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April 20, 2009
Ecological refugees flee China’s expanding desert

The dry capital of China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Yinchuan.

China is seeing the consequences of excessive water usage and grazing as millions of acres of fertile farmland transform into desert.

The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northwest China has been particularly hard-hit, and is now a vast arid space subject to drought and frequent dust storms. In response, China has relocated some of its farmers.

Sean Gallagher of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is a British photographer currently based in China. He visits the town of Hongsibao, a dry town that many “ecological refugees” call home.

China: Environmental Refugees

Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region is a small province lying in Loess highlands of north-central China. Dry and desert-like, it is China’s poorest province and is the least visited by outsiders.

I am here this week to visit the isolated town of Hongsibao, which lies 150km south of the province’s capital Yinchuan, completely surrounded by dry and arid land. Ten years ago, this town didn’t exist.

At a cost of more than 2 billion Chinese Renminbi, the town has been constructed, literally on top of the desert. Officially titled the “Hongsibao Development Zone Poverty Reduction Project,” some 200,000 people have been relocated from local mountainous areas, suffering as a result of the harsh, dry climate of Ningxia province.

“We’ve already been here three years”, says Mrs Li a young storeowner in the center of town. “We moved from Guyuan in the mountains, in southern Ningxia. Some people left the mountain area but some people didn’t want to move. I think life now is much better than before in the mountains because I only had a field, but now I have a small business to earn some money.”

Even though construction has been taking place for 10 years, the town is still clearly developing and for some, isn’t providing the opportunities promised. “I thought there would be more business here”, says Mr Gao, a taxi driver in Hongsibao who voluntarily moved to the area from neighbouring Shanxi province. “I came here to earn some money but I found that it’s not so good. I want to sell my car and go back home.”

As the wind rattles across the wide boulevards that criss-cross the town, dust and sand is readily picked up from the surrounding deserts and blankets the town during the spring. “In March, the winds start to blow”, sighs Mrs Ma who owns a small Muslim restaurant in the centre of town. “When the wind is blowing, you can’t really see anything. It is the same every year.”

Having spoken to many people in the town, it appears that the general feelings towards relocation have been positive. People speak of the improvements in their lives, especially those moved from the poorer mountainous areas. Hongsibao still clearly faces many challenges however, in both it’s development and tackling of it’s harsh and unforgiving location.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user XM&&LL under a Creative Commons license.

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