Alxa (pronounced Alashan) League is a provincial area at the westernmost end of China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region. It covers an area of 270,000 square kilometres. Most of the 200,000 inhabitants live in the town of Bayanhot, while the rest live nomadic lives as herders. There are two major deserts which dominate the area: the Tenggeli Desert characterised by tall drifting sand dunes; and the Gobi Desert, the stony remains after the sand dunes have moved on. These deserts have an enormous temperature range, from highs of 40 °C in summer to very cold winter temperatures of below –30 °C.
The Mongolian herding households of the area rely on their camels, goats and sheep to make a living; but drought and land and water degradation limits their lifestyle and ability to earn an income. Overgrazing has destroyed the plants that stabilised the sand dunes and loss of topsoil reduces the grass. Consequently, the quality of wool from camels, goats and sheep declines as does the herders’ incomes. The wind carries the loosened sand westward, causing silting up of the rivers and lakes, health problems and economic difficulties for the population. The sandstorms have increased in frequency and severity and have extended as far as Beijing and even the Korean Peninsula and Japan. This has prompted government action.
To combat desertification the Australian and Chinese governments funded the Alxa League Environmental Rehabilitation and Management Project. The project had a series of subprojects targeting environmental management through educating people about sustainable practices. Other subprojects explored alternative sources of income for the herders most affected by the land degradation.
Herders were taught about protecting natural resources, with some fencing off areas to protect the land from over-grazing. Others are experimenting with breeding better animals, so they can reduce their numbers and the impact on the land without reducing their income. They are also trialling different forms of feeding for improved growth and breeding rates.
The project worked with education bureaus and the community to develop an environmental curriculum, the first of its kind in China, which is supported by textbooks both in Mongolian and in Chinese. Students assisted in the monitoring of revegetation sites and were able to recognise the value of the new practices.
Around the Yellow River there is an extensive area of channels for irrigation, but salinity and overuse of groundwater has degraded the area. The channels have been sealed with concrete to limit water loss. Low pressure pipes and drip tapes are achieving water savings and reducing salinity problems.
Deforestation in the Helan mountain range (the Alashan Mountains) along the southern boundary of Alxa League was affecting the rich biodiversity of plants and animals. The blowing sands were also affecting two important Buddhist temples which hold a special place in the Mongolian culture. Stands of trees were planted along the desert edge to limit the spread of the sand into these areas.
Changing practices from using trees as fuel wood to using bio-gas for cooking also protected trees. Methane digesters built under pigpens convert the wastes into clean, green energy, supplying roughly 80% of an average household’s fuel requirements. Householders can earn an income from the by-products, which they sell for fertilising crops.
The sharing of ideas between experts in Australia and China, and the consultation of people who live in the area has led to changes that are having a positive effect on the environment and people’s livelihoods.