China, home to 1.3 billion people, is facing an enviromental disaster of almost unimaginable proportions. Nearly one-third of Chinese territory?50,000 villages and hundreds of cities?is plagued by ultra-rapid desertification. The danger is greatest in northern China, where large parcels of land turn into deserts every year. Deserts already cover 27 percent of the country. The situation is so serious, that the Chinese government is discussing moving the capital from Beijing to a safer location.

?Environmental destruction is very severe,? admits Luo Bin, of the State Forestry Administration. ?So many areas have sacrificed the environment for economic development. Vegetative cover grows worse and worse as people waste water resources, plant inappropriate corps and over-graze the grasslands. No country on earth has put such funding into building ecosystems as China, but we have many people and little land.?

Wang Yongxian, a farmer 50 miles north of Beijing, has experienced the problem personally. ?There was very little sand when we settled here,? he says. But now there is a 90 foot sand dune that chokes the lungs and kills the crops of his community of 700 people. It?s only 100 yards away and advances 10 yards closer every year. ?Look at it now,? he says, ?It?s right before our eyes!?

China’s desertification problem affects the rest of the world as well. Recently, a huge dust storm that originated in China blew across the Pacific and darkened the skies of the United States. It caused highways to be closed in Utah and dimmed the sun in New England. It was believed to be the largest dust cloud recorded in known history, containing hundreds of millions of tons of soil. For more on this story, click here.

The Japanese and Koreans have met with the Chinese to figure out what to do about the Chinese sandstorms that regularly darken their skies every spring.

Deliberations about moving the nation?s capital from Beijing have been kept secret, for fear of damaging the city?s bid for the 2008 Olympic Games. The gritty, sandy air would not make it easy for the world?s athletes to compete there. The deserts that lie just 100 miles from Beijing are creeping closer at the rate of 2 miles per year.

Suggestions for holding the desert back include the possibility of blasting grass seeds into outer space, in hopes that they will mutate into desert-resistant varieties. This isn?t as far-fetched as it sounds: giant, space-mutated vegetables are already on sale in the streets of Shanghai.

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