in Mongolian. It measures over 960 miles from southwest to northeast and 480 miles from north to south, occupying 312000 acre of land. In contrast with the conventional definition of a desert, much of the Gobi desert is not consisted with sand but bare rock (Wikipedia).


(Source: "A Stony By-way" Mildred Cable; Francesca French)

The origins of the masses of sand that make up the dunes in the Gobi are controversial. Some consider them as a product of erosion by water or wind. The expansion of the desert, however, was caused by mismanagement of the land.

At the heart of the Gobi Desert in Northern China, there is the Yellow River. Its tributaries were the most significant factor to the growth of agricultural products in this area. There are three events during the five-decade Communist rule in China that led to the severe desertification nowadays. These events all happened around the same time during the 60's, which were the dam projects on the Yellow River, the household irrigation system during the Cultural Revolution, and the most significantly, Mao's plan of turning grassland into farmland.

(Source: "Mongolian Sands" Mildred Cable; Francesca French)

In the 1955, China's first National People's Congress approved the Soviet plan of 46 dam projects, and the Yellow River Dam was finished in 1960 after the Russian engineers pulled out from China. The dam led to changing path of the Yellow River and disappearing of some of its tributaries, and then the grassland and farmland gradually turned into dry land and sand land due to a lack of water, which caused some areas to become new desert.

Secondly, during the Cultural Revolution period in the late 60's, the intellectuals helped farmers to build an irrigation system that enabled each household to divert water from the Yellow River to their individual farmland. This system was helpful to the crops; however, the more households adopted this system, the less water left to the downstream rivers. Gradually, the lands around these dried-out downstream rivers have turned into desert.

The most significant cause of the desertification came from Mao's plan of farmland expansion, which turned out to be the most damaging. Mao had been deeply concerned of food supplies of the newborn People's Republic of China, and he saw these vast areas of grassland in the north, so he came up with a plan to make them more useful. He relocated farmers to these grasslands, and removed all the grass to grow crops instead. The problem was that the grassroots in these steppes were essential in retaining rainwater and soil. When the farmers grew crops on these lands, their roots were unable to serve such functions after the crops were harvested. Therefore, these lands became dry land due to a lack of retained rainwater underneath the surface. Due to the erosion effects of wind and water, soil was being lost or becoming sand. Mao's plan to expand farmlands ended up expanding the Gobi desert due to a lack of scientific research. The actual amount of grassland lost was unable to find out due to a total lack of reporting by the government controlled news agencies on this matter.

Besides the mismanagement of the Chinese government contributed to the desertification, overgrazing practise of the local people also contributed to the expansion of the Gobi Desert, both in China and Mongolia. As a result of that, the World Bank so far has launched two projects in the Gobi area. The first project is the Inner Mongolia (Tuoketuo) Thermal Power Project, which was approved in 1997 and it will be soon ended in this December. The intentions of this project are partially to promote economic development and also improve soil conservation and desertification control in Tuoketuo County. One of the two components is "a desertification control and dryland management program to improve environmental conditions". A total amount of $1290.8 million has been spent on this project (The World Bank Group).

The second project is the Gansu and Xinjiang Pastoral Development Project. This project cost about $99.1 million, and it is a relatively new project, which would last from September 2003 to June 2010. The project development objective of the Gansu and Xinjiang Pastoral Development Project for China is to promote sustainable natural resource management by establishing improved livestock production and marketing systems that would increase the income of herders and farmers in the project areas. More efficient and quality focused livestock production are proposed to increase the farmers and herders incomes and generate marketable surplus to improve living standards. The global environmental objective of the project is to maintain and nurture natural grassland ecosystems to enhance global environmental benefits. More specifically, the project aims to mitigate land degradation, conserve globally important biodiversity, and enhance carbon sequestration, through promotion of integrated ecosystem management in the grassland, desert, and forest ecosystems in Western China (The World Bank Group).

These two are project were set up to address the ranching and herding problems in the area which partially contributed to the desertification.

