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Desert may force China to move capital

The Straits Times, 16 August 2000

Premier fears encroaching sands will reach the city in 35 years as a serious drought turns farmlands into dunes in northern parts of the country

HONGKONG -- Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji said advancing deserts could force the capital to be moved from Beijing, as a serious drought was turning farmland only 110 km from the city into sand dunes.

He made the statement after touring northern parts of China, which have been hard hit by the worst drought in 50 years, according to the latest issue of Newsweek magazine.

At the present rate, the encroaching desert would reach Beijing in 35 years, the magazine said.

Sand dunes at the village of Langoutou, 110 km from Beijing, were creeping south at the rate of 3.5 km a year, the magazine said.

Mr Zhu visited the village in May and was so alarmed that he told party aides the capital may eventually have to be moved out of Beijing, Newsweek said.

According to official data, the main land area classified as desert was expanding by 2,460 sq km a year.

A Beijing report to the United Nations two months ago said the livelihoods of about 400 million people were being threatened.

It put annual direct economic loss caused by the problem at about US$6.5 billion (S$11 billion).

Early this year, several serious sandstorms engulfed Beijing in what the authorities attributed to environmental damage in the west, notably land laid barren in vast stretches of Inner Mongolia.

The winds whip up the exposed sand and blow it over areas to the south.

To protect Beijing from being devastated by these sand winds, the State Council, or China's Cabinet, last month slapped a ban on the foraging and distribution of three wild plants -- facai, liquorice and ephydra -- grown in the country's dry western regions.

Farmers have also launched desert-control projects, such as planting trees on mountains.

Professor Gao Heng, a senior research fellow with the Development Research Centre of the State Council, told Hongkong iMail that Mr Zhu's remark was a warning to press for greater environmental protection.

Legislators have been urging the capital's relocation for years, Prof Gao said, but it was unlikely that the authorities were planning to do so.

Analysts said the leadership had no alternative location in mind.

Any such move was expected to trigger conflict between different regions in their competition to become the capital.

However, a Chinese geologist said the desert threat to Beijing lacked scientific support.

Quaternary Glacier and Environment Research Centre of China head Fang Xiaomin said the desert could not cross the 500-mm rainfall line that divides semi-arid and semi-humid areas.