China and Mongolia Sings MoU to combat desertification

China and Mongolia intend to renew their joint effort to combat desertification that poses a growing threat to mining and agriculture on both sides.

China and Mongolia Sings MoU to combat desertification

President Xi Jinping told his Mongolian counterpart, Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh, in late November that China was ready to discuss establishing a “cooperation centre” to combat desertification, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.

And to that end, the two sides signed a “cooperation document”, the ministry said on its website.

The spread of arid land on the Mongolian side is caused by a combination of environmental and human factors, and most of its vast grasslands are vulnerable amid rising temperatures and decreased precipitation resulting from climate change.

The cooperation agreements reflect how the neighbouring countries will work together to restore degraded pasturelands and increase forest cover, Mongolia’s presidential foreign policy adviser, Odbayar Erdenetsogt, told the Post.

Both sides will also team up on research and in the deployment of “innovative technology” to prevent soil erosion, Erdenetsogt said on Wednesday.

Their cooperation centre will offer “professional and methodological assistance” in choosing trees and other plants that are best for degraded pasture land or land at risk to combat desertification, he added.

Cooperation is likely to create new forest coverage in Mongolia, with work to start as soon as possible, said Batshugar Enkhbayar, a Mongolian legislator.

The spread of deserts hurts agriculture by eroding topsoil that’s key to planting, said Ma Jun, founding director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a non-governmental advocacy group in China. Overfarming and overgrazing of livestock are also partly to blame for the desertification, Ma added.

Damaged land, in turn, produces little grass for livestock while leaving animals unprepared for extreme cold spells, which occur ever more often, the International Monetary Fund said in a 2019 report.

Unchecked mining can erode and contaminate soil. The overdrafting of groundwater and surface water may dry up whole lakes and leave a layer of alkaline dust, Ma said. And in turn, some of the changes in water supplies disrupt mining.

The two nations face an expanding desert on the Mongolian side, where climate change and mining are faulted for drying out vast tracts of land just north of the Chinese border. Dust storms and sandstorms from the deserts further complicate mining and snarl farm work. Some storms blow dust into Beijing, South Korea and farther east.

Sandstorms have decreased over the past four decades, but a pair in March 2021 reignited concerns, according to one China Meteorological Association study. In another sign of a drier climate, a forest fire that started in Russia burned about 600 metres along the Sino-Russian border five years ago.

“The degree of desertification has intensified, due to a chronic rise in temperature as well as the rapid growth of mining and grazing activities in Mongolia,” said Xu Tianchen, a China economist with the Economist Intelligence Unit in Beijing. “The expansion of deserts in Mongolia will further erode land that would otherwise be available for urban development and agriculture.”

In China, the vast north-central region of Inner Mongolia just south of the Mongolian border has about 61 million hectares (150 million acres) of desertified land, the official Xinhua reported in 2021.

Afforestation – the conversion of abandoned and degraded agricultural lands into forests – has raised Inner Mongolia’s tree coverage rate to 23 per cent, and its grassland coverage to 45 per cent, Xinhua said. Grazing is also banned on some 27 million hectares.

Reforestation efforts spanning about 40 years, along with curbs on grazing, have succeeded to combat desertification on the Chinese side, Xu said.

But in the nation of Mongolia, 76.8 per cent of land is “exposed to desertification” because of natural causes, “irresponsible mining” and the “misuse of pastures”, according to a 2020 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study.

The study found a degradation of land due to an increase in livestock numbers, and it pointed to “natural climatic” factors and a “significant” increase in degraded land since 2010.

“It is safe to say that global warming has affected Mongolia in the past years,” Enkhbayar said, citing overall “drier” conditions in the country. Mongolia already counts the pre-existing, 1.3-million-sq-km (500,000 square miles) Gobi Desert as a third of its land mass.

The grazing of sheep, goats and other livestock employs one in four Mongolians. In Inner Mongolia, animal husbandry makes up 46 per cent of all agricultural and resource-extractive industries, which account for about 11 per cent of the regional economy.

The Mongolian government began cracking down on artisanal mining – also known as “ninja mining” – around 2010 because of the environmental damage it caused. Now the country needs “sustainable mining” to keep the core industry running without hurting the environment, Enkhbayar said.

Mongolia’s mines – the source of coal, copper and gold for much of the world’s top multinational mining companies – make up a quarter of its gross domestic product.

Other industries, including manufacturing, will shun newly formed deserts because of the costs to operate there, said Zhao Xijun, associate dean of the School of Finance at Renmin University in Beijing.

“Desertification makes it hard to use the soil for anything, including factories,” Zhao said. “It costs more to build there and transport food, water and so on.”

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told a Mongolian official in October 2021 that he hoped to do more together to combat desertification, Xinhua reported at the time.

The degree of damaged land in Mongolia, and a lack of resources in the relatively small, impoverished country, may have hampered any efforts so far to make good on the 2021 pledge, analysts say.

“They’re more constrained by the resources, and they do have a lot of mining going on,” Ma said.

China can offer Mongolia technical expertise and project financing to ease desertification, Xu said, adding that it should consider making investments that cut environmental impacts or that promote industries other than grazing and mining.

Chinese officials should share with Mongolia their own experience that dates back decades, Zhao said. He noted how China has experience with tree-planting, how it left tracts of farmland fallow for 20-plus years to avoid soil depletion, and how it relocated people who live in the emerging deserts.

In 2021, Mongolia began a national effort to plant 1 billion trees by 2030 to fight deforestation and climate change.
“In past decades, China has made progress, although mostly within its own border,” Xu said. “Efforts on the Mongolian side has been limited by the expanse and severity of land degradation, which presents an outsized challenge and requires multilateral collaboration.”

Originally published at SCMP