The last factor that contributed to the desertification is the habit of eating black moss (Fat Choy) at Chinese New Year in Hong Kong and Guangdong area. The Chinese word “Fat Choy” carries the meaning of wealth, which is considered to be an essential part of the New Year dinner. There have been reports from the government about how digging black moss ruins the land in Northwest China, and it will soon be extinct as well. The media urged people stop eating black moss but it just make people want to have more before it is forever gone. On the other hand, because black moss is becoming more and more expensive due to supply shortage, people in the Northwest have bigger incentives to dig more black moss. More land has been torn up because its roots grow three meters into the ground. Association General-Secretary Lister Cheung Lai-ping said after digging "the land is then useless for growing anything else. By displacing the sand, it blows everywhere, covering houses, machinery, people... it covers everything. No other farming can be done; it's like living under snow - except it's not snow, it's sand." (BBC)

Key Issue

The key issue on this topic is that, desertification threatens the livelihoods of millions and racks up direct annual economic losses of roughly $6.5 billion, including the cost of reduced farm productivity. Vast areas of farmland in Northern China are lost, and become parts of the expanding desert, also known as the "Gobi". The limited land resource in Northwest China is threatened to diminish. The implications of China's desertification are two-fold. First of all, large population of farmers were forced to leave home where "there is nothing left but sand". The government carried out programs to help their relocation including investing on building new houses. However, there are still about 200,000 people living in the areas with unsound environments, where drought and desertification have seriously threatened their life. After these farmers left the area, villages are soon covered by sand. The new desert thus becomes the new frontier of expansion, which affects the neighboring regions with sand storms. Therefore, people in the neighboring villages are also forced to leave, which triggers a chain reaction of desertification in the manner of sand storm destruction.

Secondly, many farmers migrate into major cities along the coastal area. Therefore, the demographic distribution in China's east and the west are becoming more and more uneven. Resources in cities are being stretched thin; social stabilities have been threatened due to the rising unemployment rate and crimes; and conflicts between urban and rural population are intensified. Because the farmers who has lost their lands and migrate into cities are not educated enough to get jobs other than construction workers, many of them are living around or under the poverty line. Therefore, they are forced to engage into illegal activities to feed themselves. Therefore, the forced migration has a direct impact on the living of these relocated farmers in a significantly negative way.

The government has pledged $6.8 billion (56.8 billion Yuan) on an environmental program which includes planting multiple layers of green belt s of forest around the Gobi. However the result of the tree-planting campaign is yet to be seen. Some experts suggest the campaign cannot stop desertification because the problem is the sand itself. Now the global community and the Chinese government have started working towards resolving these problems; however, how to resolve this environmental conflict still needs to find out.

3. Duration

1950s to present

4. Location

Continent: Asia

Region: North Asia

Country: china

5. Actors

Government of the People's Republic of China

The local population in the Gobi area


II. Environment Aspects

Habitat loss would eventually result into national security problem. The reason is that as people are being forced to leave their lands and move to another place, social instability, due to over population in certain area, would threaten the local people's daily lives. This is a problem of scarcity. Because of decreasing land resources around the Gobi area, individual distribution of farmland is becoming more and more limited. When agricultural products of farmers can no longer sustain their own living cost, this will become a huge security problem. Nowadays the Chinese government has been intervening in the rice market and subsidizing farmers. This is not a good solution in the long run because China will eventually have to stop this practice due to the pressure from the WTO. And the farmers will not the able to make a living under the impact of free market. The only way out is to have more farmers move into cities, but this is a slow and painful process since the cities are already over populated. Therefore, if the problem of scarcity is not handled properly, China will be facing a severe security crisis.

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Habitat Loss and Bio-diversity Loss

Habitat Loss [HABIT]

The primary environmental problem type is habitat loss. As the Gobi desert expands, the farmlands are lost. The desertified area has become unsuitable for cattle and agricultural products to survive. Thus, people can no longer make a living in this area. As local farmers put it: "there is nothing left but sand (BBC)". In this increasingly harsh environment, a livable habitat for animals, plants and human beings has been lost.

Bio-diversity Loss [BIODIV]

Due to the process of desertification, bio-diversity loss has been happening. As vast farmlands gradually turn into deserts, the environment there has become unlivable for most of the animals and plants. The only species remain in these areas are desert creatures.

