The Yellow Dragon and the Great Green Wall: Combating Desertification in Northern China
Every year extreme sandstorms created by strong winds blowing southwest from the Gobi Desert devastate air quality levels, bring transportation and outdoor activities to a grinding halt, and create major headaches for urban life throughout cities in eastern China, including Shanghai and Beijing. The past decades have seen increases in the severity and regularity of these sandstorms as deserts in China expand due to continuing degradation of agricultural areas and grasslands. This spreading desertification presents a challenge both for major cities and rural livelihoods. The Chinese government has implemented a large-scale multi-decade tree planting campaign called the Three North Shelterbelt Project to create a forest barrier between southeastern cities and the Desert. Launched in 1978, the project is projected to create a series of man-made forest strips totaling 2,800 miles in length by 2050.
This case looks at the viability and efficacy of this Shelterbelt, and tree-planting more broadly, by focusing on one segment of the belt located in Zhangbei County which is located in the northwest of Hebei Province in the direct path between the encroaching Gobi and Beijing. Reports of massive die-offs of planted trees in the region, concerns about the resulting gap in protection from sandstorms, worries about negative effects of the massive afforestation on local water tables, and trouble adequately funding the program all raise issues about the sustainability of the project. Multiple levels of political actors including the local forestry bureau, the local mayor, and provincial and state official all have competing objectives regarding the Belt and its success or failure is in part dependent on how they cooperate or fail to do so.
As the government is continuing with the fifth phase of the program, our case looks to examine the effectiveness of the Three-North Shelterbelt Program and whether the standard approach to wide-scale afforestation should be continued and/or how it can be refined to generate long-term success.
This case study is part of a series of cases designed for the course "Case Studies in Sustainable Development" at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).