Desert steppe vegetation is susceptible to damage caused by trampling (livestock or off-road vehicles) and overgrazing, particularly by goats. Because the Eastern Gobi Desert steppes receive more precipitation and are more productive than the desert regions to the west, this ecoregion receives a greater human impact.

In recent years, the number of goats raised on the grasslands has increased considerably due to the high prices for cashmere wool, which comes from goats. Because goats eat a wider range of plant species, forage more aggressively and tend to consume the whole plant, this trend has contributed to degradation of the grasslands over a widespread area.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, mammals characteristic of the Eastern Gobi Desert Steppe include Asian wild ass (Equus hemionus), Saiga antelope (Saiga tartarica mongolica), black-tailed gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa), marbled polecat (Vormela peregusna), and several species of Jerboa (Zapodidae). Jerboas comprise a small family of mammals that are adapted to burrowing and jumping in sandy habitats (WWF). However, there is no ranching or herding of these or other animals because people can no longer live in such area.

7. Type of Habitat: Dry

The Gobi is located in the northern party of China, where its living environment is dry for most of the time. It rarely rains not only in Gobi, where the desert is located, but also the areas surrounding it. The major, if not the only, source that maintains agriculture production is water from the Yellow River. Therefore, when water dams have been built in the upstream, forcing the Yellow River to change its route, some lands would become deserts due to a lack of water source from the rivers and from the rain.

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Act Site Harm Site
China China



III. Conflict Aspects

Refugee Issue

As a result of the desertification, millions of Chinese rural population are forced to migrate as their land are taken away by the desert. People are moving to places like the Gansu province, Inner Mongolia, and Ningxia province. An Asian Development Bank assessment of desertification in Gansu Province reports that 4000 villages risk being overrun by drifting sands (ADB).

A photograph in Desert Witness, a book on desertification by Chinese photographer Lu Tongjing, shows what looks like a perfectly normal village in the western reaches of Inner Mongolia—except for one thing. There are no people. Its 4,000 residents were forced to leave because the aquifer was depleted, leaving them with no water. (Population Media Center)


Water is becoming extremely lacking in this area. Herdsmen and their families have lived in this inhospitable place for centuries living a nomadic lifestyle as they move about the desert in constant search of food and water. There are 25 million grazing animals in Mongolia and many of them live in the Gobi Desert.

In recent years ground water levels have dropped all across the desert not only due to drought and the normal dry Gobi climate but also due to the expansion of nomad family herds because of increasing population.

Reports of local conflicts can rarely be seen from the Chinese news agency. However, through a personal interview with a student here at the American University I found out that there are conflicts among different villages over water supplies.

9. Type of Conflict: Civil Conflict

10. Level of Conflict: Low Intrastate Conflict

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities): No Significant Military and Civilian Casualty

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: Indirect

In this diagram, the phenomenon of desertification is the exogenous variable A caused by . It has an immediate effect on the local peasants' living environment since crops fail due to a loss of habitat. In response, the people have to move, either voluntarily or with the help of the government to relocate. In this case, immediately the over-populated areas in China have become even more crowded. Resources and opportunities become even more limited to each individual.

Then after these immediate relations between these variables, Variable B3 would gradually result in the occurrence of Variable B4 over time. Therefore, the Gobi desertification has indirectly caused the civil conflicts in other places of China. There is a cycle in this causual relation diagram, that is the over-consumption of land resources has contributed to the black moss harvest, abuse of irrigation from the Yellow River, and overgrazing. All these factors led to the expansion of the Gobi Desert, which led to people migrate to other places to continue such practices. Eventually more lands are ruined and become new deserts.

The core issue of all the phenomena in this diagram is the lack of wise central regulation or mismanagement of the Chinese government. The government's inaction or mismanagement has caused the negative effects of its water dam projects, which caused the desertification. And during the process of the relocation, mismanagement has also involved, thus some of these relocated people are not satisfied and thus become the cause of social instability.

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Sub-State

This is a sub-state level activity since no foreign influence has been imposed and no governmental intervention has been conducted. This is entirely an environmental issue within a nation's territory related with social conflicts within such society. This case therefore is of sub-state level strategic interest.

14. Outcome of Dispute: Ongoing

There are two different outcomes in this case, depending on different perspectives. From the standpoint of the decision-maker, the view of this issue is that China has made substantial progress in containing the expansion of the Gobi Desert. Government officials state that due to a series of efforts such as the tree-planting campaign to build a "green belt" around the desert, the desertification in the northwest China is "under control". However, criticism from the scholarly standpoint states that the "green belt" is not effective in containing the desert storm since the belt is too thin and the trees in the forest are too young. Many of them have already been destroyed by the waves of desert storms and few trees are able to survive for long. Therefore, the scholar's point of view regards this issue as a yield situation, whereas the government would view this as a progressive victory.

In fact, China has been taking many measures to deal with this situation, including building multiple green belts surrounding the desert, reducing number of cattle, assisting the victims to migrate and relocate. It is still hard to say whether China will win this battle against desertification, but the Chinese government is on the right direction. The Chinese government has realized the severe environmental problems emerged from its rapid development, and solving environmental crisis has been set as a priority on the policy agenda in the National Congress. A series of steps are to be taken by the Chinese government to stop the desertification.

In terms of disputes between the relocated population and the local people of the community, no reports have been conducted. It may not even be happening explicitly in the name of local people versus outsiders, but conflicts did happen in the form of employment opportunities, education opportunities, housing, even the increase of crime rate. Especially the crime rate of each year may be well documented. Besides, local people of these areas have negative perceptions about the relocated populations due to their different culture, living style, values, and the social problems and instability that these people have caused. Therefore, it is reasonable to make such connection with the social conflicts and loss of habitat.

Based upon a report from China, there has been a police campaign in a southern city of Shenzhen to "crack down crimes of the Henan (Province) Gangs". The Henan Province is the poorest province in China, and the people often migrate to other rich areas to find jobs, or to commit crimes for a living. This police campaign was condemned by the people for its explicit bias against the Henan Province. There are similar sentiments in other places of China where the relocated people migrated into. Chinese people have a strong sense of belonging to their provinces. Therefore these migrants would be labeled by their provinces of origin and discriminated. The general views of these relocated people are low educated because they were farmers or ranchers before their lands turned into deserts, and trouble makers because they are not likely to get sufficiently paid jobs and forced to commit crimes to live. In this case, the rising unemployment rate and crime rate in these cities have created a conflict between the local residents and people from other provinces.

V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases

The Niger Case

The Tuareg Case

The Sahara Case

16. Relevant Websites and Literature.

“Antoaneta Bezlova, Environment-China: Desertification Eats into Productive Land.” Interpress Service. May 31, 2000.

Brown, Lester R., “China Losing War with Advancing Deserts” Earth Policy Institute, 2003.

Cable, Mildred; French, Francesca. The Gobi Desert. The Macmillan Company, New York: 1945.

“Desertification Threatens Northwest Areas.” Business Daily Update. September 6, 2004.

Desertification Threat Advancing 70 KM Outside of Beijing.” BBC Monitoring International Reports. May 9, 2002

“Eastern Gobi desert steppe”, WWF Full Report, the World Wildlife Fund Organization. <>

Hedin, Sven. Across the Gobi Desert. Greenwood Press, New York: 1968

Ho, Peter. “The Myth of Desertification at China’s Northwestern Frontier: The Case of Ningxia Province, 1929-1958.” Modern China, Vol. 26, No. 3. Sage Publication Inc. p. 346-395 Jul. 2000.

“Inner Mongolia Desertification Leads to Large-Scale Relocation.” BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific. July 20, 2001.

Williams, Dee Mark. “The Desert Discourse of Modern China.” Modern China, Vol. 23, No. 3. Sage Publication Inc. p. 328-355. Jul. 1997.

“Western Chinese Battle Desert Invasion.” Xinhua News Agency: June 8, 1998.

"Xinjiang Farmers Combat InvaSion of Taklimakan Desert.” China Business Information Network (CBNet). June. 09, 1998